Subin and McCormack begin Orton Foundation workBy Jason Starr The Essex Reporter
From two laptops and a kitchen table on East Street in Essex Junction, two local women are designing what could be a moment of clarity for the whole of Essex. Enabled by financial resources and technical support from the Orton Family Foundation of Middlebury, Susan McCormack and Liz Subin are co-project coordinators on what’s called the Heart and Soul of Essex — a citizen-led effort to uncover common ground between the people and governments of Essex Junction and Essex Town and enhance civic engagement across age, economic, ethnic and geographic lines.
The Orton Foundation is providing $100,000 to help Essex investigate its values and visions, building off energy that began in Essex Junction two years ago with the Railroad Avenue Revitalization effort. The revitalization led to a new Five Corners Farmers Market, a year-round downtown event series and an attempt to root out loitering and illegal activity near the train station. McCormack helped lead the revitalization effort as a contracted facilitator with the Village of Essex Junction. She later turned into a volunteer.
Many of the same people who pushed for change around Railroad Avenue began meeting last year as the Heart and Soul of Essex Committee and thinking bigger about how to improve the community. The next obvious step was to include the residents and government of Essex Town.
Subin is a resident of Essex Town and joined McCormack as a co-applicant for the project coordinator position. It was a way to “model” collaboration between the two entities, Subin said. The pair meets every Monday in McCormack’s Essex Junction home.
“With Railroad Avenue, we chose to keep it narrow, but we realized there was a larger need,” McCormack said. “There was an opportunity there that was beyond the scope of the revitalization … These (Orton) resources have come to us to have that broader thinking.”
Subin lives down a dirt road in the rural northwestern section of Essex. She said she was aware but uninvolved in the Railroad Avenue improvements. Her career has been in international development and wildlife protection. When the Heart and Soul Committee began meeting and preparing a grant application to the Orton Foundation, Subin was recruited onto the committee to provide a town perspective.
“I went and was very impressed with the group, and the energy in that room got me energized,” she said. “It became more and more exciting as the project took form.
“I represent a group of people that hasn’t been involved,” she continued. “I am looking to take the energy in that room and bring it to my community.”
The pair combined as one of 31 applicants for the project coordinator position. They were on the committee that made the hiring decision; they said they rescued themselves from those discussions.
A few weeks ago they attended a two-day, Orton-sponsored workshop in Chicago, traveling with Essex Town Planner Katherine Sonnick and Chittenden Central Supervisory Union Wellness Coordinator Gabrielle Smith. It was a time to learn about the experiences of other towns that have worked with Orton and gain tools and frameworks to ensure a productive process in Essex.
“We did some really good thinking together about what it could look like,” McCormack said.
The Heart and Soul of Essex committee is transitioning into a registered non-profit organization. While that takes place, McCormack and Subin are laying out a two-year plan for how the project will unfold. They are taking their time and don’t plan to begin in earnest until the fall.
Until then, expect to see a Heart and Soul booth at community events where McCormack, Subin and/or committee members will explain the project and take input about the process.
“There is definitely a buzz about it already,” said Subin. “We want to take advantage of that buzz but be very thoughtful at the beginning.”
The Orton Foundation is deliberately vague about what it wants to see communities accomplish with the $100,000 grants, of which it awarded five nationwide this year. Each community is tasked with creating a program and outcomes that speak to it.
For McCormack and Subin, the expected outcomes in Essex can be boiled down to increased collaboration between village and town residents and governments, increased civic engagement from all sectors of the community and a renewed focus on the commonalities between Essex Junction and Essex Town.
The project takes place against the backdrop of a decades-old debate about whether the two municipalities should merge or separate instead of the status quo, where village residents support two overlapping governments.
“We have a lot that we share, and if we can shift the conversation away from the merger and the public process to a fun, engaging conversation that’s about the possibilities and not about failures or successes, I think we’ll find we have a lot in common that we can go for without saying we should merge or not,” Subin said. “It’s about changing a perception of us versus them and celebrating those things that are about the community as a whole.”
The process won’t tackle thorny questions such as tax fairness between the two populations, but could lay the foundation for those discussions in the future, McCormack said.
“We’re hoping this process will build trust between the town and the village so that we can bring conversations to the table from a place of trust rather than distrust, for all kinds of conversations about our future,” Subin said. “
Added McCormack: “Just getting through this together we’ll have a stronger sense of community.”
More information is available at www.heartandsoulofessex.org.