Reimagine Addison County: Town Centers

Reimagine Addison County, an initiative coordinated by the United Way, interviewed service providers in the non-profit sector, government, social services, and more to learn about the strategies and adaptations they developed during the pandemic that are enhancing the well-being and future of the county. In this series, we are highlighting the creative and resourceful pivots shaped over the past two years that are helping us build a stronger, healthier county in the future.

Today, we’re talking about the revitalization of town centers in Addison County with Adam Lougee, the Executive Director of the Addison County Regional Planning Commission; Ashley LaFlam, President; Kate Yarbrough, Vice President, and Mary Neffinger, Treasurer of the Friends of the Union Meeting Hall in Ferrisburgh; Clark Hinsdale, Vice Chairman for the Ferrisburgh Selectboard; and Cheryl Mitchell, Co-leader of the Early Care and Learning Partnership of Addison County. The Addison County Regional Planning Commission promotes community and economic development within the region and serves as a central hub for municipalities to discuss mutual concerns and planning information. The Friends of the Union Meeting Hall works to repair, restore, and protect the Union Meeting Hall as an architectural and historical cultural center for Ferrisburgh. The Early Care and Learning Partnership of Addison County promote the healthy development of infants and children through high-quality, affordable, early care and learning opportunities.

Pre-Pandemic Problems

Cheryl Mitchell, Co-leader of the Early Care and Learning Partnership of Addison County realized there was a community crisis several years ago—well before the pandemic. She saw that families couldn’t find the type of child-care they needed in convenient locations. She also saw that small churches were closing because congregants were scarce, and that rural village schools had declining enrollment. School districts decided they might be able to save money by closing village schools, which caused people like Cheryl to pause and say, 

“Wait a minute, there are so many community needs, why not keep elementary children in our communities, and expand the use of school facilities to include child-care, spaces for elders, a wellness nurse for the community, and space for other needs in the community?”

- Cheryl Mitchell, Early Care and Learning Partnership of Addison County

And that’s just what they’re doing. Last year the legislature appropriated money to Addison County to expand their community resources so schools can be the community hubs they used to be, which helps keep employment downtown and makes more vibrant town centers; it’s a win-win situation for everyone. 

The Rescue Plan 

Adam Lougee, Executive Director of the Addison County Regional Planning Commission, spoke with us about the impact that the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 (ARPA) has had on the county. The ARPA funding that communities have received is earmarked for economic development to help communities recover from the pandemic, and it’s a significant amount; it’s “a once-in-a-lifetime shot at the money,” according to Adam. A key recommendation he has made to communities is to think broadly about the future and not simply restore buildings but reinvigorate them and use them as a place to strengthen the economic development of the community. He has been encouraging communities to think about their ARPA funds as a way to promote financial growth, revitalize the center of their town, and move communities forward. This is precisely what Cheryl and the Early Care and Learning Partnership are doing—meeting the licensing requirements and retrofits needed to upgrade small village schools, keeping them vibrant and alive while expanding buildings into early care and centers for the entire community.  

What’s Next

We had a lively roundtable discussion with Ashley LaFlam, Kate Yarbrough, and Mary Neffinger from the Friends of the Union Meeting Hall in Ferrisburgh, along with Clark Hinsdale, the Vice Chairman for the Ferrisburgh Selectboard. 

Clark: The proposed closure of the village school a few years ago made us realize that the resources we’ve taken for granted in town, whether it’s hiking, snowmobiling, or activities at the school, suddenly have the core of the community threatened with closure, was upsetting. The idea that we wouldn’t have our community school led to a greater understanding of what it takes to have a vibrant community.

Ashley: We formed our nonprofit right before Covid hit. Our mission is not only to rehabilitate the Ferrisburgh Union Meeting Hall and bring it up to code but also to have programs and enrichment there for our community as it had for many years. This was the town center where they had gatherings, dances, bingo nights, and potlucks. I want to see that happen again. 

Mary: I’ve been looking forward to bringing even more programs in the future. I couldn’t believe how many people came when we had food trucks last summer, the lawn was full, and everyone was so excited to be outside and gathering safely. We were able to do some special events like Ferrisburgh Day. 

Here’s a short clip from our discussion with Ashley, Kate, Mary, and Clark:

For More Information:

UWAC Policy Priority: Health
Addison County Regional Planning Commission
Ferrisburgh Selectboard
Friends of the Union Meeting Hall
Early Care and Learning Partnership of Addison County