BELLOWS FALLS—It’s a perennial gripe of southern Vermonters — the people in power at the Statehouse in Montpelier rarely pay attention to the needs of the cities and towns south of U.S. Route 4.
That feeling of neglect is particularly keen in Bellows Falls, whose residents feel like they are at the end of the line when it comes to state programs and funding.
So when Democratic gubernatorial candidate James Ehlers visited Bellows Falls on May 3, the people who came out to meet him were more concerned about getting their issues in front of the candidate than they were about hearing what he had to say.
Ehlers stopped for a “meet-and-greet” at 33 Bridge Street, a former paper mill that is now home to various artistic endeavors such as community radio station WOOL-FM and Sherwin Art Glass.
There were only a half-dozen people in attendance, but all were unanimous on the importance of at least one issue — fixing the long-closed Vilas Bridge. Within a few minutes of talking with Ehlers, the attendees urged him to take the short walk to the bridge to see it for himself.
The historic, but crumbling, concrete arch bridge that connects Bellows Falls with North Walpole, N.H., was closed to vehicular and pedestrian traffic in 2009.
New Hampshire, which is responsible for repairs and upkeep on bridges on the Connecticut River, has expressed little interest in spending the estimated $5 million it would cost to fix the span and reopen it to traffic.
Pat Fowler, owner of Village Square Bookstore, said the closure of the bridge had a definite impact on downtown businesses, since it eliminated the most direct route from Walpole to the businesses in The Square.
The bigger concern, Fowler said, is that there are sewage lines that use the Vilas Bridge to connect Walpole to the nearby Bellows Falls water treatment plant.
That piqued Ehlers’s interest. As an environmental advocate, he has made preserving water quality one of his major campaign issues.
“My interest in water quality is about my interest in people,” Ehlers said. “If we don’t have access to clean water, parking is kind of an afterthought.”
And that interest in water quality segued into Ehlers’s other big campaign theme — creating a fairer economy that works for all Vermonters, starting with increased spending on public infrastructure.
“Infrastructure is the foundation for everything else,” he said. “One of the reasons why I’m running is to start redirecting public dollars to public infrastructure. People want to stay in communities where there’s investment in the community.”
Education funding is also a big part of investing in community, Ehlers said.
More for schools
Regarding the controversial Act 46 school consolidation bill, Ehlers said that while it makes sense to consolidate high schools to offer greater educational opportunities, smaller elementary schools are more effective for younger children.
That is why Ehlers said he wasn’t in favor of a recent proposal by Gov. Phil Scott’s administration to fine school districts with a student-to-staff ratio of more than five students to every staff member. If anything, he believes Vermont’s schools need more resources.
“We’re putting more of a burden on the schools to be social service providers,” which Ehlers said makes sense because schools are a central part of communities. The goal, he said, should be not merely to graduate students “who can do the numbers,” but to shape someone into “a good citizen who is a decent human being.”
But investments in schools and public infrastructure won’t happen, he said, without a stable economy where workers are paid a livable wage, adding that a proposed increase of the Vermont minimum wage to $15 per hour still falls short of what many say constitutes a livable wage in the state.
“The working people of Vermont have been pitted against each other,” he said, adding that while he realizes that small businesses face a struggle to pay higher wages, “I think we can phase it in and develop trust in the small business community that paying a [higher] minimum wage is not only a fiscally responsible thing to do, it is the morally right thing to do.”
Ehlers, 49, is the former head of Lake Champlain International, a fishing and water-quality advocacy group, and has worked as a hunting and fishing guide. He also is the former publisher of Vermont Outdoors, a hunting magazine that is now defunct. A native of Lake Success, Long Island, he served in the Navy and is a graduate of Villanova University.
He faces three other Democrats in the Aug. 14 primary: Christine Hallquist, a former utility executive, Ethan Sonneborn, a 13-year-old middle school student, and Brenda Siegel, a political activist and founder of the Southern Vermont Dance Festival.