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Editorial: Chelsea Looks to the Future

  • Customers frequent Will's Store in Chelsea, Vt., while the Chelsea Country Store sits closed on Jan. 17, 2018. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.


Tuesday, January 23, 2018

For better and for worse, the town of Chelsea often finds itself at the center of things. Today, its future is front and center as it grapples with harsh economic and demographic realities.

It wasn’t always this way. Settled in 1784 near the geographic center of Orange County, Chelsea became the “shire town” — the seat of county government. It hosted a courthouse (which it still does today), a jail, and, uniquely, two village greens — North Common and South Common. Two important state highways, routes 110 and 113, intersect in the center of Chelsea and take travelers east to New Hampshire, north to Barre, and south to Royalton.

Thirty years ago, in September 1987, former Chelsea resident Brian Willson, a Vietnam veteran and peace activist, was protesting the shipment of U.S. weapons to the Nicaraguan Contras when he was run over by a munitions train in California and lost both his legs below the knee. The subsequent protests, star-studded benefit rallies and lawsuit drew international attention. The town was dragged into the center of another international media circus in 2001 following the murder of Dartmouth professors Half and Susanne Zantop by two Chelsea teenagers.

Also in 1987, in the book Vermont Townscapes, Vermont Law School professor Edmund H. Kellogg and two colleagues called Chelsea “one of the most beautiful towns in the state” while putting it at the center of the issues of unplanned growth and small-town preservation, which were roiling the state at the time (and still do). As the Valley News reported then, Chelsea was dealing with a “parking crunch” and was so concerned about growth that it established a “design control district.”

Today, Chelsea is at the center of a different issue: Rather than trying to manage unbridled expansion, the town of 1,200 or so residents is facing the loss of many of its key assets. As correspondent Nicola Smith reported on Saturday, two of the town’s stores, Flanders Market and Quik Stop, have closed in the past year. There’s no longer a gas station in town. The Wagon Wheel Bar and Grill on Maple Street is open (and gets 4.7 stars out of 5 in its Google reviews), but Dixie’s II, the restaurant along Route 110, will close at the end of the month. And with the voter-approved merger to create the First Branch Unified School District with Tunbridge, the town’s high school will close.

The situation prompted resident Carrie Caouette-Delallo to organize a potluck supper at Town Hall earlier this month to encourage conversations about Chelsea’s future. “The community is concerned about what’s going to happen,” Caouette-Delallo told Smith. “What’s next for us?”

Some 60 people — 60! — turned out for the meeting and the ideas flowed like sap in the spring: add a grocery store, a gas station and another restaurant, start a community newsletter, create new bike and walking paths, make better use of the commons, start a Fourth of July celebration, use the high school building to benefit the community, get better internet service.

The meeting’s impressive turnout bodes well for whatever revitalization effort may emerge. Even more encouraging were the endorsements from some of the town’s newest residents. Elizabeth Morrison, who moved to Chelsea in April with her husband and is now the town librarian, called Chelsea “a great community” with people who are “passionate about helping each other.”

Chelsea Public School paraeducator Marty Gratz, a longtime town resident, put it best: “The town is at a crossroads, which is always very exciting because there’s so much potential, but it’s also very scary.”

If residents keep talking and stay passionate about helping each other and their town, there’s no reason to be scared. No doubt, Chelsea will again find its center.