Employees work on Mack Molding’s orthopedics line. To meet the needs of the company's essential customers, such as those in the medical field, social distancing measures have been put in place, including separating employees by at least six feet, installing barriers between work stations and requiring face masks. Courtesy photo.
by Bruce Edwards, Vermont Business Magazine Mention the town of Arlington and Norman Rockwell’s name invariably pops up.
Arlington was Rockwell’s home for a number of years when he was creating illustrations for the Saturday Evening Post.
While the artist’s former home attracted its fair share of tourists and Rockwell fans (it’s now a bed and breakfast), Arlington is also home to two of Bennington County’s largest employers, Mack Molding and The Orvis Company.
Photo: Mack employees prepare to serve their colleagues during an employee appreciation lunch. The company has been bringing in local food vendors once a week since March to thank its employees for their efforts during the COVID pandemic, as well as assist local businesses. Courtesy photo.
Those two company’s help anchor the local economy but community leaders grew concerned that more needed to be done.
Three years ago a series of events prompted townspeople to form the Arlington Renewal Project.
Resident Jim Baker said the genesis for the project was three-fold: the Catholic Church had closed, the town lost its sole representative in the Legislature (Arlington now shares its representative with Manchester), and there were fears the town could lose its high school.
“We felt like Arlington wasn’t on the map,” said Baker, who took on the job as executive director of the Arlington Renewal Project.
He said the effort had the strong support of Mack Molding and owner Donald Kendall III.
There were other issues as well including infrastructure challenges and rundown properties, he said.
But Baker said of utmost concern to town residents was the potential loss of Arlington Memorial High School.
“We wanted to help the school fight off a forced merger,” he said, referring to the state’s effort at school consolidation. “There is a lot of pride in Arlington around this little high school and we were afraid we were going to lose the school.”
So the town rolled up its collective sleeves to tackle a bucket of challenges.
Baker said the working group came up with a branding and marketing plan to boost enrollment, especially attracting tuition-paying students.
There was an economic focus as well.
He said his group help start a farmers market, and land a $300,000 grant to rehab housing.
The housing component was important, Baker said, because most employees at Mack Molding, the town’s largest employer, live elsewhere.
Baker’s group also secured a planning grant to help repurpose the former Catholic Church which is being sold to a nonprofit. A feasibility study is underway “looking at turning it into a cultural center,” Baker said.
In West Arlington, where Rockwell lived, he said it was the Renewal Project’s vision that the “area would get cleaned up,” attract investors, and hopefully turn it into more of a tourist area because of the Rockwell connection.
Baker said some of the blighted property in town has been purchased and cleaned up, including the old schoolhouse.
“That was another one of our goals that we felt like we wanted to bring the shine back to Arlington,” he said.
Arlington’s heyday wasn’t just about Rockwell who made Arlington his home from 1939 to 1953. There were other well-known Saturday Evening Post illustrators who lived in town as well: Mead Schaeffer, Gene Pelham, John Atherton, and George Hughes.
Baker said the framework is now in place to focus on the arts and draw on that rich legacy led by Rockwell and his peers.
Not to be overlooked was the Arlington Renewal Project’s success in getting voters to approve the hiring of a town administrative assistant.
“A lot of people would like to invest in Arlington but can’t because of the lack of infrastructure,” Baker said. “We felt like having a town administrator so there was someone full time who could look at long-term planning for the town was important”
Like many towns in the state, he said the lack of wastewater treatment has hindered Arlington’s ability to expand its commercial and industrial base.
Baker said the Renewal Project has now handed off the projects it started and is now focused its efforts on helping new businesses.
He said a couple of investors have stepped forward to provide seed money for startup businesses.
One of those grants went to buy gift certificates from local businesses to give employees of the Battenkill Valley Health Center, which Baker called a major asset in town.
He said it was a way for the town to thank employees for working through the COVID crisis. Baker said it also helped pump money into the local economy.
Bruce Edwards is a freelance writer from Southern Vermont.