November 17th, 2008
By JOHN FLOWERS
MIDDLEBURY — Vermont Soapworks officials hope to move the growing business from its current Exchange Street headquarters to a building on Industrial Avenue that will double the company’s production space and allow it to potentially double its workforce during the next two years.
Vermont Soapworks President Larry Plesent launched the manufacturing company in 1992 in a 1,700-square-foot farmhouse in Brandon. A steady increase in business prompted Plesent to look for larger accommodations, which he found in 1996 in the Neri business incubator building at 616 Exchange St. Vermont Soapworks initially occupied around 2,500 square feet in the 31,000-square-foot structure, but has gobbled up additional space during recent years as production demands have grown. The company now occupies 10,000 square feet of production space and 1,000 square feet of retail space in the Neri building.
But once again, Vermont Soapworks finds itself at an enviable crossroads. Now producing hundreds of soap-related products that it markets to thousands of firms, stores and lodgers in 43 countries, the company has been growing at a rate of 25 percent per year. It again needs more room.
“Now we have totally outgrown our space here,” Plesent said, watching some of his 26 workers trim bars from large soap blocks, pack products into huge boxes and tend to the small store that offers locals and tourists a sample of Vermont Soapworks’ wares.
By ANDY KIRKALDY
VERGENNES — The latest director of the Northlands Job Corps center in Vergennes plans to improve students’ experience and academic achievement at the MacDonough Drive campus through better discipline, and to tackle a long-standing issue for the federal job-training program: recruiting more Vermonters.
After taking over this past summer, Tony Staynings, 55, first had to deal with a hospital stay for health problems, and now he is back on track in his mission of improving the center for his employer, the Kentucky firm Rescare Corp.
Staynings said his top focuses are improving employment prospects and job skills for the center’s roughly 230 economically disadvantaged students from around New England.
The son of a British Army sergeant major, Staynings is an accomplished long-distance runner who competed in two Olympics and described himself as “like a drill instructor with a sense of humor.”
“I like to have fun. I want the students to have fun,” he said. “I want the kids to know that education should be and can be a fun experience for them. But I also make it very clear there are rules. You have to be responsible and accountable for what you do.”
As well as longstanding prohibitions on drugs, alcohol and violent behavior, rules now include requiring passes to wander the campus during daytime classroom hours and banning “public displays of affection,” which Staynings said are not acceptable in the workplace, and therefore not at Northlands.
“We’re training these folks to be ready for the workplace, (teaching) what we call employability skills, social skills,” he said.
By JOHN FLOWERS
RIPTON — Folks who live near a river will tell you there’s something comforting about listening to the gentle gurgle of water as it meanders down a country mountain.
But folks like Carol McKnight also know that a meandering river can suddenly hop its banks and turn into an angry, destructive freight train. After having seen the Middlebury River do just that on Aug. 6 and shear more than 10 feet from the backyard of her Ripton village property in the process, McKnight doesn’t sleep as soundly during a rainstorm.
“I’m feeling extremely anxious,” McKnight said on Tuesday, as she walked around the exterior of her beautiful home in the heart of the Ripton village. The home was surrounded by a gushing moat only three months ago during a devastating flood from which some areas of Addison County are still recovering.
“I’m very concerned,” she said.
McKnight and her neighbors immediately downstream, Rick and Molly Hawley, are now seeking guidance and help in shoring up the river banks along their shrinking property to ensure their homes don’t wind up cascading down to East Middlebury on some future rain-soaked day.
And McKnight and the Hawleys stressed that it is in the town of Ripton’s best interest to see the banks reinforced and the Middlebury River redirected into the channels it has abandoned over time at the whim of Mother Nature. Town officials acknowledged mounting evidence that the next cataclysmic flooding event could result in the river not only taking out the McKnight and Hawley properties, but gushing over Route 125 and into the three municipal properties that define Ripton Village: the town office building, the community house and the 1864 Ripton United Methodist Church.
By KATHRYN FLAGG
SUDBURY AND WHITING — Plans for a tri-town school merger in Leicester, Whiting and Sudbury were derailed Monday, after voters in Sudbury defeated a measure 54-44 that would have allocated $7,000 to a planning fund for the potential community school.
Of the three towns, only Sudbury voted against the merger and planning funding — and in fact, Whiting and Leicester voted overwhelmingly in favor of moving forward with the community school.
“The message was quite clear that due to the economic conditions, this was not a time to even spend $7,000 to study the proposal of a joint school merger,” said Cathy Smid, a Sudbury resident and volunteer on the committee investigating the merger.
Whiting voters approved $6,000 for the planning effort Monday night 41-8, and last week voters in Leicester unanimously approved a $12,000 contribution to the fund.
Monday’s nearly two-hour meeting at the Sudbury Town Meeting House, on the other hand, was marked by heated debate.
“There were many people who came to the meeting who had already made up their minds,” said Sudbury school board Chair Stephen Roberts.
Roberts said that he tried to make clear at Monday’s meeting that this month’s vote would not definitively determine whether or not the three towns would build the proposed community school. Monday’s votes were the first in a potential three-vote process. Had all three towns agree to move forward with the merger, residents would have participated in a governance vote this winter to establish a joint school district.
Finally, all three towns would have been asked to approve large bond votes for the new school in a year’s time.
By JOHN FLOWERS
MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury resident Robin Scheu has responded to many challenges in her career as a bank executive, school board director and leader of various nonprofits.
All of her experience will come in handy as she gets ready to tackle her latest challenge — jumpstarting the local industrial/manufacturing economy as the new executive director of the Addison County Economic Development Corp.
The ACEDC board recently picked Scheu to succeed the organization’s most recent executive director, Jamie Stewart, who left earlier this fall to take a similar job in Rutland.
Scheu is the past manager of the Addison County Solid Waste Management District, former interim director of the Middlebury Area Land Trust and the former chairwoman of the Mary Hogan Elementary School board. Prior to those jobs, she spent 16 years as a banker, with Bank of Boston and then at Bank of Vermont (now Keybank), running a commercial lending division, and retail divisions. She most recently ran her own consulting business.
“I think I have a broad range of experience that I can bring to bear on the job,” Scheu said.
She knows it won’t be an easy job. Addison County’s industrial/manufacturing economy has sustained some tough body blows during the past few years. Standard Register closed, and the up-and-coming business (Connor Homes) that has taken its place on Route 7 South has had to substantially trim its workforce in recent months in light of the sagging economy.
Specialty Filaments also closed, though it reopened under new ownership as Monahan Filaments. Ancient Graffiti and CPC of Vermont are other Middlebury enterprises that have closed their doors during the past year. And personal care products manufacturer Autumn Harp last week announced it was moving 160 jobs from Bristol to its plant in Essex.
By JOHN FLOWERS
MIDDLEBURY — The Ripton United Methodist Church (RUMC) is a quiet place these days, but its worship hall still echoes with the roar of fiery sermons, the gentle sobs of mourners and the euphoric cheers of wedding parties.
The venerable wooden building off Route 125 in Ripton village has seen its share of history. The tiny Confederate submarine Hunley torpedoed the USS Housatonic during the Civil War as workers were painstakingly completing work on the Ripton church in early 1864. The International Red Cross was founded during that same year in Geneva, Switzerland.
Unfortunately, the passage of time has also left its mark on the church, in the form of a shifting foundation, a leaky roof and porous windows. The last substantial repairs to the building were spearheaded more than a half-century ago by none other than poet laureate Robert Frost.
“In the meantime, the interior and exterior of the church have been painted once; it has not had a great deal of care,” said Charles Billings, one of six generations of his family who have attended services at the church throughout the years.
He knows his ancestors would be pleased to see the church building preserved. His great-aunt, the late Eunice Billings, was a parishioner. Eunice Billings rented a room to Robert Frost at a time when Middlebury College’s Bread Loaf campus could not accommodate him. When Eunice’s husband, Homer Noble, died, she sold that home to Frost. It was in Eunice Billings Noble’s name that Frost set up a fund to make repairs to the church back in the 1950s.
By ANDY KIRKALDY
CORNWALL — In 28 years leading the Middlebury College football program, retired Panther head coach Mickey Heinecken’s teams won 126 games.
But none of those victories may have meant as much to the 69-year-old Cornwall resident as did Democratic President-elect Barack Obama’s surge to victory on Election Day.
Heinecken spent a month living in his camper in Berlin, N.H., as a volunteer for the Obama campaign, knocking on doors and seeking votes on Nov. 4.
Heinecken had never volunteered for a campaign before, but had been impressed with Obama at the 2004 Democratic National Convention and decided to support him during the primary season.
“There’s such a sense of optimism that’s been missing in the country,” Heinecken said, back in Addison County late last week. “All of those things aren’t going to happen, but the tone that he set is so different than that we’ve lived with the last eight years that I became a believer.
“I’m retired, and my life revolves around stuff that isn’t important at all, and there was really no reason not to,” Heinecken continued. “And I had a neighbor (Bill Mandigo, the Middlebury College women’s hockey coach and his former football assistant) that said to me a while back that if you feel it’s so important, get off your fanny and do something … And he was right.”
Heinecken said he had also seen “ill will” toward America when traveling abroad with his wife, Carol.
“People were always nice to us, and I think they liked Americans, but ... after 9-11 people would have given us the shirt off their backs they had such empathy for us, and now to be seen in such an ill light was so frustrating,” he said.
By POOJA SHAHANI
SHOREHAM — Rita Davis, 73-year-old cousin of deceased Army sergeant Richard Desautels, will always remember her cousin as a lively and vibrant young boy.
“He was full of energy,” recalled Davis, who was only 14 years old when Desautels left their native Shoreham for a tour in the U.S. Army in the Korean War. “His family had this small tractor and he’d come down the hill. He would push the clutch in and come tearing down that hill with the dog right behind him. I remember my stepfather having a royal fit.
“He was just being a boy. That was Richard.”
Desautels enlisted as a soldier in the Army when he was 17 years old. In late December 1951, the family found out that Desautels had been taken as a prisoner of war to China. The family hung their hopes on the possibility that Richard would be returned in a prisoner-of-war exchange.
“I can remember his parents were coming to the house because they were going to announce the names on television of the POWs coming to be exchanged. His name was on there. Then when they exchanged them, he didn’t come back,” Davis remembered.
For decades, the Desautels family waited for some information about their missing son. Then, in May 2003, Desautels’ elder brother, Rolland, received a summary from the Pentagon of what a Chinese army official had related about the case. The report acknowledged that Desautels had been a prisoner of war in China and it said he had become mentally ill on April 22, 1953, and died a few days later.
Rolland Desautels sent this report to a POW/MIA advocacy group The National Alliance of Families for further investigation. However, this information was kept a secret from the general public because the Desautels did not believe the authenticity of the report from the Chinese officials.