Darn Tough Vermont: America’s Turnaround Story

Darn Tough The Boston GlobeNote:  This is Part 1 in a 3-Part series, “Darn Tough Vermont:  Success can be a Double-Edged Sword.”

  • Part 1:  America’s Turnaround Story
  • Part 2: Sophistication and Commitment 
  • Part 3:  A Comfort Colors Future?

On April 21st the Boston Globe featured Darn Tough Vermont, reporting on the sock company’s growth and its transition from a private label manufacturer into a high-value outdoor clothing brand.

It’s a story with a proud past, present success — and a future everyone in Northfield should think about.

Ric Cabot’s turnaround story is rare among US manufacturers.   Over the last few decades, the impacts from overseas outsourcing have made many traditional manufacturers look deep inside their hearts and their pockets to decide whether to close up shop or join the race to the bottom in the quest for cheap global labor.  Few companies have taken the huge leap of faith Cabot made to transform their entire business model.

The 1980s and 1990s weren’t kind to the US textile industry.  95% of all looms in the Carolinas and Georgia were shuttered as globalization shook the foundations of America’s manufacturing economy.  Malden Mills in Lowell Massachusetts, a family-owned business as dedicated to its employees as Northfield’s Cabot Hosiery — came back from a devasting fire in 1995, but could not escape bankruptcy in 2001.

darn-tough-anvil2But Ric Cabot is as darn tough as the socks he manufactures.  Cabot Hosiery was on the frontlines of the global economy, but instead of folding or outsourcing, Cabot changed the name and direction of his company.  Cabot Hosiery became Darn Tough Vermont.  Traditional clients like The Gap and Abercrombie & Fitch were no longer the focus.  Darn Tough’s new customers would be people who stand on their feet, who appreciate a sock for its quality instead of its price.  Darn Tough would now make one of the best pair of socks in the premier sports market, and would give a promise no other company dared to reproduce — a lifetime guarantee.

This says quite a lot, particularly when you sign your name to every pair of sock you sell.

“If you can wear these socks out, we’ll replace them.  Free of charge.  No questions asked.  For life.  When you’re really serious about something you make it yourself.”  – Ric Cabot

Unlike many over-wrought artisanal crafted products, Ric Cabot’s guarantee is no joke.  The Darn Tough promise has been put to the test and the warranty is sound.  Liz Thomas, a prominent long distance hiker, wore the same pair every day, testing the limits of this promise.  After much sock-wrecking abuse, she would return her Merino woolies to her local outdoor gear shop.  She would attend outdoor events like Pacific Crest Trail Days, trading in worn socks for new at the Darn Tough tent.  She even popped a pair of Darn Tough socks in an envelope and mailed them back from whence they were made:  364 Whetstone Drive in Northfield.  Every time, Ric Cabot fulfilled his promise.

How to Turn Holey Socks into New Socks aka the Darn Tough Warranty Works   Liz Thomas  Long Distance Adventure Hiking

And this promise makes Liz Thomas a loyal customer and excellent word-of-mouth champion for Darn Tough Vermont.

Whenever a hiker asks we what type of socks to wear on a long distance trail, I always steer them to Vermont Darn Tough socks. First, I believe that the tightly knit weaving keeps out trail grime and leads to a better fit—which helps prevent blisters. Second, I really like that they are made in the US. Lastly (and perhaps the most important for long distance hiker) there is an unconditional LIFETIME GUARANTEE.

Now that’s a guarantee I think about every time one of my el-cheapo Walmart socks busts a hole in the ankle seam after 6 or 8 weeks of regular wear.

Next up,  Part 2: Sophistication and Commitment 

 

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People Around Town: Christine Barnes, Sally Davidson

Have you seen someone go the extra mile for our community in one way or another?  Sure you have, probably at least once a week or so.  Maybe you’ve done it yourself.

So how about we take a moment and say, “Hey, good job!”

Take a picture and send a note about the person who should be recognized.  We’ll post it on NatesUpdates under the title, “People Around Town.”  It’s time for the unsung heroes to have their day.

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So, what’s the inspiration for this type of post?  Well, this morning we caught Master Gardener Christine Barnes tending perennials at the crosswalk next to the Common Cafe — and instead of driving by, we thought it would be great to take a picture and sing a praise or two.

“There’s a small group of people who have been trying to get a gardening club together but there hasn’t been much Christine Barnes original.jpginvolvement yet,” Christine said.  “Sally Davidson was down here yesterday.  We just want the Common to look good.”

Sally is an active member of the Recreation Committee and Christine is a member of the Friends of the Winooski and Northfield Conservation Committee.  However, it appears they are taking up the cause of downtown beautification on their own, not as an official duty.  Kudos to Christine and Sally for their work downtown!  Same goes for Vincent O’Neill and Christine Motyka and anyone we may have missed who prepare the beautiful downtown for summer.  Let’s think of them whenever we’re driving by or walking through the Common.  : )

And don’t forget, if you see someone doing a great job, send a picture and a note so we can celebrate People Around Town for everyone to read about and see!

How Am I Doing?

NatesUpates.com has been live for 6 weeks. We’ve attracted 4,250 visitors and almost 6,000 views with only 10 articles under our belt.  Apparently there’s plenty of demand for an alternative source of local information and commentary.

But success doesn’t come without controversy.  Writing about local issues can be tricky business. So I’d like to learn more about your thoughts.  How can I make NatesUpdates better?  To do this, I need two things from you.

First, an up-or-down vote. Thumbs Up or Thumbs Down?  Second, your feedback (optional but important).

Up Or Down Vote

Without your feedback, I’m just one person talking in a vacuum.  To those who have already taken the time to leave a comment or send an email — Thank you very much!

Please give 30 seconds to click Thumbs Up! or Thumbs Down! and a sentence or two to share a little more.

If I get less than 100 responses, I’ll know this survey is a complete failure.  So let me prod you one more time — it’s as simple as a private Thumbs Up or Thumbs Down.

With gratitude for everyone who reads NatesUpdates.com,

Nate Freeman

Northfield’s “Red-Headed” Step-Child?

[Update:  Since posting this article I’ve learned that the phrase “red-headed step-child” is an ethnic slur against Irish immigrants dating from the 1830s.  My apology to anyone offended.]

April 10, 2016

At the first NCDN meeting back in December, someone suggested the need to do more for economic development  beyond Depot Square and the downtown area, wondering aloud if Northfield Falls is being treated like the town’s red-headed step-child.

It’s easy to imagine why Northfield Falls residents and business owners may feel left out. Sure, they receive some of the same basic services as those on Depot Square and the University area.  But it sometimes seems as if a disproportionate amount of infrastructure and development dollars go toward upgrading Depot Square at the expense of other neighborhood locations.

So why is this happening?

Village Center Map
Click pic to Zoom Out

Well, we can chalk it up to good news.  And it’s the kind of good news that gives Northfield potential to increase its work beyond its tiny downtown vale.

Northfield participates in Vermont’s Village Center Designation program, putting Depot Square higher on the State’s priority list for grants, tax credits and a whole lot of state & federal resources.

Northfield’s downtown received Village Center designation in May 2010 and won renewal in 2015.

This is good news, and it was achieved by hard work on the part of former Zoning Administrator Michele Braun, the folks on the Planning Commission & Zoning Board, and of course the Town Managers who served throughout the application, designation, and renewal periods.  Achieving and maintaining Designated status is a huge step toward revitalization.  Everyone who played a role in this effort deserves a long applause.

But you’re probably still wondering, how is this good news for  Northfield Falls?

It’s possible to do the same for the Falls as what’s been done for the downtown.  And more.

Welcome Sign
Draft Design for Go!Northfield Welcome Sign

At a recent NCDN Weekly Workgroup meeting, the core group met with Richard Amore, Planning Coordinator for the Village Centers program at the Department of Housing & Community Development. Amore said not only is it possible for a single town to have multiple Designated Village Centers, several towns have two, some have three and one has four such districts.  In fact, over twenty Vermont towns have more than one Designated Village Center.  (To see the entire list, download the Excel file:  Vermont Designated Village Centers.)

Northfield could apply for Designated Village Center status for the Falls, which would provide the same grant and tax credit opportunities currently available in the downtown.  Additionally, the Town could apply for the Neighborhood Development  Areas program,  which encourages developers to provide new housing within a one-quarter mile radius around each Village Center.  Northfield Falls doesn’t need to be left behind as the narrowly defined Depot Square area Village Center begins to thrive.  Falls residents and business owners who may feel like their end of town is Northfield’s red-headed step-child may consider approaching the Town Manager to inquire about the application process.

Mill St   Google Maps
Mill Street, Northfield Falls

The likely response may be that it will be better to wait until we have a new Zoning Administrator.  It takes a lot of work to put together the paperwork, meet with the appropriate people, etc, etc, etc.  We need a ZA to lead this kind of project.  But it also requires public input and commitment.  This is where members of the NCDN (outside of the Weekly Workgroup) can play a positive role, if and when the decision to apply comes forward.

The Falls is an essential part of our community.  It features the Town’s major non-event 1200px-NorthfieldFallsBridgetourist attraction — four covered bridges — and roughly 1/4 of Northfield households.  It’s the location of two local restaurants, two baseball fields, and four volleyball courts.

NSt Jacobs Russian Orthodox churchorthfield Falls is also the home of the St. Jacob  of Alaska Mission, serving all of Central and Northern Vermont.  This is  one of only two Russian Orthodox churches in Vermont, adding to Northfield’s developing diversity in non-Western religions.  (The Trijang Buddhist Institute in Little Northfield is the North American Seat of His Holiness Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche.)

Defining neighborhood districts also creates new branding opportunities.  For example, a segment of Northfield Falls may be branded as the Bridge District.  It makes more sense than “the Falls” because of the iconic covered bridges along Cox Brook Road.  There may be two sets of waterfalls, but one is dammed and inaccessible, and the other doesn’t have a nearby parking area.  Tourists come for the covered bridges.  It would make sense to brand the district for its primary attraction.

And why limit revitalization opportunities to the Downton and, possibly, the Falls?   We can identify several distinct locations which may be optimal for development or revitalization.  Northfield Districts 3

For examples, the hypothetical Water Street & North Main districts could be prime for  housing revitalization.  The field along the west side of Route 12 South in the hypothetical 12 and 12A district (bottom right, in dark blue) is an excellent location for mixed use development.   And the hypothetical Highland and South Main Districts are areas where we can focus on historic preservation.

(Click here to see these hypothetical districts on a special Google Maps page I put together.)

Obviously, we don’t need twelve Village Centers as outlined in the Google map pictured here.  But the exercise of defining discrete areas helps us identify different opportunities.

The timing is perfect for this kind of forward thinking.  At the March 22nd Selectboard meeting, the board approved the formation of a Development Review Board model of local planning. Without going into details, the bottom line is that the Planning Commission will focus exclusively on planning and policy.  This means the members will have more time to think about Northfield’s long-term future. Who knows, maybe this might include the creation of a Northfield Falls “Bridge District” Village Center.

Some residents and business owners who don’t live or operate in the Falls may wonder, “What’s in it for me?” if we create a second Village Center.  I suppose the first thought that comes to mind is:  “It’s not about me.  It’s about us.”  (Yea, yea, it’s a political soundbite, but the sentiment is appropriate for community development.)   This is about developing new opportunities for Northfield as a whole, encouraging more people to visit and possibly reside in any Northfield neighborhood.

One business has already demonstrated it can increase Northfield’s customer base from beyond our borders.  Here’s one of many Falls General Store reviews from distant lands posted on TripAdvisor.com:Falls General Store  TripAdvisor

239_storefront1-960x600

One of the principles of  economic development in a good planning process is to integrate government, businesses, and the community to work together toward the common good.  In Northfield, this means looking beyond the tight boundaries of the downtown Common.  Let’s look to the Falls as an opportunity waiting to happen.  And let’s roll up our sleeves to get this work started.

 

 

 

DVR it! 056VT on Channel 7 hosts NCDN!

056VTJust a quick note to announce the date and time for the new Channel 7 show, 056VT, hosted by Andrea Melville.  On Monday evening Andrea hosted the live show to discuss the Northfield Community Development Network.  George Goodrich and the crew at Trans-Video brought in a bunch of equipment to record the show and run it again later this week.  If you’re a Trans-Video subsciber, watch for Andrea every Monday night at 7pm.

This week’s show featuring NCDN will air on Thurday morning.  You may be busy, so set your DVR to record Channel 7, April 7th at 10 am!

The details:

  • What:  056VT hosted by Andrea Melville
  • Date:  This Thursday,  April 7th.
  • Time:  10am
  • Place:  Channel 7

If you don’t have a DVR or dont’ subscribe to Trans-Video, you canclick on the Nate’s Updates SoundCloud audio link below.  But I promise you the video is much better, so set your DVR fo Channel 7.  When?  Thursday morning at 10am!

Northfield’s Lost Decade-and-a-Half

Northfield was mostly at the bottom of the wave from 2000-2015. Moving forward, here’s the good news: there’s always a cresting wave on the horizon.

Waves of participation and positive growth come and go in every community.   As I’ve met with several long-term leaders in the community to discuss economic & community development over the last few months, there’s been a common warning that goes something like this:

“Our organization thrived for many years, but after a while, members became less active.  Years would pass, and then we’d see a new group of people who would bring a new level of energy to our work.”

In my observation, Northfield was mostly at the bottom of the wave from 2000-2015.  I’ll give some specific examples below but before that, here’s the general context:  Different organizations have waxed and waned over this decade and a half, and there have been some success stories along the way.  But there were enough failures to suggest an overall decline.

Moving forward, here’s the good news:  there’s always a cresting wave on the horizon.  Northfield has always been a town screaming with potential.  When a critical mass of residents and voters get behind specific projects, we’ve seen amazing upswings and huge positive outcomes.

Some examples:  In the late 1990s a group of parents and supporters raised millions  of dollars for new construction and the revitalization of outdated facilities.  Many of these projects have become sustainable gems of our community, including the following:

  • A new school with expanded facilities for all students K-12.  A new, privately-funded hardwood floating-floor system basketball court.  An enviable,  state of the art theater and auditorium.
  • A revitalized Municipal Park, with a new Olympic-sized swimming pool, a new playground and a rebuilt sports field.
  • An expanded Brown Public Library with a new Community Room.
  • A completely restored building to house the Northfield Historical Society collections.

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Credits:  Leslie Striebe, NMHS, Go!Northfield, Nate Freeman

The American economy was prosperous, our youth population was growing and an indomitable spirit of public service in Northfield was at a peak.  The wave of public participation was at a crest.

Some of the good work continued into the lost decade and a half.   The Gray Building Coalition was formed in 2002, and by April 2004 had raised $789,540 toward its $1.5 million Capital Campaign to restore the iconic building overlooking Northfield’s downtown.

Despite the incredible success of the Gray Building Coalition, Northfield was on its way to decline at the beginning of the new millennium.   Local attitudes began to change.  From 2000 to 2005, Northfield struggled to pass the school budget.  Frankly, this was an amazingly rapid turn of events.  How could a school with such huge new investments become the target of negative attitudes so quickly?  The wave crashed so hard, in 2005 it took 5 votes to finally pass a budget in September.  The school had to borrow money to fund operations from July 1st into the beginning of the fall semester.

In the mid-2000s, there was also a movement to further divide the Town and Village, which were already separate entities, as the two governing agencies — the Selectboard and the Village Trustees — began a very contentious struggle against each other.  The negative attitudes in local government culminated in 2011 when the Selectobard fired the Town Manager while the Village Trustees retained her services.  There was an utter dysfunction in local government which created a negative reputation for Northfield throughout the entire state of municipal professionals.  Heated debates over town highway taxes, the Northfield Electric Department and a host of other non-issues wasted a lot of energy which could have been put to more productive work.  This chapter didn’t come to a close until July 2014 when the two boards became one under a Town-Village merger.

And in 2015, things really went south.  Five businesses including Comfort Colors closed up or left town.  A home was destroyed by arson with death resulting.  Some idiot decided to blow off his hand with a pipe bomb.  And Northfield experienced yet another local governemnt controversy, drawing out dozens of residents in protest against the Selectboard for moving to fire Chief Jim Dziobek.

What the heck happened?

The entire period wasn’t wasted, of course.  From 2006 onward, Northfield’s schools began to improve and at this time has been awarded Top 10 in Vermont status and a Silver ranking by US News and World Report.  Norwich University grew substantially, expanding new dorm facilities and developing its campus at a rapid rate.

But there was a lasting and bitter negative tone that forced our community to work on conflict resolution vs. community development.  This attitude played out in local government and frustrated even the most dedicated residents, employees, and volunteers.  The greatest local government success wasn’t really even a success if we think about  outcomes.  The grand idea of a “One Northfield” merger of Village and Town  was simply a testament to how terrible things had gotten.

But if we look back to the late 1990s, we can remind ourselves how much this town can accomplish when it puts its mind to it.  Our lost decade-and-a-half has given us time to learn how to *not* do things.  

And we should also take a moment to consider whether or not the way things were done to achieve success 20 years ago are models we should use today.  By this I mean to say, we may need to think about community and economic development as intertwined activities.  When I think about the waves of participation, public service and eventual decline, I notice two trends:

  • When waves of participation are on the rise, Northfield invests in non-profit properties as the primary method for community development.  (Like many communities, we have a love for building-related projects.)
  • When waves of participation decline, Northfield focuses its attention to property taxes and targets the budgets which sustain community development projects we so recently championed.

What does this tell us?  Well, most of all, it suggests we’ll need to think about increasing our tax base as a community development initiative as the next wave of participation and growth begins to rise.  We need to balance private sector and public sector interests to lessen swift, dramatic and ironic changes in local attitudes when a handful of hard-working volunteers get tired and move on to other things.

We’ll take a look at this irony a bit more in a “Part 2” of this topic since today’s post is getting a bit long.  For the time being, here are the main points for our follow-up:

  1.  When things are good, community development doesn’t fully consider the expansion of our tax base and economic development.
  2. When things are bad, we cut budgets in ways that diminish community development and further contracts our capacity for economic development.

The easiest way to make college affordable

The short story:  If you want to make college more affordable for your family, attend the College Information meeting in the Middle/High School cafeteria Monday night (April 4th) at 6:30 pm.  There will be admissions counselors from six Vermont colleges.  Click here for details.

Here’s *why* you should click the link to learn more:

If you you have children in the 9th to 12th grades, you’re probably thinking what I’m thinking.  My girls are now 14 and 15, which means I’m beginning to wonder how I’m going to get them through college without becoming  burdened with debt for the rest of my life — or theirs.

As you probably know, college is expensive.  In Vermont, tuition runs from $10,000 to over $50,000, even for in-state students.  So what if you could save one year’s tution?  What if your high school student could earn one year’s worth of credit, then take only 3 years’ to earn a 4-year degree?  Who wouldn’t want to save $10 to $50K?

The easiest way to make college affordable is to let students earn college credits while still in high school.  This is possible due to the Flexible Pathways program passed in 2013 and implemented in the 2014/15 school year.

Flexible PathwaysThere are four components to the Flexible Pathways program:  Dual Enrollment; Early College; Personalized Learning Plans (PLP) and; Work-Based Learning.

The Dual Enrollment opportunity allows Juniors and Seniors to take up to two  college courses prior to graduation.  Through the Early College program. high school Seniors may take a full year of college-level courses.  These courses come at no cost to the students or families.  Since funding is provided by the state, the local school budget isn’t affected, either.

If your kids are like mine, you may have heard your student grumbling about their Personalized Learning Plans. plp-process-cycleVermont requires every student, grades 7 to 12, to answer such questions as, “What are my goals for life after high school?  What do I need to do to achieve my goas?  How do I know that I’m meeting steps to help me achieve my goals?”  Creating a PLP isn’t easy because, after all, how many teenagers think about their life’s grand purpose without serious prodding?

On the other hand, PLPs are extemely important because the planning process is essential to a lifetime of success.  And frankly, there are a lot of college students who might benefit from mandatory career planning.  I can tell you from first-hand experience, as a 20 year-old English Literature student at UVM, I had no idea how I was going to apply my love for, um, poetry, to a real-world career.  The point I’m trying to make here is simple:  if you want to make college more affordable, ask your student’s guidance counselor (Michelle Acaftuck for high school and  Jerry Cassels for middle school) how you can participate in writing her/his PLP.

The fourth component to Flexible Pathways is Work-Based Learning.  This is best described at the link, but for convenience I’ll quote part of the description here.

Work-based learning experiences are activities that involve actual work experience or that connect classroom learning to employment and careers. These opportunities particularly help students make the connection between academic principles and real world applications. For many, understanding ‘Why do I need to know this?’ provides motivation for more learning.

In addition to being an essential component of good teaching and learning, work-based learning is also critical to developing Vermont’s future workforce.

There are caps and limitations to the Flexible Pathways program, but if you’re child is planning on college you should attend the meeting Monday night  at 6:30pm to learn more about this and other opportunities which can lessen the cost burden of college.

College Informational Panel

April 4th @ 6:30PM in the Middle/High School Cafeteria.  Parents and students in Grades 9 – 11 are invited to attend.

There will be a panel discussion with admission counselors from the following colleges:

  • University of Vermont
  • Saint Michael’s College
  • Vermont Technical College
  • Lyndon State College
  • Community College of Vermont
  • Norwich University and VSAC.

Topics will include:

  • Dual enrollment,
  • Applying to College,
  • Writing the college essay,
  • SAT/ACT test options,
  • Choosing a College & Major,
  • Financial Aid and Scholarships.

This is an excellent opportunity to speak with experts in the field and gain valuable current information to help guide your student for the future.  We look forward to seeing you there.  For more information or specific questions contact Michelle Aftuck, School Counselor at aftuckm@wssu.org

Seriosly, attend the meeting next Monday, April 4th at 6:30 pm, in the cafeteria.  Whether she likes it or not, my 9th grader will be there.

photo-girl-laughing
Someone’s daughter working on PLP.