Welch hits Fairfax highlights
FAIRFAX — On a tour of the town, Rep. Peter Welch visited community staples and heard from business-owners about pressures facing Vermonters, ending his visit with a bottle of ginger-infused maple syrup.
Rep. Welch and his state director, Rebecca Ellis, joined Town Manager Brad Docheff for a tour of Fairfax, stopping at Almond Blossoms Schoolhouse, Eastman’s Bakery, Fairfax Pharmacy and Runamok Maple. The locations on the tour showcased some of Fairfax’s highlights while also representing areas of concern in the state such as childcare, healthcare and economic development.
“It’s all about Fairfax today,” Welch said as the small crew embarked.
Before diving into the tour, Welch met folks at the town offices, stopping to chat with a resident and admire a collection of art by Bellows Free Academy (BFA) fourth graders adorning the office walls. Town staff also spoke with the congressman about expanding opportunities for recreation and more comprehensive development in the area.
At about 4,700 residents, Docheff noted that Fairfax is one of the fastest growing communities in the state and while it remains largely residential, he hopes to bring in different types of development that could add to the town’s connectivity. Welch inquired about levels of zoning in the area and echoed the town manager’s sentiment regarding the struggle for transitioning farmers and agricultural bodies in rural Vermont. “Fairfax was built on farmers and agriculture. Today there’s just a handful,” said Docheff.
“It’s a challenge,” said Welch, nodding in agreement.
The group began their tour at childcare center Almond Blossoms Schoolhouse where they were greeted by administrator Amy Luke and owner Heather Garceau. The center is open to kids six weeks to 12 years old and currently holds 40 kids, although they’re licensed for 50. According to Garceau, Almond Blossoms is the only large all-ages daycare center in Fairfax and crucial to young families in the area.
“It’s fantastic you’re here,” said Welch, noting the necessity for access to good childcare, especially for parents who work full-time and commute like many families in rural Vermont. When he asked about what kinds of challenges childcare centers like Almond Blossoms face, Garceau pointed to staffing struggles and not enough funding.
“Finding good staff is really hard. This is a school with achievements and goals we have to meet,” she said, noting the high standards they require including a bachelor’s degree and experience working with kids. “In our budget, we can only pay our staff who have bachelor degrees in the $15 an hour range,” she said. When higher-paying jobs with benefits open up in the public schools, Garceau said she doesn’t blame folks for moving on. “That’s why a lot of centers go out of business. It’s always due to staffing,” she said.
Garceau also offered Welch some ideas on initiatives to combat these issues. One she proposed would recruit local companies and business to become partners with childcare centers, helping to cover costs in return for benefits for their employees. “Would you rather have free childcare or a gym membership?” she asked. Garceau suggested other incentives to help childcare centers but ultimately she said childcare workers need health benefits and “a more reasonable salary.”
“The challenge for young families is enormous,” Welch agreed. “In comparison to other countries, we’re so behind when it comes to supporting young families. I think it goes beyond the state and should be more of a federal partnership.”
Before he moved on to the next tour stop, Welch waved goodbye to a room at the center full of toddlers trying and failing to put on snow pants. “It takes so much patience to do this job. I’m quite impressed,” Welch told Garceau before moving on.
Stops two and three were neighbors Fairfax Pharmacy and Eastman’s Bakery.
At Fairfax Pharmacy, Welch chatted with employees Sue Hatch and Barbara Gazaille about the plight facing independent community pharmacies in the world of big drug stores like Walgreens and CVS. “It’s a fight. Independent pharmacies and under a lot of pressure,” said Welch. “You guys give good personal advice.” He recalled his personal experience with his community pharmacist who helped him and his first wife through her cancer. “Our community pharmacist really helped,” he said.
Yvonne Eastman and her daughter met the congressman at Eastman’s Bakery, where they chatted briefly about juggling running a business with homeschooling and the flavor of the week: golden Oreo.
Welch ended his tour of Fairfax at Runamok Maple, a syrup producer with a flair for infused flavors and shattering maple norms, which moved in to the facility in 2018. The building is the former site of Morse Hardwood which made wooden Scrabble tiles. Co-owner and CEO Eric Sorkin and company president Curt Alpeter chatted with Welch about how their operation has grown over the last two years since moving into the building, noting the addition of a solar array on the roof and their large support staff. “Now we’re engaged with, not just the agricultural community, but distilleries,” said Sorkin, whose sugar farm in Cambridge produces all of the company’s sap.
“There’s so much energy there, it’s the revitalization key to Vermont,” said Welch. At the end of the tour, the congressman took home a bottle of Runamok ginger-infused maple syrup—making no promises to not sneak a sip on the drive home.