Livable Communities Interview

5 Questions for Patricia Sears

After a career spent community-building abroad, an economic development expert explains why she’s investing in Newport, Vermont

5. What can community leaders and residents of other towns and cities learn from Newport’s efforts and successes thus far?  

Age-friendly awareness has not only benefitted Newport, it has become an asset for advancing positive change. Other communities can look at Newport and learn the power of community investment and participation.

For instance, AARP gave out four community grants in Newport and the community garden received one of those grants to build more raised planting beds, which are easier for older adults to access. Small grants are incredibly important to making a difference and showing an investment in local solutions. 

Our Community Commons program, a monthly meeting in downtown Newport, is recognized as a catalyst for awareness and participation. Supported by Newport Community Justice Center, the Community Commons provides a way for community residents to be heard, to work through issues and to feel less isolated. The meeting gives residents a voice in developing age-friendly improvements that advance positive change in neighborhoods and the community-at-large.

And, perhaps most importantly, over the course of the next few years, Newport will undergo rapid economic development due to a $200 million investment resulting from the federal government’s EB-5 Immigrant Investor Visa program. This program provides green cards for the families of investors who contribute $500,000 or more to an economic development project. The projects coming to Newport include a biotech firm that’s expected to provide 500 jobs, a $20 million expansion of the Newport airport and the redevelopment of a city block that will feature short- and long-term suites for visitors, as well as restaurants and shops.

For so many years Newport has been the last in the state in just about everything. But about 10 years ago we basically said, “Okay, that’s a wrap. Now we are going to be first.” Everyone was like, “Yeah, sure.” But we became the first community in Vermont to have the American Institute of Architects come in with an urban design assistance team.

That helped us attract other experts who have encouraged us to pursue an assets-based approach to development. They gave us examples of doable improvements so we could pursue some quick wins, such as posting signage around town and establishing mixed-use form-based code zoning rather than conventional, more segregated use-based zoning. With form-based code a developer can’t come in and just drop a big box store on us. (By the way, Newport is the first and, at this point, only community in the state to be using form-base code.)  

Today, people come to Newport and say, “Wow, this place rocks!”

Melissa Stanton is a project manager and editor at AARP Livable Communities.

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