Fairs, festivals and street dances, sampling and shopping events, holiday-themed parades and artisan markets all year long — what is Vermont without our vibrant downtowns? And what are our downtowns without the organizations dedicated to creating and fostering that vibrancy?

We are being asked not just to adapt to, but to lead in this ever-changing “new normal.” The only certainty is that there is none, and the only time frame we know is indefinite. And yet all around our state we are finding successes through sheer will, necessity and desire.

Collectively, the state of Vermont’s 23 Designated Downtowns serve a vital role in community and economic development. Downtown organizations are a requirement of Vermont’s Downtown Designation Program, helping to support municipality, businesses and downtown community at large. And just like our downtowns are about more than just commerce, our organizations are far more than just promoters. We serve as the hub of the community, connecting nonprofit organizations, businesses, municipal/city leaders, educational institutions and community members, as well as building community through local leadership, business advocacy and events large and small, magnifying all the amazing things our towns are doing and promoting our communities to a larger audience.

We are the first phone call or email from businesses, local leaders and community members on issues that range from educating the community about a new parking program to organizing a children’s parade at Halloween. We use our megaphone to promote filling out your census form to a sale happening at the local hardware store. We sit at tables with coalitions working on child care capacity and other tables working to figure out a holiday event that will draw visitors and promote our businesses.

Because of the social capital we’ve built within our communities and the relationships at the state level, our downtown organizations became the immediate go-to organizations for pandemic response. We led business roundtables and connected businesses with the resources available to them, we served as conduits between state leadership and businesses and as liaisons between the many regional organizations and our downtowns. Downtown organizations pivoted to continue to create safe ways to support businesses, creating gift card challenges, shopping and dining promotions and other incentives for patronizing businesses from afar. We continued fostering the relationships between our communities and our brick-and-mortars when so many were turning to online options. We helped create outdoor dining and shopping spaces. We did these things with our own, limited funds and with extremely limited capacity at a time when there were no blueprints to follow, seeking out collaboration with each other because we know working together makes Vermont communities stronger.

At the very time that fatigue is at its highest, the needs to be creative and innovative are at fever pitch. We must be sure that the strong leadership infrastructure of the downtown program has the capacity to continue to step up. For most of us, our funding sources consist of municipal support, business memberships and fundraising events. All of these sources have either been eliminated, reduced greatly or at risk in the very near future due to COVID-19. Many downtown organizations already operate on shoe-string budgets, relying on businesses to cover costs and generous volunteers to take on work that should be paid. Without adequate funding to support our downtown organizations, we fear for the continued vibrancy of Vermont downtowns. And without that vibrancy, our downtowns will lose visitors, community connections and businesses — which our state simply cannot afford.

All over our nation, we are seeing the death of Main Street and yet in Vermont, our own Main Streets are the foundation on which the quality of life in our state has been built. Vermont’s attractiveness to both visitors and locals is wholly dependent on thriving community centers.

Now more than ever, it is critical that we not just protect but increase the capacity and flexibility of the organizations dedicated to keeping our downtowns vibrant, particularly as colder weather arrives.

Collectively, we implore our legislators to think about the value we bring to our own communities and to communities around this state. What do strong, healthy downtowns mean for Vermont? We ask our legislators to please vote ‘yes’ on Vermont Agency of Commerce and Community Development’s proposal “Better Places, Safer Spaces” to support the needs of our downtowns.

Signed by the 23 downtown organizations serving as the Vermont Designated Downtown program representatives, including Downtown Rutland Partnership, Montpelier Alive and the Barre Partnership.

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