The comments of community members may result in a more sustainable future for Eastern Connecticut.
At a public “visioning session” last week, a dozen area residents and officials gathered at Windham Town Hall to learn about and weigh in on a planning study that examines the region’s potential for sustainability improvements.
The study looks at three areas of potential growth — mobility, employment and housing — on a regional scale and considers how these areas might be improved in an integrated, practical way.
“It’s looking at gaps in what’s out there. What issues cross boundaries throughout this region?” asked Ken Livingston, vice president and principal associate at the planning firm of Fitzgerald and Halliday.
The session, along with another Wednesday, June 20 in Dayville, and a third held Thursday in Norwich, was hosted by the Eastern Connecticut Sustainable Communities Regional Planning Consortium. Members of the study team presented the findings and guided small group discussions.
The consortium partners with the Windham Region Council of Governments, Northeastern Connecticut Council of Governments, Southeastern Connecticut Council of Governments, Eastern Connecticut Workforce Investment Board, and Southeastern Connecticut Housing Alliance.
The study, funded through a $225,000 grant from the state Department of Housing and Urban Development, began in September 2011 and will be completed by December 2013 at the latest, at which time the consortium will have a concise list of specific, doable recommendations for regional improvements.
The purpose of the “visioning sessions” is to present current points of the study and to gather feedback and ideas from local residents.
Livingston pointed to the difficulty of the task, given eastern Connecticut encompasses 41 towns, the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribal nations, and the fact that region is composed of village, rural and urban areas.
“There’s a diversity of issues and concerns,” he explained.
The study’s concentrations include diversified and affordable housing, workforce development and effectiveness of transportation.
Small breakout discussions were organized into these categories, but the interconnectedness of the issues was noted.
Affordable housing and dependable jobs should be located closer together, attendees said, which would lessen the burden on providing transportation.
Meanwhile, public transportation services could be connected between different areas of the region and service could be expanded.
Job training could be improved and coordinated with the needs of area employers, thus bridging the gap between the “supply of labor coming out of local schools” and “what the companies are looking for,” said Todd Poole study team member and managing principal for 4WARD Planning.
State Rep. Susan Johnson, D-Willimantic, attended the visioning session and spoke of the city’s potential. “We have a lot of resources here that could really help to change the economy,” Johnson said. She pointed to the freight rail lines, the airport, mills and other assets that could be harnessed to return Willimantic to its productive days.
She said she sees high-level manufacturing, to which much of the state has already begun to shift, as an exciting opportunity for the city. “If we act together, we can really attract a lot of people to the region,” Johnson said.
Columbia Town Planner Jana Butts, who is also a senior planner at WINCOG, was interested in the concept of “locational efficiency,” which would bring housing and jobs geographically closer.
“People who live close to their work are saving a lot of money, but also living a greener lifestyle,” Butts said. “I think there’s a real need for everyone to examine the environmental costs of their lifestyles and implement ways to make their lifestyles more sustainable.”
Livingston said he was grateful for the feedback. “What is most useful is hearing people’s personal stories and hearing their values,” he said.
It is these stories and values that will inform the consortium’s recommendations.
WINCOG Director Mark Paquette said the consortium will begin to synthesize these ideas this week, with the goal of moving a bit closer to final recommendations.
The consortium is looking for “a small number of (recommendations) where we can really make a difference,” he said.
The synthesized findings of the sessions will be posted on the consortium’s web site www.sustaineasternct. org, where community members can also learn more about the study and submit their own ideas.
Posted June 25, 2012
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