One of the most remarkable things about this place is our collaborative spirit: we are experts at ‘reaching across’…. whether it be an aisle, a road, a field or Main Street. We work together to make good things happen. We find common ground.
Presentation by Paul Bruhn, Executive Director of the Preservation Trust of Vermont to the Vermont Land Trust Board
Thank you for the opportunity to reflect on where we are headed. As a small token of appreciation for all you have done to protect the character of Vermont, I have a copy of a book we sponsored as part of our 25th anniversary a year ago for each of you. I hope you enjoy it. We think Peter Miller did a remarkable job capturing one of the key ingredients of the Vermont we all love.
Before getting to the point of our discussion, let me briefly tell you about the Preservation Trust in case you are not familiar with our work. Mostly we try to build local capacity and support local initiative. Like our first benefactor, Bob Sincerbeaux, we provide encouragement, a little seed money and technical support that helps communities move ahead. Our the past 12 years, we’ve also been lucky to have a special partnership with the Freeman Foundation that has enabled us to provide significant financial support to over 300 projects, totalling over $100 million in preservation work. More recently, we’ve had the benefit of a partnership with Senator Leahy that has enabled us to support a variety of village revitalization efforts. We focus a lot of our energy and resources on helping village centers and downtowns. Virtually of our work is done in partnership with communities, funders, and organizations like the Land Trust and the Forum on Sprawl.
Since I’m first on the agenda, I thought it might be useful to concentrate on providing some context for the bigger discussion. I’ll also try to give you some thoughts about what I think we collectively need to do in the coming years.
First it’s important to understand this work that we are all doing to protect the essential character of Vermont is very important work. Here’s one piece of evidence: in 2000 National Geographic Traveler Magazine did a special millennium issue on the World’s 50 Greatest Destinations — the Great Wall of China, the Lake District in England, Paris, London, Venice, the Sahara, and Antarctica were all included. In North America there were just nine destinations of a lifetime: Big Sur, Grand Canyon, San Francisco, New York, the Canadian Rockies and Maritimes, Mesa Verde and Vermont! A remarkable achievement, and a serious responsibility for us to be good stewards. This mystique that is part of Vermont is integral to our economic strength and our future well-being. Please understand that we aren’t about pickling the state. It’s about how we grow and adapt, about how we have opportunity and living choices without spoiling our nest.
So, how are we doing?
From our vantage point and through the lens of our work, here are the two Vermonts that we see:
One view is represented by the map of our activities around the state during 2006. Behind each mark is a great story about community volunteers who are passionate about thier communities. These folks are committed to saving important community landmarks and finding ways to put them to put them to good use…including community halls, community arts venues, libraries, affordable housing, churches, museums, opera houses, and transitional housing for women coming out of the correctional system. Their work often transforms communities.
Over the past several years, for example, downtown Brandon has overcome its sense of inferiority and become a proud, spirited, vibrant place. Most importantly it is a downtown that serves it’s own community. It has a grocery store, a locally-owned pharmacy, a terrific bookstore, a hardware store, variety of restaurants, in addition to arts and cultural activities. It is a great place to visit, but foremost is a great place to live and work.
If you add our work to the work that you have done over the years, to the work of dozens of other statewide organizations like the Forum and the Orton Foundation, and the hundreds of local organizations you have a very inspiring story of community commitment and success. That’s the good part.
Despite this amazing collection of activity, I fear we are at risk of losing the essence of Vermont. From our perspective, we’re close to the tipping point. You know better than I that our dairy farmers are at risk. Our village stores and our downtowns are very fragile. Our amazing collection of gathering places — the places that Peter Miller documented in Vermont Gathering Places — the places that provide the foundation of civic engagement all face a variety of threats. Locally-owned businesses have trouble surviving in the face of the homogeneity of national chains. National-based bankshare increased market share in a relatively short timeframe. Everyday it seems there is the beginning of another blot on the landscape. The proposed Wal-Marts in St. Albans and Derby will, if approved, undermine the vitality of communities across the northern tier of the state. Understand that what’s being proposed are stores that are 50% bigger than the Wal-Mart in Williston. Please also understand that we understand that there are lots of folks that need the Wal-Mart shopping opportunity. From our standpoint, smaller scale big boxes located in downtown is a good compromise.
Taken together: this challenging environment for farmers, downtowns and village centers, gathering places, and locally-owned businesses has the potential of overwhelming the good and transforming Vermont in ways that none of us would like very much. If, at the end of the day, Vermont begins to look and feel more like the rest of the nation we will undermine our future — economic and otherwise.
If that all sounds bleak, what is there to do about it?
1. It’s been awhile since we’ve been able to say NO to a bad idea. We need to build a climate where it’s ok to say no to development proposals that undermine the character and economic strength of the state. The Vermont Brand isn’t just a marketing strategy, the essence of Vermont is the brand!
2. Last year, the Legislature passed legislation on growth centers and strengthening downtowns. Noelle will talk about how the growth center process is developing. I’d just like to make a pitch for the Vermont Downtown Program. The Growth Center legislation also made significant improvements to the downtown program which is run by the Vermont Division for Historic Preservation. It’s been wildly successful and the tax credit allotment was used up in the first three months of the fiscal year. We need to increase the allocation of credits by at least a $1million.
3. Support for locally-owned business. Chris Morrow, owner of Northshire Bookstore, has been leading the effort to start a Local First Vermont organization. Abby White from your staff has been involved from the outset. I recommend The Smart-Mart Revolution by Michael Shuman.
4. There are times when we need to go beyond our normal ways of doing things. The Latchis Hotel and Theater, South Royalton Coop, Starksboro Village Store, and Hardwick restaurant are a few examples.
5. We need lots of voices. We hope you and many others will continue to be part of the discussion.