Smart Growth for Vernon, CT
What Vernon needs isn't a music museum

By Chris Powell
Journal Inquirer
August 31, 2007

Vernon is in rough shape. Taxes go up every year because the town administration under several mayors has been unable to stand up to the teachers union. For a while this year the town administration even liquidated the very symbol of the town, the War Memorial Tower on Fox Hill, as well as the weekly farmers market in the Rockville section.

It's not as if Vernon's town government lacks money; it is now spending far more than ever with a static population. The problem this year was, as usual, that increases in compensation for town employees crowded basics out of the town budget. So the tower was closed for the supposed lack of the thousand dollars needed to keep it open, and the farmers market was eliminated for the supposed lack of time for the town administration to fill out a few grant forms. (After some critical publicity, a local developer donated the money to reopen the tower, and somehow the town administration found time again to process the grant forms.)

The Rockville section, for 40 years the target of hapless state and municipal "revitalization" efforts, has deteriorated more than ever. So many homes in the former mill area are more than a century old and lack basic update and repair. The resulting cheap rents have concentrated poverty and its pathologies in Rockville. The population is too poor to support commerce, so the old city spirals downward. Empty cheerleading by town officials improves nothing.

In this respect Vernon is like other older Connecticut towns that used to be manufacturing centers and now have little where the manufacturing used to be. The difference with Vernon is the 40 years of pretense that things are getting better.

More of that pretense was on display the other day as the speaker of the state House of Representatives, James Amann, D-Milford, and the House majority leader, Christopher G. Donovan, D-Meriden, came to see Rockville and Vernon state Rep. Claire Janowski and a few town officials. State government is thinking about creating a Connecticut Music Hall of Fame, and Vernon officials want it located in Rockville because it is the birthplace of pop star Gene Pitney, who, back in the 1960s, was known as the "Rockville Rocket" for hits including "Town Without Pity," "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance," and "Only Love Can Break a Heart." Pitney was Rockville's most famous son and worked to the end, dying last year at age 66 while on a concert tour in Britain.

But Speaker Amann was appropriately reserved about Rockville, remarking that the success of a museum requires placing it among other tourist attractions. By that standard, the nearest the Connecticut Music Hall of Fame might get to Rockville would be the shopping mall area a few exits west on I-84 in Manchester.

Of course Vernon needs a museum and tourism no more than Hartford recently needed a new convention center and tourism. But while Hartford is sunk in poverty, its pathologies, and the patronage that feeds on them, Vernon still has a middle class and a chance of containing and maybe even slowly renovating its former urban core.

It won't be done with museums or other attractions — distractions, really — but only by getting government under control, by getting it off automatic pilot to oblivion so that the compensation of town employees no longer has first claim on the town's resources, so those resources can be freed to start making the town more attractive to the middle class.

By now Vernon's town administration should have a clue as to how it might be done, as the Vernon Nonprofit Housing and Development Corp. has been talking for years about renovating eight vacant and deteriorating buildings on Village and Orchard streets near Rockville General Hospital. But as the Town Council might have realized from a presentation the other day, this work is beyond the housing group's capacity. The redevelopment work Rockville needs is work only government has the wherewithal to do or arrange for. For Rockville has scores of properties that need renovation — and it would have to be done gradually, to minimize the dislocation of the poor.

Pitney was a great guy. But like many others who grew up in Rockville, when he made it big he moved out — in his case, 10 miles north to Somers. (That town also is no place for the museum, since there's not much to see there either, except for the hills, which is how people there want to keep it.) Pitney did not mean "Town Without Pity" to be about Rockville, but if Vernon's town administration doesn't wake up soon, it will be time for another loud song.

Chris Powell is managing editor of the Journal Inquirer. His views are not necessarily the newspaper's.