Major downtown revitalization and historic preservation efforts typically take a great deal of time, money and resources. In 2016, Bethel’s Better Block project showed how community volunteers could transform an entire downtown block in the span of a weekend – bringing new life to a historic Main Street and sparking long term change.
Like many small towns in Vermont, Bethel (pop. 2000) has a once-thriving downtown that fell victim to empty storefronts, peeling paint and crumbling facades – and much of Bethel’s community spirit crumbled with it. Bethel is lucky to have retained a relatively intact stretch of seven large, historic buildings adjacent to the White River, but by the early 2000s most were vacant, underutilized, for sale, and/or in need of major repairs.
With no municipal support or funding for economic development or preservation, it took Tropical Storm Irene and a burst of Incremental, grassroots projects to turn the tide. The volunteer group Bethel Revitalization Initiative created a downtown pocket park, started community conversations about the future of downtown, and created the free pop-up Bethel University.
With the support of AARP Vermont and Team Better Block, the BRI built on a new energy and interest in town to host Vermont’s first Better Block demonstration. More than 60 volunteers came together in October 2016 to transform the downtown back into a vibrant Main Street. They created temporary pop-up businesses in the vacant historic buildings. They created a beer garden in a parking lot. They created a temporary bike lane and safer pedestrian crossings to slow traffic and make the downtown more enjoyable. And they gathered input on what changes people wanted to see permanently.
In the 18 months since the demonstration, a remarkable number of changes and preservation projects have taken hold. The historic Blossom Block has sold and is being restored. The new owner has hosted four seasonal pop-up markets, creating sales opportunities for local artisans, and the first storefront reopened this winter. Two local couples who were active Better Block leaders purchased the historic brick building next door – the Arnold Block – and are reviving it as a community incubator space that directly meets needs identified through Better Block. Two doors down, a young couple purchased the historic Depot train station and will reopen this spring as a music venue and bar; they chose Bethel because of the creative energy downtown and used Better Block outcomes to write a business plan. Bethel won a $15,000 Animating Infrastructure grant for three downtown art projects and is about to launch a long-term pilot of pedestrian bulbouts.
In just 18 months, Bethel has shown how a quick, creative demonstration project can lead to rapid reinvestment and revitalization. And it’s quickly becoming a statewide model, with towns across Vermont looking to this lighter, quicker, cheaper (and fun!) approach.