Johnson select board talks broadband, Jenna’s Promise

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At the Feb. 3 Johnson select board meeting, two main issues took most of the night’s time.
The first half-hour of the night was a presentation and question-and-answer period for Jenna’s Promise, a Johnson-based non-profit whose mission is to “create a network of support that will help people suffering from addiction,” according to their website.

Jenna’s Promise was started in memory of Jenna Tatro, who died from a drug overdose in Feb. of 2019. Her parents, Dawn and Greg, started the organization with the hope that they could help other Vermonters with addiction.

Barry Cohen and Amy Tatro, two supporters of Jenna’s Promise, presented their proposal to the board in front of the select board and a room of 25 people.

The board members in attendance were Nat Kinney, Eric Osgood, Douglas Molde, and Michael Dunham. Also at the table were town and village clerk Rosemary Audibert and Brian Story, town administrator. Kyle Nuse was not present.

Jenna’s Promise was seeking support from the board to help with an application for a $500,000 block grant from the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD,) which they will use to restore and renovate the Barrows House on Main Street in Johnson, turning it into a coffeehouse downstairs and sober living upstairs. The residents upstairs will pay rent and work in the restaurant downstairs, a stage-two process for those struggling with addiction.

The Barrows House is the former site of the Dream Cafe and Lou Lou’s Coffee. Jenna’s Promise purchased the building last year.

When the application is submitted on Feb 11, Tatro estimates that the project will begin after a couple of months of contractor-searching, assuming they are awarded the grant. Afterwards, the renovation is estimated to take about 8 months.

“We’re hoping to be up and running by the spring of next year,” Tatro said.

“We’re inventing the wheel here, a little bit,” she said, after an audience member asked about the precedent for this kind of facility. The housing will have six bedrooms and will hold six to eight residents, all of whom will be female Vermonters.

“What if there aren’t enough Vermonters to fill beds?” someone asked. “That’d be a good problem to have,” replied Barry. “Eight may not be enough.”

“It’s a start,” added Tatro.

Since the building is privately maintained by the LLC that is associated with Jenna’s Promise, the renovated space’s property taxes will most likely increase.

“Hopefully we’ll create a community that finds strength in each other and then stay within the community to give back, because Johnson gave them something, and now they want to do something for Johnson,” Tatro said.

Many of those in the room spoke in favor of Jenna’s Promise starting their project. Johnson resident Shayne Spence, who has been working with the organization to prepare for their Feb. 22 Polar Splash, said, “I am someone who’s in recovery. I have spoken to a lot of friends and peers who are in recovery. I know that the two biggest hurdles in front of people in recovery are housing and employment, and they [Jenna’s Promise] are working on hitting both of those rolls, knocking them out of the way for a group of people that are very vulnerable and need all the help that they can get. And I think that that’s something that we should absolutely be in support of.”

The board unanimously voted in favor of supporting Jenna’s Promise. Brian Story, town administrator, will be assisting in the application, since HUD grants require support from their municipalities. He said he planned to spend about 30 hours on the project. He will check in with Jenna’s Promise to make sure they’re hitting benchmarks once they do receive the grant.

The plans for the building along with copies of the application are available at the Municipal Offices in Johnson from 7:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.

Afterwards, Lea Kilvádyová, regional planner for the Lamoille County Planning Committee, gave a presentation on broadband access through Johnson. At present, several towns in Vermont have comprehensive broadband, including Fletcher and Craftsbury.

Johnson has a broadband committee, but it appears that the committee has been overwhelmed by the increasingly complicated issue of bringing the internet to an entire community. Kilvádyová offered several options for the select board to consider.

“There are two fundamental paths forward,” Kilvádyová said. “[One] is that you pursue these improvements in broadband access and speed as an individual municipality, or [second,] you join with others. The third, she said, “is to do nothing.”

There are several ways forward in negotiating with internet service providers (ISPs) to cable the whole town with fiber optic cable which Kilvádyová feels is the best option for “many years to come.”

The select board seemed completely unsure about the best way to handle such a complex task and concluded that their meeting on Feb. 27 with LCPC in a “broadband workshop” would be a better way to confront the issue. The forum will meet in the Municipal Building at 6 p.m.

The board is also working towards adopting gender-neutral language for town officials. One such instance was in changing “Road Foreman” to “Public Works Supervisor” or “Road Manager.”

The Village is also hosting a racial bias training, which will, tentatively, be on March 7 from noon to 5:00. The training is open to the public and will be put on by the VT Human Rights Commission.

The next select board meeting will be on Monday, Feb. 17 in the Municipal Building at 7:00. Story will present a new document outlining the town’s purchase of a used tractor which they hope will help plowing and mowing efforts in Johnson.