A New Town Center for Vermont’s Small Towns

At least for the time being, we must all get smaller. By “smaller,” I mean our government, town, school, non-profit, business, and household budgets.

Though we may feel like victims of the recent experiment in capitalism without borders, and to a degree we are, we are also subject to the normal rise and fall of economic cycles. Regardless of the cause, we must look for ideas that enable us to do more with less.

For some, the very real need to improve efficiencies and lower educational costs through consolidation is threatening to their view of community. As an alternative, might it be more efficient in some towns to consider consolidation within the community rather than without?

I’ve lived in small Vermont towns most of my life, attended town meetings and watched town fathers advocate for new police headquarters, fire houses, town halls, EMT facilities, town sheds, elementary schools, library additions, community centers and the like.

Imagine Vermont architects designing a single centrally heated community center that accommodates all community services needed by a town of under 5000 people, of which there are well over 200.  The building would be designed for energy-efficiency, shared overheads and multi-use and would be open and in use 24 hours a day, 365 days a year instead of lying fallow and expensive for much of the day or year. It would have a “town services façade” and an opposing “community center” façade to isolate emergency vehicle traffic from the playground, farmer’s markets, community gardens and commons.

Administrative overheads like phones, networks, security, and office equipment would be shared instead of duplicated. A smart grid would parse energy, lights and heat round the clock as needed.

Classrooms would be community rooms in the evening for zoning, design review, select board and AA meetings. Students would see how town government and infrastructure work, an onsite laboratory for learning civics. They would not only learn how the town’s policing and emergency response systems work but would see them in action and might eventually intern. The auditorium would be designed for: school assemblies, town meetings, community theater and arts performances; the gym for: phys ed., games, and community yoga classes.

Of greatest benefit, however, would be the significant reduction in a town’s budget by creating and using an energy efficient cluster of shared community spaces used throughout the days and seasons, a town hall for the next century.

This week we went to town meeting and heard from our own town’s various fiefdoms advocating for this and that new expense, but we must consider bold new ideas in our communities and in our capital to weather this down turn and maintain vital community services.

Too often, the economic challenges that broadside us result in a dispute over revenue and spending, taxes and budget cuts, when the best way forward may be simply to pause and ask those  in our communities whose job it is to innovate, for new ideas and practical ways to do more with less.

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