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To plan, or not to plan?

Towns don’t develop in a vacuum. Their histories are intertwined with those of the communities around them and reveal the reasons for the directions they’ve taken at each stage of their public lives. Their present status as municipalities, and the priorities they set for themselves, are the result of the convergence of their histories and the values of their citizens.

For this reason, the community planning Village Vitality project undertaken this year by the Northwestern Connecticut Planning Collaborative seemed particularly useful. An objective outside opinion can often help those who are working to make or keep their communities vibrant see some alternatives they would not have considered if left alone. It did seem the report could have some real benefit for the towns of the Northwest Corner in defining short- and long-term goals for their town centers.

However, that said, it should also be noted that arguably the most successful town center, on many levels, of all those in the Northwest Corner is the result of an ongoing collaborative focus of business, community and governmental leaders, rather than of a plan done by outside consultants. Kent has not even redone its own town plan since 1990. Yet somehow the town center is more vibrant than ever, regularly welcoming more visitors than any of its counterparts in the region. The town also offers a wide range of goods and services for its residents in its downtown, making it a real destination that also has a true community environment. “This is who we are, and we’d like to share it with you,” Kent seems to say to all who will listen.

This is not to say that the other towns in the Northwest Corner don’t have their own admirable and unique qualities that could and should also attract visitors and new residents and businesses. But it does give insight into what makes for a thriving business center in a country town. It would seem, simply, that the direction taken by any town is the result of the efforts, often monumental, of the people who live and work there.

It’s easy enough to know, and to say, that certain kinds of businesses should be in certain places downtown in order to make the town center viable and vibrant. It’s another thing to find the right people to make it happen, to invest the time and money it takes to create new and maintain the ongoing necessary businesses and services that keep a community whole.

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