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By Lisa Loomis
The Waitsfield Select Board got some no-holds-barred feedback from business owners at a public forum held this week.
The board hosted a lively and well-attended forum at The Big Pic on October 27. During the forum, it was pointed out twice that Bosch (formerly Controlled Energy Corp.) is leaving Waitsfield's industrial park. The forum was moderated by Peter MacLaren who asked participants for comments on four areas: strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats.
Participants offered a wide range of comments about the business climate in the town, including Bev Kehoe, who noted that it is an easy place to start a business but not an easy play to stay in business.
Nicholas Harmon, a Waitsfield resident and owner of Verilux, told the board that he feels there is a need for some sort of a community center, while Drew Simmons, owner of an internet marketing and public relations firm, told the board that he felt his business was hampered by his inability to hire and keep employees. He said that basic infrastructure like bike lanes and better pedestrian access was critical.
James Foreman, a web designer whose business used to be on Bridge Street in Waitsfield, said he felt there were parking problems in that area of town and also suggested that Irasville needs a park, a gathering place where people could meet.
Jon Jamieson, a resident and owner of Jamieson Insurance, told the board that he saw a need for the town to balance its two dominant population groups, retired people and tourists. Jim Rousseau, owner of Nowirz and a Moretown native, told the board that he felt more clean telecommunications or high-tech industry would help offset tourism eddies. He also suggested that the town does not do a good job promoting its industrial park.
Harmon added that there is a prevailing sentiment that the town is not pro-business.
Claudia Becker, a resident and owner of The Big Picture, said she felt the town has a lot to offer but feels there is no cohesive effort to give The Valley an identity.
"I like that The Valley is not Stowe. I think that is part of our strength. We're a rural town that still has working farms," she said.
David Dion, resident and owner of David Dion Real Estate, told the board that he has frequently experienced how other towns treat potential businesses and was surprised at how different it is from the way Waitsfield treats potential businesses. He said he felt there was a pervasive culture of arrogance in Waitsfield, and that the town boards excessively and inappropriately used executive session to shut the public out of their deliberations.
ALL YOUR GUNS
Anne Marie DeFreest said that she realized, while trying to restore a second barn on her family's East Warren Road property, that there is an "old boys' network" that means applicants, when coming to the town for permits, need to come in with "all your guns, thinking that people will be against you."
Dick Kingsbury, resident and owner of Kingsbury Excavation Company as well as the Mad River Industrial Park, said he hadn't had any new tenants at the park in 10 years and when people did come, "The town threw 'em out."
"I'm very upset with the amount of people who are here tonight. People sit at home and piss and moan instead of coming out. I have land I'd build affordable housing on if someone could tell me whether it was a deeryard or not. The state can't tell me what it is and I believe the town should be right in our back pocket helping us. We can't seem to get municipal water in this town. What the hell is the problem? I travel a lot and I've seen towns with 125 residents that have municipal water and sewage," Kingsbury said.
Ian Buchanan, owner of Fit Werx and a Waitsfield resident, said that he feels as if Waitsfield is a very divided town.
David Hartshorn, a Waitsfield farmer and a partner in Vermont Yak, reminded the board of a meeting held over a year ago where a representative from the Central Vermont Chamber of Commerce told town officials that the town has a reputation for being anti-business.
"What did the governing boards do with that message? Did it get brushed off? How are the boards working against that view?" he asked.
Jim Halavonich, president of the Mad River Valley Chamber of Commerce board, told the group and the boards that the chamber is working on a reorganization that is aimed at allowing more opportunities for community members and business owners to be engaged in the chamber and in business networking as well as involved in areas such as advocating for housing, municipal infrastructure and public transportation.
Clearwater Sports owner and Waitsfield resident Barry Bender concurred with Dion that there is a lot of arrogance in the town and wondered why there is a struggle and a battle every time anything had to be done.
GO BEYOND NEUTRAL
Town resident Brian Fleisher told the board that he felt it was not enough that the town's boards be perceived as neutral, stating, "We have to go beyond that."
"Some of these comments have gone negative and, other than Dave Dion, no one has sat on one of these boards. I'd like to encourage everyone to get involved and serve on a board," said Jamieson.
Town resident, planner and Development Review Board chair Brian Shupe offered a list of accomplishments that have taken place in the past 20 years, including a well-used rec path, a revamped Wait House housing an expanded chamber of commerce, a senior housing facility and senior center, and more Mad River access.
SPREAD OUT NATURE
Others offered comments about how the spread out nature of The Valley made it difficult for Waitsfield to have an identity and others suggested that lack of identity made it hard for the town to "brand itself."
Moderator MacLaren took the comments and sorted them into four areas: infrastructure, identity, supporting existing and new business and communication between business/communities and boards.
MacLaren, the board members and the public discussed each of the four areas, gleaning suggestions from the public. Ideas brought forth included better signage to let people know that they have entered the Mad River Valley and signage indicating that Waitsfield is The Valley's downtown. Other suggestions included creating one Valley-wide 'open' sign, reviewing what the town wants to achieve and whether Waitsfield's Town Plan and zoning regulations support that vision.