Keeping What Makes Vermont Special

by Paul Bruhn, Executive Director, Preservation Trust of Vermont
March 2001

Last year, National Geographic's Traveler magazine published a special millennium issue, "The World's 50 Greatest Destinations." It recognized the Grand Canyon, the Great Wall in China, Venice, and the Lake District in England as special places you wouldn't want to miss in a lifetime if you had the choice. In North America just nine places were designated. Vermont was one of them.

A big piece of our gross state product that is contingent upon the magic of Vermont. The tourism industry is 25 percent of our economic activity. The made-in-Vermont industry is roughly 10 percent. Add to these the economic impact of the many other businesses who have made Vermont their home because of the special character and livability of the state, and you have a substantial portion of our economy that rests on Vermont being Vermont. It would be hard to argue that being one of the world's 50 best places is not a good thing for all of us who love, live and work in Vermont. And since not many of us want to pickle the state, we now have the challenge of making sure Vermont is still on the list 100 years from now.

Here are a few of the questions we need to answer:

How do we grow without spoiling our nest? Will we really learn from errors like Tafts Corners and the Barre-Monpelier and Putney Roads? The planned redevelopment of downtown Winooski is one answer. The Wal-Mart in downtown Rutland, and affordable housing development in community centers of Bennington, Brattleboro, and Derby are some other solutions that meet community and individual needs.

How do we help maintain a healthy collection and balance of businesses locally owned, by people who have a long term commitment to Vermont? Independent retailing is an enormous challenge, but our communities will be different places if we lose Mazza's in Colchester, Coburn's in South Strafford, Willey's Store in Greensboro, Peltier's in Dorset, Sommer's Hardware in Montpelier, and Baker's News in Brattleboro. Vermont is better off because of successful home-grown companies like IDX, the Vermont Country Store, Mack Molding, Carris Reels, Hemmings Motor News, and our collection of Vermont-based banks. In this era of retail giants, globalization, takeovers and mergers, maintaining a collection of healthy businesses held in local hands won't be easy.

Can we find ways to move goods from one place to another without spoiling the viability and livability of places like Vergennes, Middlebury, Brandon, Ludlow, Wilmington and Woodstock? Pitting communities against other communities only means we all suffer in the long-term.

Will we be able to sort out how to welcome development that helps us meet our economic needs without damaging our environment or undermining the vitality of community centers? Growth doesn't necessarily equal economic development. All growth doesn't enrich our communities or produce good-paying jobs.

Finally, we should probably have a discussion about scale. How big is too big for Vermont? Over the past several years it seems like the biggest debates are about very big projects that will likely have very big impacts: Pyramid Mall and Wal-Mart in Williston, Home Depot in Rutland, and a new city at the base of Killington. We need to have the courage to say no to outsized projects that undermine our economic and community interests.

Answering these questions is not easy work and it will take the best of all of our thinking, but the stakes are very high. Living and working in one of the best 50 places in world is a very special privilege.