Endangered Vermont?

By Tom Slayton, Editor of Vermont Life Magazine, 2004

A couple of weeks ago, Vermont was listed by the National Trust for Historic Preservation as an "endangered" place because of an impending influx of as many as seven big, new Wal-Mart stores.

Just two weeks before that, the National Geographic Traveler magazine rated Vermont the best place in the nation - and one of the best in the world - for conserving its historic and natural resources.

So which is it - are we terrific? Or are we endangered? The truth may be that we're both.

Vermont is beautiful. But, like everything beautiful, it's fragile and therefore endangered. You could make a good argument that Vermont is beautiful precisely because it was ignored by mainstream America for so long. Throughout the years when Vermont was an economic backwater, farming, never hugely profitable here, remained a good way to make an honest living and coincidentally kept a lot of land open and green. Many old buildings and historic downtowns survived simply because the nation's push towards urbanization and, later, suburbanization passed them by.

But now things have changed, and mainstream America is knocking on the door - perhaps beating it down might be a more accurate metaphor. Wal-Mart and other big box stores, ever eager for their piece of the Vermont pie, are pushing to establish more big stores with low-priced goods here.

Vermont is not wealthy, and many Vermonters need to be able to buy low-priced goods. But, by the same token, the economic revitalization of towns like Brandon and Bellows Falls has been based on local businesses that flourish in coherent downtowns.

And while it's nice to get a bargain, Vermont has something that's a lot more valuable - an open countryside and viable cities and villages that still work.

Vermont is a real, genuine place -- it has character. But character is fragile -- it can easily erode. The big-box city that's grown up at Taft's Corners in Williston is a perfect example of just how fast that erosion can happen. In less than a decade, that place has become, essentially, no place - because it's interchangeable with similar shopping complexes in New Jersey, California, Illinois and elsewhere.

Vermont is still someplace. It has both natural beauty and communities that work. Viable small towns and open lands have been lost in many other states, and they're more than beautiful here - they're economically valuable and a part of who and what we are.

As a new wave of Wal-Marts comes to our state, Vermonters should resist the pressure to allow huge stores to sprawl outside our historic villages and small cities. Wal-Mart already has modest-sized stores that are flourishing here, downtown, where they should be.

Remember that phrase, "Small is beautiful"? Vermont has long lived by it. Perhaps if Wal-Mart wants to do more business here, it should learn to work with it, too.

© Copyright 2004, Vermont Public Radio & Tom Slayton
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