Outgoing Vermont Council on Rural Development Leader Has Helped Invigorate Small-Town Life | Fair Game | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Mark Johnson Political Columnist

Outgoing Vermont Council on Rural Development Leader Has Helped Invigorate Small-Town Life

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Fair Game is Seven Days’ weekly political column.
TIM NEWCOMB
  • Tim Newcomb

Paul Costello won't like this column. 

He'll think it's too focused on him and not enough on the thousands of people whom his organization, the Vermont Council on Rural Development, has worked with during his 21 years as executive director. He'll say the spotlight should be on the local leaders and volunteers who put in the hours and sweat to boost the economic and social well-being of their villages and towns.

Costello will retire in September, leaving footprints in scores of Vermont towns from shoes — or hiking boots — his organization knows will be hard to fill.

The Vermont Council on Rural Development is a federally funded nonprofit that works to help towns stay vibrant in the face of economic challenges and declining populations. Much of its work has focused on community visits, gatherings intended to help towns identify priorities, develop strategies and find the funds to carry them out.

That means turning high-level visionary discussions into practical solutions. For example, in Montgomery, a Franklin County town of 1,200, local folks wanted to boost the downtown by adding a new restaurant and more affordable housing. Through discussions led by Costello's council, residents concluded that what they needed first was an improved wastewater system. With guidance from the council, the town applied for a federal grant and hopes to start work in the fall. 

The council has encouraged keeping working lands open and free from development. It's promoted the idea of recruiting companies that will confront climate change. It helped connect communities with federal resources after the devastation wrought by Tropical Storm Irene in 2011. In 2013, the council helped Front Porch Forum expand throughout the state and downtowns create wireless hot spots. During the pandemic, council-led forums in Hardwick resulted in plans to turn the former Greensboro Garage into a food and agriculture center. The council has nudged communities in smaller ways, for example, by helping Rutland decide to close downtown streets to vehicles on Friday nights to create more vibrancy.

Costello — an introvert in a job typically held by an extrovert booster — says his role is to draw out answers, not provide them.

"The dumbest guy in the room gets to moderate because he knows nothing. And I'm gonna ask you all dumb questions, and just be patient with me and listen to each other," Costello said he tells his town audiences.

Every town and village is different. The priorities, he said, have to come from within. "Vision can't come from outside. It has to be up to you to own your future," Costello said. 

To call Costello a facilitator is accurate but as incomplete as calling George Aiken a politician from Putney. One colleague described Costello as the most influential civil servant in Vermont who doesn't hold an elected office. He speaks with passion about the state's small towns and the crucial role of participatory democracy and community engagement.

"He has no ego," Sarah Waring said, explaining Costello's success. "It's a job that requires someone to give up control of the outcomes and support a process that allows for local control, community control." Waring, a vice president at the Vermont Community Foundation, worked at the council from 2007 to 2010 managing the Council on the Future of Vermont discussions.

Costello's work matters because economic challenges and population declines can snuff out a community's vibrancy, said Julie Moore, the state's natural resources secretary and the council's board chair. The opposite can also happen, she said, and organizations such as the council can be key. 

"In a lot of our rural downtowns, success breeds success. In many places, we were on a downward trajectory. And to the extent you can turn that around — bring in a café, or rehab a general store, or create some sort of community space to bring people together — I think that can be really transformational," Moore said.

Colleagues say Costello's gift is drawing out the talent in local communities for the projects to be done after the forums are over. "A lot of our small communities rely heavily on the good work of volunteers. And I see what VCRD often does is empower those volunteers," Moore said. 

Waring said Costello inspired people with contagious optimism, "unfathomable" energy and deep listening. "When folks interact with Paul, they see opportunity and they see possibility because he reflects it back at them. And I think a different personality running these [forums], a different kind of person, couldn't have done that in quite the same way as Paul," Waring said.

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) said Costello has helped Vermonters "tune out the noise, come together as neighbors and build consensus around shared ideas that improve everyday life for local residents."

Throughout the pandemic, the council led conference calls with social service agencies and nonprofits, sharing best practices and helping them avoid overlap. Costello said what leaders often needed most was encouragement.   

"We didn't have dollars to give, but we helped people share their own power, learn from each other, feel like they're part of a team and have the confidence to know you're being successful, that what you're doing is having a great impact. You know and I know we all need encouragement. So it was fascinating to just be pulling together," he said.  

During a recent interview in Middlesex, Costello welled up as he shared his fears about the climate crisis. His optimism quickly returned as he pointed to the success of companies such as Beta Technologies — a South Burlington venture developing an electric airplane — and the country's history of rallying around a common purpose.

"That worry is powerfully good for us. We're at an existential moment for community purposiveness like we haven't seen in generations, like the human rights work of '63-64, the New Deal. And like then, we must seize the day," he said.

Communities such as Burke, Greensboro, Hardwick and Montgomery are experiencing resurgences, he said, and he predicted the flight of urban residents to Vermont that occurred during the pandemic will continue. 

"There's a quality of life. And jeez, what was the biggest thing that COVID taught Americans? God, isn't it nice to be outdoors, connected to nature? Isn't it nice to be in a community where you know the other people in the room and trust them? So I think, culturally, Vermont's situated incredibly well," said Costello, who's hiked Mount Mansfield and Camel's Hump since he was a teen.

Costello holds a PhD in intellectual history from Montréal's McGill University. He had never been interested in memorizing dates or battlefield names, he said, but was curious about how people thought, how they experienced the era they lived in. The program taught him empathy, he said, and to seek to understand what people are thinking when they join the discussion at a community forum.

Costello called getting his doctoral degree a "career failure" because it didn't lead to a full-time job in the field. Thousands of Vermonters would beg to disagree.

Mom, Pop and Pot

I spent some time in Colorado last week and got a glimpse of Vermont's marijuana future — and the challenge small retail operators may face to stay independent.

In 2014, Colorado became the first state to open recreational pot stores. That year, businesses sold $700 million worth of marijuana. Last year, sales topped $2 billion. Altogether, taxes and fees on the marijuana business have generated $1.6 billion in revenue for state government on sales of $10 billion since 2014.

Vermont, with about 5 million fewer people than Colorado, doesn't expect a tax bonanza in the billions. With an excise tax of 14 percent and a 6 percent sales tax, Vermont should collect $9 million to $18 million a year in taxes by 2025, according to estimates from the state's Joint Fiscal Office.

What's interesting is that Colorado initially restricted licensed sellers to Colorado residents who had been there at least two years. Soon after legalization, the Denver Post wrote: "Colorado's burgeoning marijuana industry is big business, yet so far it is maintaining a quaint mom-and-pop character. Many of the state's medical marijuana dispensaries and recreational stores are owned by family members who pooled their savings in order to open."

Not anymore.

Colorado, like Vermont, had hoped to promote local ownership of marijuana businesses. But in the years since legalization, there's been significant consolidation in the state, with a handful of statewide chains growing larger and larger. Ownership rules have been loosened significantly. In 2019, public companies and private capital funds were allowed to invest in license-holding companies. Advocates said the market had matured and was ready for outside money.

In Vermont, consolidation is already happening and includes a firm that already operates in Colorado.

Existing medical marijuana dispensaries will be allowed to start selling recreational weed in May 2022. Retail stores will not be allowed to open until October of that year. Gov. Phil Scott has called the head start for the dispensaries an "unfair advantage." And that was before last week's announcement that CeresMED, a Vermont medical marijuana dispensary firm, will merge with Slang, a Canadian company with U.S. headquarters in Denver, in a deal worth $25 million. That means all three medical cannabis license holders in Vermont are to be owned by big out-of-state firms.

It took five years for the Colorado market to mature before outside investors were allowed and the wave of consolidations started. In Vermont, the out-of-state money is already arriving, begging the question: Will new mom-and-pop stores be able to compete against better-financed dispensaries that will be already up and running?

Keep holding your breath.

Goldberg Gets Busier

Don't expect to see Michael Goldberg in Vermont for a while. The lawyer put in charge of overseeing Jay Peak and Burke Mountain in the wake of the huge EB-5 Ponzi scheme has been hired in connection with the Surfside, Fla., condo disaster.

According to the New York Times, Goldberg will help the condo association figure out how to distribute $48 million in insurance money and other assets to survivors and families of the dead.

A Florida state judge appointed Goldberg as receiver last Friday. One local newspaper said the judge allowed Goldberg to meet with families and make disbursements to survivors and families "at his discretion."

Correction, July 8, 2021: A previous version of this column contained incorrect information about when the Council on Rural Development helped Front Porch Forum expand.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Advocate Costello | The Vermont Council on Rural Development leader has helped invigorate small-town life"