The Great Recession cut short more than just careers and lives. It ended important conversations about how communities should develop, according to Lisa Maxwell, the new director of the Montpelier Development Corporation.
“How do you facilitate growth in such a way as to preserve and protect the built environment that people are drawn to and want to preserve and protect?” she asks, “And how do you do that in such a way to enhance and not detract from a community?”
As director of the Montpelier Development Corporation, she’ll be pursuing an answer—or many answers—to that question in order to further the organization’s mission of ensuring “a prosperous future for those who live, learn, and work in the city,” and implementing and overseeing the Economic Development Strategic Plan.
Maxwell brings to the position plenty of relevant experience. A native of Westwood, Massachusetts, and a graduate of UMass-Amherst, Maxwell spent much of her adult life on the southeast coast of Florida. Seven of those years were as director of redevelopment for Lennar Homes, a home construction and real estate company, and five were as director of development of the West Palm Beach Housing Authority, where she was responsible for oversight and management of large scale development and construction projects.
Prominent among the many factors that catapulted her from the sea and sand to the ice and snow is Vermont itself. “This community, to me, represented a lot of things that were in line with my politics and thinking. I really am impressed with the community and the commitment of the people. You just want to hug this community.”
That community hug will hopefully provide more stability to the director’s position, which has seen a new face every year since it was launched in 2017. Such rapid and regular change, however, appears natural to Maxwell. “It’s not uncommon when you are trying to launch a new initiative to have some turnover in the initial phases. I hope to stabilize that.” Plus, she adds, “I’m moving here lock, stock, and barrel, so I have every intention of staying for the long term.”
The board of directors expresses every confidence she can, having selected Maxwell from nine interviewed candidates and more than 50 applications from across the country. “Lisa strikes the perfect balance between being both extraordinarily capable and down-to-earth,” said William Kaplan, board chairman. “Her excellent track record coupled with her ability to understand the multifaceted topic of economic development from all perspectives in our community makes her an ideal for this position.”
Maxwell’s move to Vermont may also reflect the movement she believes to be a key element of her view of community development. “If you don’t have some sort of forward movement, then you are in decline,” she says, but it’s the definition of that movement that fascinates her. “This is the critical question that I grapple with. How much growth is truly balanced growth? How much growth benefits a community and where is that divide?”
These are also questions that have long bedeviled Vermont—Montpelier included—where development of any kind is often steadfastly contested if not downright condemned, as testified in an August commentary in VTDigger entitled “Montpelier’s Taylor Street Mistake” by Mark Adair. “Maybe today’s young municipal leaders will wake up to their wider responsibility to reverse growth,” he writes. “Maybe they’ll reverse course and honor their planetary duty to shrink, not grow Montpelier.”
For the time being, Maxwell generally defers commenting on the specifics of local issues until she’s had more time to settle into the position and connect with the community. However, she does draw lessons on the importance of inclusion from past experiences. “You have to bring people into the process. The minute people feel they are not heard and part of it, you start to get divisiveness. I’ve found that when you really bake those into an initiative or project, it makes it much better. That’s my approach.”
As for achieving this—and economic development generally—Maxwell sees the pooling of resources as a key. “What I have seen is when nonprofits come together in a coalition and share resources. Because there is a lot of overlap and what I call waste, because they are trying to do the same thing for the same people as opposed to sitting back and saying ‘here’s our pot of resources. How do we best serve the needs of these individuals?’ When there’s sharing, it’s been very effective.”
She sees the same potential in Montpelier. “There are a number of institutions and organizations here that want to do wonderful things, but I don’t see a lot of cross-fertilization, and that’s something I’d like to bring to the table—the ability to identify resources and pull people together in partnership.”
But step one in her new role, she emphasizes, is to listen to community businesses and residents. “I don’t want to bring a cookie-cutter approach. My plan is to communicate with them and understand what their needs are and how we can help them to be more profitable.”
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