‘Facing the River’: Communities hope to benefit from riverside recreation | business

BRATTLEBORO — While Vermont is known for skiing its verdant mountains, there’s one natural resource that many people don’t even think about — the Connecticut River.

Shannon Rogers, Associate Extension Professor at the University of New Hampshire, focuses on nature-based economic development.

“We’re fortunate in New England to have so many rivers flowing through inner cities,” she said during a recent online forum hosted by the Connecticut River Joint Commissions. “That makes sense because many of our communities were former mill towns.”

But in the days of mill towns, Rogers said, communities were built “with their backs to the rivers,” which were sources of energy and a place for dumping waste.

“Many communities are seeing an opportunity to embrace the flow in a different way by turning toward and being toward the flow,” she said.

New Hampshire’s Connecticut River Valley Resource Commission and Vermont’s Connecticut River Watershed Advisory Commission have met as the Connecticut River Joint Commissions since 1989 to advocate and ensure public participation in decisions affecting the 410-mile river and communities concern along it.

The November 8 forum focused on the impact of the recovery on the communities lining the banks of the river.

Turning to the river can be as simple as river hiking, as in Nashua, NH and Wilton, NH, where there is a mile-long river walk along the Stony Brook River.

“There are some [river walks] but they are longer [Wilton] I wanted to hug the flow and maybe give people some lunch… get out there and have a place to sit or take a walk.

Rogers said she shared that information with the Hinsdale-Brattleboro Bridge Project Advisory Committee, an advisory committee set up to review options for the soon-to-be-closed bridges connecting the two cities and the island between them.

River hiking and services are part of a recreational economy that can be boosted up and down the Connecticut River, said SE Group’s Alex Belensz, a mountain sports industry consultant.

“If you are in or along a river or creek and are there intentionally for the purpose of being there for fun or spiritual renewal or to hang out by that river with a close friend, I would consider this recreation,” Belensz said “There’s a lot of things that could fall on it. It could be on a big motorized boat, or just find a little rock to sit on and do a bit of rock hopping.”

Activities on and along a river contribute to the local economy, but only when services and supplies are available, the river is accessible, and a town has a bit of character a visitor might be looking for, Belensz and Rogers said.

“If your river is close to downtown…is there any way to have a boat launch or a place to put your paddleboard, kayak, or canoe?” Rogers asked.

And is it ADA compliant?

“We may not see the full economic benefit of an activity because there are many people who are not comfortable or able to participate,” Belensz said.

He recommended people take a look at Wealth Works in northern New Hampshire, which brought together “value chain stakeholders” — outfitters, equipment rental and repair services, outdoor recreation guides, and hospitality businesses like restaurants, lodging and breweries.

But even when you have this type of collaboration, businesses still need people to cook, serve, work on bikes, and sell supplies.

“They have to live and work somewhere,” Belensz said, adding that they have to have a job that pays them enough to take some time off while spending a little money.

Josh Hanford, commissioner of the Vermont Department of Housing and Community Development, said you can’t have a thriving river economy without housing.

“We really live in a time where the homes we have don’t meet current needs. Most of our communities have more jobs than homes,” he said.

And although the state has had “very modest population growth,” it’s still growing and housing construction isn’t keeping pace.

“In Vermont, we have 15 percent of all households that are severely cost-burdened and spend more than 50 percent of their household income on housing, and 19,000 housing units that were substandard or did not meet the code.”

Hanford said a household should spend no more than 30 percent of its income on housing.

One of the problems is that Vermont has the largest land size in the country, larger than Alaska, he said.

“And it comes at a cost and allows fewer people to be invited into our communities.”

Vermont communities are being urged to change land use ordinances to allow for more density and allow homeowners to build additional housing units on their lots.

As the rich can fend for themselves and the stock of affordable housing increases, the state worries about “the missing middle,” Hanford said.

“In the middle, you’re kind of pricing out your people … your middle-income people who should be homeowners and start and raise a family in your community,” he said. “So we have this kind of resilient economy, a lot of it is built around recreation in our beautiful state, and people are coming here, but there’s no place for the locals to live because there’s no affordable housing.”

Because of this, there is a labor shortage in Vermont. People who might want to move here for a job can’t find affordable housing, so they turn down jobs in Green Mountain state, Hanford said.

Vermont hopes to take advantage of the COVID-19 recovery funds and Infrastructure Act funds to help address the housing shortage, Hanford said.

“We’re trying to convince communities that they should address their housing issues by using these funds to support investments in many different ways,” he said.

Communities are using the money for water and sanitation projects, among others, like those in Grafton and Londonderry, which recently received $12 million in ARPA funding.

“We need to welcome more people,” Hanford said. “It doesn’t have to be at the expense of our environment and the natural resources we value.”