With the news all full of frustration and anger, is it possible that a dream can still come true?
I hope so, because we have a unique chance to make it happen. But it will take a little help from a lot of people.
Since I started in the field of local food and environmental education I had an image of reusing an old building to create a place where farms could sell their food, consumers could purchase high quality locally grown food and a community could come together to share their knowledge. As I’ve aged in this field, and the field itself has grown, along with the need for it, I have come to realize that sustainability is more than just about food, energy or “being green.” I’ve struggled to get people to understand this concept for years, but I asked some elementary students this year and an eight year old gave me the perfect answer to the question, “What does sustainability mean?” Her answer was “What it takes keep living here.”
What a great answer! It raises thoughts of both the here and now, and the future. It also triggers people to ask themselves what they need to “keep living here.” That brought my image into sharper focus. The picture I had as a young professional is filling out to become the North Country Sustainability Center. If it comes through as planned we will be using four foreclosed buildings, all found on just shy of six acres to create an educational center, a retail store, a commercial kitchen, a micro-creamery and an arts center.
Eventually, with more help and time, we could use solar and micro-hydropower to power some of the buildings. We can help the people of our region learn self-reliance and independence, or the information make informed consumer choices, and build small businesses to make the region stronger. The arts center would provide local artists and artisans to exhibit their works, hone their skills and teach them to others. It would also provide entertainment and enrichment to the area residents who currently either stay home or travel hours for a cultural experience. In addition to the fine arts, we would include the traditional arts of cooking, sewing, woodworking and home maintenance, which were once passed through generations, but are risk of being lost as a time when they are most needed.
Recent years have seen a focus on consumerism and disposability. While environmentalists tried to get people to recycle, they missed the boat on teaching people to value the work they do themselves. Our culture became more about “hiring someone” than about being independent. Our center would try to change that by helping people learn the skills themselves and value handmade quality over imported objects.
One pleasant surprise happened upon a visit to the local high school environmental club. One of the students asked if we would teach them about what happens at Town Meeting. I suggested that she just go to the meeting, and she explained that her parents wanted her to be able to vote before attending. I asked the group if they knew what civics was and most looked at me blankly. I asked them if they would listen to senior citizens explain how the communities used to be, and how they used to work. They jumped at the chance! When I asked the seniors they were happy to have a chance to be heard. These are two populations that often fight for dollars and cents when budgets are drawn up, but now they could work together for a stronger future for both.
The last part of my dream, and I don’t think I’m alone in this hope, is that people would willingly share their knowledge, by example and by consultation. The arts center would revitalize the economy through people looking for lodging, dining and alternative activities while in the area. The micro-creamery and commercial kitchen would make it possible for artisan cheesemakers, yogurt makers and bakers could launch their dreams. Using the NCSC incubator, they could grow their businesses with local investment by showing a proven and tested product. Residents of all ages can share their knowledge of food preservation, tool safety and other practical skills to those who might travel here to learn. Those people could take that knowledge back to their own communities and spread the word.
Since agriculture is at the root of the NCSC, we looked at who else could share the open space and facilities with us. The answer was the local dog community who travels hours each way, several times a week, to find training space and expertise for their hobby. They could use our enclosed arena and padded barn site for their agility, obedience and other dog sports. 4H kids and livestock breeders could use the facility to promote their businesses, and their facility rent would help support the work done by the other center aspects.
This is not a new concept. In fact, it’s a very old one. It’s simply “how you build a town,” done in a new economy with technology to assist. We have a unique blend of skills and facilities, but little money to start with. This is an area, like many, that has been lost in the technology boom, and while we value our small town atmosphere, we realize that we must find a new to sustain it.