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Dover, Wilmington evaluate Bi-Town collaboration in wake of Colvin’s resignation

DOVER—In the wake of Bi-Town Economic Development Planner Bill Colvin’s resignation, Wilmington and Dover have asked the question, “What's next?”

Wilmington answered its portion of the question at its May 4 Selectboard meeting by signing Colvin on as an economic development consultant for 20 hours per week.

Selectboard members agreed that, although committed to the Bi-Town collaboration, the town wanted to sustain its hard-won momentum on economic development projects while Dover decides whether it wants to continue the partnership.

Members from the Dover Selectboard and Dover Economic Development Committee (EDC) decided at a May 6 EDC meeting that, although many members expressed commitment to the bi-town collaboration, they wanted to have more time to discuss their options before coming to a decision.

A resignation

Colvin has taken a position with a marketing and consulting firm near Bennington. He said that his new employer is supportive of his remaining in Wilmington part-time to assist the town through the transition.

In 2009, Wilmington and Dover embarked on the Bi-Town Economic Development Plan with a formal strategy. Three bad winters had left their economies, which depend largely on ski-based tourism, in the red.

In an August 2010 interview with The Commons, Dover Town Administrator Nona Monis and former Wilmington Town Manager Bob Rusten spoke about the bi-town partnership.

“We needed to be in control of this. We’re no longer waiting for someone else’s [like Montpelier’s] plan,” said Rusten.

“The bridge is down and the moat is dry. It’s an exciting learning curve,” said Monis.

The towns hired Colvin seven months ago to organize, propel, and find funding for joint development projects based on nine goals identified by the towns with the help of John Mullin of Mullin Associates, Inc.

The majority of the goals involved creating timelines underscored by data. These “data-driven” goals included expanding broadband and cellular coverage, generating tourism and non-tourism businesses, and creating business assistance plans.

Colvin divided his time between the two towns. Each town paid a portion of his full-time salary.

He was Wilmington’s only economic development expert.

In contrast, Dover also employed Economic Development Specialist Patrick Moreland. Monis said last year that while Colvin focused on projects involving both towns, Moreland would focus his energies on projects within the town of Dover.

Since hiring Colvin in September, Dover has expressed concerns that he and Moreland were duplicating their efforts.

Colvin said he understands the two towns will need to work together, but perhaps under a different structure. His suggested to the selectboards that they keep the Bi-Town Economic Development Committee in place as a way to continue the partnership.

Colvin told the boards that, as they follow their joint strategic plan developed with Mullin, they could strengthen their relationship. It might make sense for each town to have its own specialist for a while before hiring another Bi-Town Planner, he said.

Some may see this as a “step back,” said Colvin, “but I actually think it’s an opportunity to step forward” in a stronger way.

Colvin believes the Selectboards are committed to a collaboration.

Each town may have unique ways to implement development projects but will operate with a consistent overall strategy, he said.

At Wilmington’s meeting

The Wilmington Selectboard unanimously voted to engage Colvin as a consultant. Colvin will continue to work on the same Bi-Town goals, but with only Wilmington’s interests.

According to Selectboard Vice-Chair Meg Streeter, voters approved Colvin’s part-time salary for another year at the March town meeting.

Colvin told the board that based on conversations at a recent Dover Selectboard meeting, that town’s course of action was still “all kind of up in the air” pending further discussion.

Streeter said she wanted to “keep moving forward” as planned, because the Wilmington voters and taxpayers had expressed support for the bi-town strategy and goals.

“That’s how we’ll flesh it out — by taking action,” said Selectboard member and Town Clerk Susan Haughwout.

Selectboard Chair Thomas Consolino said that despite engaging Colvin to focus on Wilmington’s economic development goals, they were not, at this time, changing their relationship with Dover.

Cork from Dover’s bottle

But in Dover, Colvin’s resignation has sparked fierce discussion about the best direction for the bi-town process. For some residents, the question is, “Has the town has followed through on its economic development promises?”

At the Dover Selectboard’s May 3 meeting, residents and board members discussed this question as they addressed these economic issues.

Dover resident Linda Anelli said that, although she supports the bi-town planning process, she believes there is a perception of duplication of the bi-town planner and economic development specialist’s efforts.

Adam Levine, former Selectboard member, told the board that the economic development goals for the town have moved away from the goals expressed by residents through a previous town-wide survey.

The six goals the board drew up with Mullin included improving telecommunications, examining Dover’s zoning by-laws, promoting the value of Dover Elementary School, developing the town’s capital planning, and assessing the effect Mount Snow’s master plan could have on the town.

The Selectboard and EDC have not yet formally approved the six goals.

The town and EDC are moving on new opinions, rather than the ones that the town voted for, said Levine.

“I’d hate to see a direction based on a small group,” he said.

William “Buzzy” Buswell said that he was not happy with the direction of the EDC or the way members ran the committee.

The EDC has not revoked its original work plan, yet it has moved in new directions without public input, he said.

Buswell described Dover’s concerns about the bi-town planner as “sub-created conflict,” and said the one or two people spreading discontent should step down from the EDC.

He thought Dover should do away with its Economic Development Specialist and stay with a Bi-Town Planner like Wilmington.

Levine suggested that the town conduct another survey. He didn’t think the responses would change drastically, but that the survey would reaffirm what the taxpayers want.

Audience member Laura Sibilia said that she has collaborated with Colvin and Moreland in her role as executive director of the Mount Snow Valley Chamber of Commerce, and that Colvin’s bi-town mandate made working with him easier.

“One-town economic development does not work a rural town,” Sibilia said.

An exit interview

At the May 3 meeting in Dover, the Selectboard also conducted an exit interview with Colvin.

Board members inquired what bumps in the road faced the position, and how could they work to support Moreland with his duties moving forward.

Colvin said he didn’t feel comfortable commenting on Moreland’s job. He also felt that six months into the job was not enough time to comment on “bumps.”

Colvin suggested that Wilmington and Dover use his departure as an opportunity to redefine the joint roles of the planner position. The towns may also want to consider a different structure, such as each town having its own planner while working with the Bi-Town Committee.

He thought that the bulk of the clarification rested with Dover, because it’s the town that’s expressed the most concerns about the economic development planners.

In the “major wins” category, Colvin placed the progress made with increasing broadband and cellular coverage in the valley through programs like Vermont FiberConnect (VFC).

“The significance [of VFC] can’t be overstated,” said Colvin. “It’s an exciting example of communities working together.”

Another important process for the Deerfield Valley, said Colvin, is the Southeastern Vermont Economic Development Strategy (SeVEDS).

SeVEDS, he said, will put a formal regional economic strategy in place that will open the valley to outside funding, such as federal grants.

In Colvin’s opinion, none of the bi-town economic development goals were unrealistic. Aggressive? Yes. A lot to accomplish? Yes.

“But you have to take advantage of things when they’re available,” Colvin said.

Ultimately, Dover Selectboard members felt they needed more time to mull over the future of the bi-town planner position and wanted the public to have a chance to weigh in on the topic. The members tabled their discussion until their May 17 meeting.

More frustration

The discussion became heated at the May 6 EDC meeting.

More than 20 people, including residents, EDC members, and Selectboard members, talked about the future of the bi-town relationship, frustrations regarding a perceived lack of action by the town and the EDC, and a lack of inclusion of the business community in the economic development process.

Levine asked, when it comes to taking action on the development goals from the town-wide survey, why the board is not directing the economic development specialist, or why Moreland is not doing what the board says.

“As a taxpayer, I’m frustrated,” said Julie Wilson, who said she had previously served on the EDC. Wilson felt a perception existed that the EDC did not take action.

Anelli agreed with this perception.

Dover raises funds for its economic development projects, in part, through a 1 percent local option tax. Quoting numbers she had received from the town treasurer, Anelli said that Dover has more than $845,000 in the EDC account, with another estimated $180,000 due May 17. Why was the money just sitting there?

Sibilia, a member of the EDC, said because of its economic development strategy, Dover is in a much better place than most Vermont towns.

But, she added, the process has proved “rife with mayhem... very chaotic, as anything new is bound to be.”

Sibilia said the EDC should continually evaluate its work and direction. But she also wanted a process established to add new goals and ideas into the town’s economic development process in an orderly way. She felt too many people had Moreland’s ear on a daily basis.

Selectboard Chair Linda Holland voiced her support for the Bi-Town planning position.

Selectboard member Victoria Capitani said, “It’s a step backward” if Dover doesn’t continue to have at least Moreland and a Bi-Town planner.

“Why the discussion?” asked Joe Kruszewski, owner of the Matterhorn Inn. “Let’s replace [Colvin] and let Wilmington decide what it wants to do in its own time.”

Selectboard member Randall Terk said he wanted more input before making a decision.

Selectboard member Dwayne Coneeny said it would help to further define the bi-town planner role, and to consider how the town is using its development resources. The town could be putting $50,000 into a position already in place, he warned.

Levine said that even if there’s a duplication of effort, as long as items are aggressively completed, no one will care.

Anelli asked what would happen if Dover moves forward with the Bi-Town plan and then Wilmington backs out.

She said that the towns and the Selectboards must work together.

“It’s a two-town effort,” said Sibilia.

The Dover Selectboard will meet at a future time to discuss the future of the bi-town planner position.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #100 (Wednesday, May 11, 2011).

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