Over the last 50 years we have witnessed a marked change in the evolution of our downtowns across Vermont. While citizens have wanted strong downtowns at the center of their communities, economics drove businesses away — sometimes to other locales, and other times out of the market.
Mom-and-pop businesses in our rural state were the staple by which we bought our clothes, groceries, appliances — everything we needed.
Then, strip malls along busy roads changed our shopping habits, quickly followed by franchise big-box stores, and finally the life-changing emergence of the Internet. But today, many lost businesses later, we as shoppers appear to be going back to our roots.
At a minimum, we have found a balance between researching online and shopping locally, ordering product through our local stores, or returning to that feeling of face-to-face contact. The push for local has many benefits, the least of which is it restores our sense of community. Devices and gadgets make it easy to remove us from society, but localvore movements, shop local efforts, farmers markets, art walks and the like are bringing neighbors together once again.
Urban planners (and even local town planners) will affirm that Vermonters are not unlike the rest of the nation: They feel quality of life hinges on feeling like part of a community.
The state this week took another step toward community building. It did not get a lot of press, but it was a bold step toward keeping Vermont towns and cities focused on infusing their downtowns with economic development with an arsenal of tools toward new success.
Already, Barre, Montpelier, Rutland, White River Junction, Vergennes, Brandon and Hardwick are being held up as communities with progressive thinkers using some of these tools.
The proposal outlined this week by Gov. Peter Shumlin and lawmakers provides an additional $500,000 annually to strengthen city and town centers, while restricting until 2020 some of the big-box retail development that can sap the economic vitality of community centers.
“Under the plan, lawmakers will be asked to approve a 30 percent increase in the $1.7 million Downtown and Village Tax Credit program, which supports historic renovation, housing, job creation and other qualifying efforts to strengthen the economic vitality of the 24 Designated Downtowns and 107 Villages in the program. That money was used in 2013 for 21 projects and leveraged over $22 million worth of construction activity,” a news release states.
The $500,000 being proposed today would enable the program to fund another five or six projects per year, meaning $7.5 million more in investment in Vermont downtowns and village centers annually. That can mean infrastructure and signage, façade work, and much more. Hundreds of Vermont businesses already have benefitted from similar funding.
In addition, the state funding also helped facilitate an agreement between the Preservation Trust of Vermont, Vermont Natural Resources Council and Wal-Mart developer Jeff Davis. The Preservation Trust and VNRC agreed to drop their opposition to a proposed Wal-Mart project in the Northeast Kingdom, clearing the way for Davis to construct the store in the Newport-Derby area and bring affordable shopping to an underserved area of the state.
In exchange, Davis has agreed to halt any similar projects in Vermont through 2020. He will also contribute $200,000, through the Preservation Trust, to help support Orleans County communities. That is in addition to the $600,000 mitigation funds already earmarked to Newport to help the region prepare and adapt to the arrival of a Wal-Mart outside the downtown area.
That creative thinking is putting downtowns first while expanding and maintaining local economies so Vermonters dollars stay local.
Tax credits may not have the same feel-good effects as a community localvore potluck or a weekend cash mob, but it demonstrates a commitment toward the momentum we are already seeing. It points to that balance we are all making to make strong communities, and being part of them again.