BY MAT CLOUSER
BRANDON — For over 25 years, SolarFest has acted as a kind of traveling troubadour, utilizing art to inspire and educate about solar and other forms of renewable energy via its music-and-art festivals throughout Southwestern Vermont.
As of Wednesday, June 22, the nomadic portion of that existence was all but over. The non-profit organization formally announced its intention to put down permanent roots in Brandon at the old Steinberg Farm site on Steinberg Road.
SolarFest’s search for a home began in early 2021 following a generous donation from Tiffany and Kevin Bailey of High Peaks Solar in Wynantskill, New York. According to SolarFest’s Mike Bailey (no relation), the group sent out over 140 letters to various select boards throughout the region, gauging their interest in partnering on a new home.
They received about a dozen responses, of which Bailey said only a handful were deemed serious. As for the decision to pick Brandon, “It was one of those things that just came together,” he said.
“The arts and energy awareness in Brandon is high,” said the president of SolarFest’s board of trustees, Bill Laberge, discussing some of the reasons they felt Brandon was a good fit.
Bailey and Laberge were quick to point out the efforts of three Brandonites—Energy Committee Members Jim Emerson and Jack Schneider and select board member Tim Guiles— as influencing their decision.
“Brandon came through loud and strong,” said SolarFest’s head of workforce development Joanne Coons—who was also a part of SolarFest’s search-and-acquisition task force—echoing the sentiment as she gave a public tour of the grounds.
In addition to the music-and-arts festival, the group has big plans for its new home. One of several projects is a year-round technology demonstration center that will feature “the latest renewable energy, green buildings, and regenerative agriculture and other practices for sustainable energy,” pollinator gardens and wetland trails, and a community solar field.
Another major initiative is workforce development training and mentoring focused on career-changers looking to re-skill — a program that the organizers say they plan to extend to students at OVUHS.
“The state [of Vermont] needs 40,000 people for weatherization,” said Laberge, discussing the potential workforce benefits of a training center. “Where will they come from? Maybe they’re already here.”
According to the organizers, COVID and the search for a new home delayed the planning for this year’s event — now slated for September 10. Organizers acknowledged that this year’s event would be more of a celebration of things to come than the multi-day parties of the past that drew nearly 7,000 attendees at their peak.
Yet, they’re not going to let that diminish their goals. “Our purpose is to help spread info and encourage people to switch [to renewables],” said an upbeat Laberge.
“We don’t just want to be a weekend festival,” he continued. “We want to teach you things you didn’t even know you didn’t know.”
“We’re not rich people,” said Laberge’s wife, Jill, speaking of their switch at home to renewable energy. “We did it, and we want to help others do it.”