Cambridge, VT town government

ML and GPThis post has been long in coming, which I regret since Marguerite Ladd, the administrator of the Town of Cambridge, and George Putnam, the selectboard chair, were incredibly generous with their time.  Marguerite has been in her newly created position for about a year, coming from finance work in New York but with her roots in Vermont.  George is a long-time Vermonter and has retired from a career with the farm credit system.  The Switchel Philosopher is his blog that asks, “What is a proper relationship between a free people and their government?”  (Not familiar with switchel?  I wasn’t either.)

The elected selectboard meets twice each month, and goes deep into the running of the town.  (Minutes from a recent meeting can be found here.)  There’s also an annual town meeting each March, attended by the citizenry.  (Minutes from last March’s meeting can be found here.)  Marguerite and those in other permanent staff positions follow through on and carry out decisions made by the selectboard and town meeting.  As I noted right after my visit, the Town of Cambridge, Vermont includes two incorporated villages, Jeffersonville and Cambridge.  This sounds like a similar arrangement to what we found in Cambridge, NY, but there the village didn’t fit completely within the town.  The administrative lines are more clearly drawn in Vermont.

My conversation with George and Marguerite was wide-ranging, including what folks in Cambridge call themselves.  Though the town is believed to have been named after Cambridge, MA, there’s no special name for the town’s residents.  Nonetheless, George said that “most people identify with the town rather than the villages.”  He said that towns are Vermont’s common administrative unit, and some towns include incorporated villages while others don’t.  An incorporated village can assess taxes and create municipal services.

Freedom of Speech, Rockwell
From the website of the Norman Rockwell Museum. Rockwell created a series of four paintings in 1943, collectively called the Four Freedoms. The picture to the left shows “Freedom of Speech,” based on a Vermont town meeting. A print of the painting hangs in the Cambridge town offices.

I started our conversation by asking what is going well in Cambridge.  Marguerite immediately summed it all up by saying, “Everything.”  She continued, “Cambridge is trying to do all the ‘right things,’ and looking for an equitable quality of life for everyone.”

George added, “There is a great mix of people here.  There’s good volunteer engagement, both in town government and other organizations, like the rescue squad.  The population is growing slightly, and moderate growth is a nice place to be.  Many towns in Vermont are shrinking.”  He further pointed out the unmissable.  “There is great scenery, with mountains and rivers.”  Marguerite said there’s a very active bike culture, along with paddling, hiking, and snowmobiles.  “Vermont needs that four-season utility of its resources.”

Something I’ve enjoyed while talking to Cambridge leaders is when our conversations wander to critical municipal issues that I know little about.  Marguerite noted, for example (and I hope I have this right), that Cambridge has the most road mileage out of all the towns in the county.  This is a big issue if snow removal is part of the annual routine.  There are several state roads that the state plows, and then the town plows the rest, including in the villages of Cambridge and Jeffersonville.

I’ve mentioned before that I have had more discussions of wastewater treatment on these trips than I ever would have imagined.  In this conversation, I learned that the village of Cambridge has a public water supply, the Village of Jeffersonville has a public water supply and a sewer system, and the rest of the town offers neither.  Unless they live in one of the villages, everyone is dependent on wells and septic systems.  Unlike in Cambridge, NY where wastewater treatment was a major issue, George called it a small issue, though he said that “sewers aren’t the bottleneck [to development], but the water is.”  The Village of Jeffersonville needs to expand its water sources and, they said, find ways to protect those sources.

I also raised the topic of broadband.  George said that “Some towns around Cambridge have broadband committees.  We’re in the process of organizing an economic development committee and looking at bringing broadband to town.”  The telephone company provides DSL access but Cambridge is “not served by any of the large cable companies.”  There are two smaller companies — Stowe Cable, and Mansfield Community Fiber — and the town wants “to work with those two companies to wire up the town with fiber.”  He continued, “A lot of people want to work remotely and can’t do that,” though he pointed out that there is “better cell coverage than in many rural towns.”  Marguerite added that realtors report that potential buyers routinely ask about internet access before they consider buying a house or property.

I told Marguerite and George that I had spent the previous afternoon at Smuggler’s Notch, the ski resort, which George called “good neighbors.”  He said, “They employ a lot of people seasonally.  Some retirees work there in the summers, leading hikes.  And all the tourists lead to spin-off business, like lodging.”  Marguerite explained that Smugg’s helps Cambridge’s “grand list,” the list of property in town that may be assessed taxes, especially because many of the condos at Smugg’s are second homes, used in the summer or during ski season.  In Vermont, “If it’s not your main residence, it can be taxed a little higher.  It helps the town have those services that other towns might not be able to afford with this population.”  She also noted that “A lot of people who work there are on our committees and volunteer here.  It’s clear they value the town.”

I still have so much to share from my conversation with Marguerite and George that I think it will be best to finish my report in a second post.  I’ll be back soon.

Town Office sign, VT

The economy, Cambridge, ME

A thriving economy is a goal for any town or city, but is hard to achieve for a small town surrounded by other small towns.  Town selectmen Mike Watson and Ron Strouse described for me the challenges facing Cambridge, Maine.  Mike said, “The economy here is gone.  The big factories are out.”  He also said that at one time there were 35 dairy farms and two beef cattle farms.  Only one of each remain.

Most Cambridge residents commute to larger towns (including Bangor, an hour away), are engaged in businesses requiring regional travel, or work from home.  There are a couple of auto-maintenance garages, some woodworkers, and, Mike said, “a lot of retired people.”  He pointed out that Maine has one of the largest senior citizen populations among U.S. states.  “It’s old and getting older.”  But he said the town is “always looking” for development opportunities.

Future development may be linked to the arrival of broadband internet, expected in fall of 2019 with the help of a grant from the State of Maine.  The town had appointed a committee to study the issue and the options, and an announcement of the timeline appeared on the town website after my visit.  Lack of access to high-speed internet is an obstacle to development throughout rural Maine, and Mike looks forward to its arrival.  “I like this broadband coming in.  If you have good internet, you’re the center of the world, and you can do whatever you want to do.”  He continued, “The internet is going to make it possible to buy or sell anywhere in the world.”  People will be able to “live the country life” while continuing their work life.  “It’ll be a plus for us.”

Related to Cambridge’s short list of enterprises and limited internet is the town’s scarce presence online.  Aside from the town’s own website, there are few web pages to be found about Cambridge.

East Outlet BrewingAnother potential boost to the economy due this summer is a brewery.  East Outlet Brewing can be found on the road leading into town.  No one was around when I went by, but I’ll try to follow their story.

It’s possible to imagine a future, not too far out, when young tech workers who can be situated anywhere will be drawn to Cambridge, with the brewery as the center of evening life.  Mike has confidence that the town will carry on.  “People like the seclusion that a small town affords them.”