On June 28, VPR kicked off its Tell Me More Tour with a trip to Caledonia County and a community event at the Fairbanks Museum in Saint Johnsbury.
In a lot of ways, the Northeast Kingdom reminds me of West Virginia: beautiful, steep mountains; a decline in the industrial base; and a rich and unique culture.
But there seems to be one major difference.
In the Northeast Kingdom, there seems to be more of an acceptance that the future economy will be different from the past.
First, let me apologize in advance for making gross generalizations about places I know next to nothing about.
Still, as a flatlander-newcomer, I have fresh eyes, two eager ears and I am trying to put them to work during VPR’s Tell Me More Tour.
We’re planning to visit all 14 Vermont counties between now and October (I know, Vermont doesn’t really identify with “counties” but we didn’t have enough time to visit 251 towns).
Caledonia County, in the Northeast Kingdom, was the perfect place to start. VPR’s podcast "Brave Little State" recently asked the question, “Is the Northeast Kingdom Really That Different?”
On Thursday, I spoke with many people who live and work there, and their answer seemed to be, “Yes, and no.”
In one sense, the concerns facing people in Saint Johnsbury, Lyndonville and the surrounding towns will sound familiar to people living anywhere in Vermont.
I heard concern about a lack of safe, affordable housing. A skills gap separates people needing work from employers needing workers. Drug abuse is far too common.
On the other hand, statistics show that underemployment and poverty are bigger problems here than in, say, Chittenden County.
But despite these challenges — or perhaps because of them — I heard about a wealth of cultural capital.
At Northern Vermont University, President Elaine Collins and Provost Nolan Atkins explained their bold merger of the former Lyndonville and Johnson state colleges (I like the new slogan, “Do North!”).
I was impressed to learn about their commitment to teaching and creating a wonderful student experience.
l saw journalism and meteorology programs where students learned by doing. No wonder it’s the alma mater of Weather Channel’s Jim “Thundersnow!” Cantore. It’s also where the Eye On The Sky meteorologists got their start, before joining the historic Fairbanks Museum.
I’m sort of a weather geek myself, so getting to meet the Eye On The Sky team was a highlight of my day. I heard how it all started, more than 37 years ago, and grew into the three-person daily forecast we’ve all come to love.
Eye On The Sky is easy to take for granted, but that sort of in-depth educational experience is rare anywhere on the radio. It’s an outside-the-box way for the Fairbanks Museum to teach us all about the weather.
It also promotes the Fairbanks Museum, which if you haven’t been there yet, should be added to your list. The word that comes to mind is “diverse": from animal dioramas to Chinese kimonos to hands-on experiments with electricity, all in this building that is part library, part church.
Then I walked to the Catamount Arts Center, an old Mason’s building that the organization saved and turned into a focal point for downtown Saint Johnsbury. It buzzed with life. People were coming to classes and stopping by to purchase tickets for events. Former Catamount board president Linda Wacholder says they did it all on a shoestring budget and by collaborating with many other arts organizations; A model I hope to copy at VPR.
Finally, in the evening more than 40 members of the community met with me and VPR staff for a reception at the Fairbanks Museum. We discussed what is special about the area, and how VPR can serve it better.
Many people asked for a more vibrant VPR presence in their community. They asked for more focus on solutions, not just problems. As a former West Virginian, I understand completely. It gets old being someone’s poster child, and it’s not a full and accurate picture of any community.
“We’re not struggling to decrease poverty,” one man said. “We’re fighting to increase prosperity.”
Caledonia County may have its challenges, but it has strong schools, a well-respected health care system, world-class museums and a vibrant arts scene. And that’s a part of the story those of us outside the Northeast Kingdom should know more about.