Would there be enough customers to support a natural-food co-op in Morristown? How could the town draw business from the thousands of tourists who visit Stowe and Smugglers' Notch every year?

Those were just a couple of the issues on the table Tuesday, when Morristown residents met with prominent Vermonters about the town's future.

The Vermont Council on Rural Development selected Morristown for its Community Visit Program, and brought 30 federal, state, business and nonprofit leaders to town for community forums. The visitors joined townspeople and local business owners for a free spaghetti dinner.

More than 200 people showed up to voice their opinions.

The nonprofit council works for the advancement of rural communities. In the past 12 years, it has worked in more than 30 communities across Vermont, bringing residents together to talk about things that worry them, and about possible solutions.

Morristown could get into the visitor program because it earned downtown designation from the Vermont Division for Historical Preservation in 2003, making it eligible for state grants, tax credits, Act 250 waivers and other benefits.

Tuesday's forum focused on economic development, recreation opportunities, sustainable agriculture, and Morristown's identity.

Morristown residents were quick to list the key challenges facing the town, and were eager to talk about possible solutions and opportunities.

A number of local farmers participated. They said they need to work hard to let local shoppers know they exist, and are interested in more opportunities for marketing their products, such as establishing a co-op in a village storefront.

"I sell my meat at three farmers' markets," said Bambi Freeman, who raises sheep and chickens on her farm in the Sterling Valley. "I have a customer base that would make Walmart cry. It's all from getting my products out there. It's the cheapest form of advertising."

Nearly 100 participants packed into a forum on downtown development.

Community leaders expressed concern about the number of empty storefronts, saying the problem stems partly from "delusional" property owners who refuse to fix their dilapidated buildings and won't sell them to investors for a fair price.

Many residents pointed to the town's assets - its position between two major ski resorts, its proximity to Route 100 and Route 15, and tremendous natural resources - as opportunities to attract visitors, and businesses looking to relocate.

"There are a lot of positive things here and there's a lot of hope," said Heather Sargent, a member of the Morristown Alliance for Culture and Commerce. "It's just frustrating sometimes."

Tuesday's community gathering began a three-month process that will allow residents to examine issues, decide their top priorities, and develop concrete plans for action. Once the town sets its priorities, the visiting team will offer advice on ways to move ahead, where they can get help, and how they might get financial assistance for top priorities.

"We know that the best decisions are made locally, and that local leadership and the participation of residents is the real key to progress," said Paul Costello, executive director of the Vermont Council on Rural Development. "But we also know that local efforts sometimes need the assistance of state or federal resources to be completed.

"Morristown has shown in the past that its residents can work together to successfully complete projects, and it has a lot of great ideas on the table today. The community visit will allow residents to build on their assets, prioritize their ideas, and connect with experts and resources from around Vermont."

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