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

Patricia Sears

Patricia Sears: "A key to success when working in any community is listening — listening and learning." — Courtesy photo

Although Newport, Vt., is the largest municipality in Orleans County, it is a very small city. It's population is 4,700 according to the 2010 census. At one time Newport, which is located along Lake Memphremagog and sits just six miles south of the Canadian border, was a thriving commercial hub for logging, lumber mills, railroads, furniture factories and (during Prohibition) bootlegging.

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Over time, however, the region’s economic engines slowed and essentially stopped. Today, the community remains in one of the most remote regions of the state. While Newport has the highest second home ownership rate in Vermont, unemployment among the area’s permanent residents is chronically among the highest in the state. Nearly 41 percent of Orleans County’s population is age 50 or older; two decades ago only 27 percent of its residents were 50-plus.

Patricia Sears has a vision for how Newport can thrive again. A Long Island, New York, native who worked out of Washington, D.C., as a community development specialist for remote areas of Asia and Africa, Sears and her husband, Steve Mason, a government relations consultant, relocated to his family’s hometown of Lowell, a community 20 miles west of Newport, in 2001.

Since then Sears has become one of the biggest champions of Vermont’s “Northeast Kingdom,” as the region housing the state’s three northeast counties is known. After several years of advocating on behalf of Lowell, Sears was hired by the Newport City Renaissance Corporation, a downtown organization accredited by the National Main Street Center, a subsidiary of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Sears has secured development grants for Newport and, working with local leaders, has led the city to install needed wayfinding signage, adopt form-based code zoning and enter a foreign trade zone partnership that expects to bring high-tech jobs to the community.

In 2012, Sears was named Newport’s Citizen of the Year. The following year she led Newport's efforts to join the AARP Network of Age-Friendly Communities. In July 2014 Sears was named president of AARP Vermont, a volunteer position.

Called Newport's 'best view of the lake' is the hilltop view from St Mary Star of the Sea Catholic Church of Vermont's other international lake, Lake Memphremagog. Four-Fifths of the lake is in Quebec, Canada.

Lake Memphremagog and Newport, Vermont, as seen from St. Mary Star of the Sea Catholic Church. — TopShotsLLC

1. Most of your career was spent working on community and economic development issues overseas. How do those experiences relate to working in rural Vermont?

A key to success when working in any community is listening — listening and learning. Another key is tenacity. People will tell you something can’t be done because it was tried before and didn’t work. You just need to keep going and building relationships and turning those relationships into partnerships and then leveraging those relationships and partnerships. Similarly, when you’re looking at results it’s not just measuring what you think success is but measuring what success really is. When you do that, it’s usually incredibly revealing and much more powerful than what we had thought up in our minds.

Also, looking at what a community does have helps it see what it doesn’t have and that helps inform next steps. It’s basically a way of reminding people who may be feeling “oh, poor me” to look at what they have. In Newport we have an international lake. We have access to farms, so we really can do a better job of eating healthier. We have a walking path that goes all the way up to the Canadian border. We have bodies of water we can use for kayaking or swimming or canoeing.

Once we recognize the things we have, we need to find ways to work with the recreation department as well as with businesses and other partnerships to enrich Newport as a destination for healthy, active living. Getting people to say, “we’ve got this,” helps them work toward improving whatever it is and making it more relevant.

2. Why did Newport join the AARP Network of Age-Friendly Communities?

Newport is committed to enhancing and expanding its age-friendly attributes. When the opportunity to join the AARP Network of Age-Friendly Communities was presented and understood, businesses, educators, the city government, health and economic development agencies and members of the community joined together to advocate for participation.

Newport is a hub for the region’s employment, services, shopping and dining. The county’s hospital is close by, as is the boardwalk along the international Lake Memphremagog and a bike path that crosses the border into Canada. 

However, Newport acknowledges the seriousness of having one of the oldest populations in Vermont and that we’re a community with mobility challenges and a lack of jobs. We also know that while Newport may not be diverse in race, we are very diverse economically, culturally and socially. We know that economic development must be integrated with community development in order for success to be sustainable. We also know that age-friendly includes the whole lifecycle and what’s going to work for our seniors or our 50-plus is certainly going to work for young parents who are trying to cross the street with a stroller.

Although downtown Newport is compact and walkable for shopping, dining, recreation and the arts, the street design can be improved to better accommodate crossing streets safely and provide multimodal transportation options. (There are actually efforts underway to improve winter mobility opportunities via snowshoes and cross-country skiing.) Vermont has a very old housing stock that needs to be rehabilitated and remodeled for 50-plus singles and couples as well as for the young professionals who can bring our neighborhoods vibrancy and diversity.

Next page: Why would a rural community need a community garden? »

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