By Brett Yates
About 50 Mendon residents joined facilitators from the Vermont Council on Rural Development (VCRD) to talk about their town on April 21. The workshop followed a March 24 forum that initiated a program called Mendon on the Move, which VCRD describes as a “Two-month process that brings community members together to actively participate in examining issues, decide top priorities and develop action plans for the future of the town.”
As part of VCRD’s mission to support “the locally-defined progress of Vermont’s rural communities,” the nonprofit has, since 1996, regularly organized “community visits” at the invitation of local select boards, providing structured environments for broad civic discussion. Once townspeople have identified projects of interest, VCRD can help connect them with relevant public agencies, grant opportunities, and technical assistance.
Typically, community visits take place in person, but the pandemic has moved them onto Zoom. In Mendon, the initial brainstorming session in March took stock of the area’s assets (such as its apple orchard and snowmobile trails) and its challenges (including the blighted properties on Route 4 and the lack of a “town identity”).
Based on this input, VCRD crafted 13 potential vision statements for Mendon, with which an online poll allowed attendees to denote their agreement or disagreement. In addition to articulating aims to “maintain the rural character of the community” and to develop “reliable internet,” many of these sentiments indicated Mendon’s desire to transcend its status as “a pass-through from Rutland to Killington,” as the facilitators put it.
Primarily a bedroom community, Mendon has no historic downtown, though some residents wonder whether one could someday take shape along Route 4. Farther up the road, a number of old motels catering to skiers have gone out of business.
Attendees debated ideas for action. VCRD’s nine-item list proposed efforts to “expand housing”; “market Mendon to visitors, businesses, and residents”; “develop a community center”; “develop a coworking space”; “improve community connection and events”; “support and foster local businesses”; “boost outdoor recreation”; and “reimagine and improve the Route 4 corridor.”
The last two items emerged as the attendees’ priorities, spurring the creation of a pair of volunteer task forces. The recreation task force will look toward expanding Mendon’s hiking trails and attracting mountain bikers, while the Route 4 task force hopes to consult the Vermont Agency of Transportation on where state highway regulations might permit sidewalks, crosswalks, bike lanes, and especially lighted bus stop shelters.
In the meantime, Mendon residents expect to organize grassroots roadside beautification initiatives, using flowers, signs, and flags. These could grow into a series of pocket parks. A rest area with picnic tables and a playground might also persuade passing motorists to stop and notice Mendon.
Over the longer term, residents would like to play a role in stimulating the redevelopment of Route 4’s vacant structures, which could turn into affordable housing, a community center, or a coworking space, as previously suggested.
VCRD Executive Director Paul Costello, who co-hosted the meeting with Community and Policy Manager Jenna Koloski, observed that the collaborative process that produces “impactful” improvements for a town can also “answer other issues of social connection and a sense of progress and a sense of neighborliness that comes from working together. Sometimes that’s a byproduct, but sometimes it’s the most important thing as people move forward with their community.”
State Representative Jim Harrison stopped by to listen in on his constituents. “One of the things that struck me as I went throughout the town the last couple elections is that the beauty of Mendon is, for good or bad, not on Route 4 but in all the surrounding roads and homes,” he noted. “And you have really a nice recreational center, but you have to be from Mendon to know where it is, and I don’t know you market that.”
The first meeting of the Route 4 task force will take place on May 5.
For more information, visit bit.ly/MendonOnTheMove or call 802-223-6091.