White River: A Star-Studded Presence of Vitality and Energy
Downtown Conference Attendees Marvel at "River City"
A Potent Message by Joe Minicozzi of Urban3. We'll return to this slide at the end of this piece. The short version is that, by the numbers, small, low-rise downtown buildings built for long lifespans far outperform big-box stores on a Property-Taxes-Per-Acre-paid basis — by 3,500 percent in some of the cases presented. The way forward for our downtowns suddenly seems clear. Keep the old and cherish it for the future. Nurture it, celebrate it, put some initial money into it to revitalize it, and it will pay dividends for many decades to come.
Yesterday, 260 people from five states and a multitude of VT State agencies and the VT Historic Preservation Trust descended upon White River Junction for a state-wide, annual Downtown & Historic Preservation Conference. These also included small business owners, architects and planners, and plenty more smart and caring people you might just like to know have a hand in our future and how we live, work, play, and thrive in towns all around Vermont.
In true River City fashion, and in its understated, retro, yet overwhelmingly welcoming sort of way, the White River Junction downtown responded in true brilliance. Shops were open and available to all the conference attendees, and the local hosts of Northern Stage, Briggs Opera House, and The Hotel Coolidge served up spacious venues, comfortable seating, and sumptuous food for breakfast and a box lunch that left nobody wanting.
It was a sold out conference, and one where downtown proponents struck a chord amid a multitude of heartstrings when presenting the importance of downtowns in our daily lives, and as the economic engines to help fuel future growth state-wide. Downtown revitalization efforts also attract the younger generations who can come and enjoy low-cost housing while building an entrepreneurial base for their future, and ours.
And, as we learned from one expert in planning named Joe Minicozzi of Urban3, the downtowns of old, with their three-story, brick-front shops with housing above them, actually contribute far more to a town's tax base than any new big-box store can do. Thus, tearing down historic structures at the cry of "urban blight" may not be the best way to go from a tax and revenue-generating perspective for the long haul. Instead, revitalizing old downtown buildings may well be the preferred path to a vibrant and more prosperous future for our towns and downtowns, and for those of us who live in or near them.
As Minicozzi emphasized, in the long term, well built downtown buildings produce far more value per acre than any other type of construction, and especially the kinds of construction we've been seeing across the U.S. for many decades in suburbia. Such buildings have contributed hugely to the tax base in the past, and they can do so anew with our help and refocused efforts on revitalizing our downtown spaces rather than tearing them down and building outside the downtown areas.
Even Vermont's Governor Scott got involved later in the day, signing a bill that will help downtowns and small businesses grow with S. 135, a bill that will allow downtowns to recapture some revenue that would otherwise have gone to the State by expanding the number of Tax Increment Financing, or TIF, districts across the State. The bill also allows for small business owners and workers to contribute to their retirement through the creation of the Green Mountain Secure Retirement Plan.
Lest we overlook those who are truly the movers and shakers, attendees at the local level spent the day deepening relationships with experts who presented, like Joe Minicozzi of Urban3, Secretary of Commerce and Community Development Mike Schirling, Commissioner of Community Development Katie Buckley, Paul Bruhn of the Preservation Trust of Vermont, and many others from around the State, all to benefit local downtowns striving to reinvigorate and revitalize themselves to help the rest of us prosper and enjoy life as it once was and can be once again.
The Vermont Lifetime Leadership Award was presented to Paul Bruhn of the Preservation Trust of Vermont by the Vermont Council on Rural Development. This is a very BIG deal. Have a look here at other recipients over the years. http://vtrural.org/programs/community-leadership-award A well-deserved congratulations and public shout-out to Paul for his decades of service to all of us in Vermont. He's a very affable and approachable man who seems willing to speak with most anyone on a multitude of topics. Just like any good Vermonter would!
Below are some photos and quotes that seemed to capture the day. The one who appeared to be "the man behind the scenes" from the State level was Gary Holloway, Downtown Program Coordinator for the State's community and planning revitalization programs. And at the local level invigorator from right inside the River City downtown "beltway" seemed to be Eric Bunge, Managing Director of Northern Stage, whose lovely new theatre facility played shining host to the day's activities. Huge thanks to both for their efforts to pull off what turned out to be a great day of learning, camaraderie, and knowledge sharing among all who attended the Conference.
To a Packed House Commissioner Katie Buckley of VT's Department of Housing & Community Development gets the conference underway.
Thank and Be Thanked Hartford Selectboard Chair Richard "Dick" Grassi thanks the many who have contributed to River City's resurgence including the likes of David Briggs, Mike Davidson, Matt Bucy, and others whose development visions and revisions have transformed this now walkable and inviting downtown. Dick recalled how 72 summers ago Vermont's downtowns were abuzz with energy. He called them the "lifeblood" of our towns, and is thrilled to see them coming back to the forefront as places to live, work, and enjoy due to the efforts of so many people.
Explaining Reality in Real Terms Eric Bunge (standing), Managing Director of Northern Stage imparts knowledge as panelists look on and the audience learns more about how Northern Stage impacts the downtown economy in many positive ways. (Other panelists pictured (right to left) include Peter Gilbert of VT Humanities Council, Jody Fried of Catamount Arts Council, Michelle Ollie of White River's celebrated Center for Cartoon Studies, and moderator Ben Doyle of the United States Dept. of Agriculture.
Hitting Home for Many This is the kind of slide that helped people truly understand what a local theatre company like Northern Stage does each and every time it puts on a performance. The economic vitality of our downtowns depends upon an understanding how the arts bolster a community's economic prospects. Northern Stage, it was mentioned, has had an outsized economic impact on WRJ of appx. $10 million in the past 10 months alone when theatre-goer spending on food, services, and other retail items is factored into the equation.
Back to the Beginning Take a step back in time to understand why low-rise downtown buildings built to last for the long term are such precious gems. This slide, as presented by Joe Minicozzi of Urban3, shows in hard numbers how a Wal-Mart benefits a town's tax base versus how a low-rise downtown structure truly outperforms. Property Taxes Per Acre is the new formula he proposed. Downtowns should rely upon existing buildings to generate huge tax revenues on a per acre basis. It seems like a great formula for our future, particularly when a renovated downtown building initially slated to be razed can outperform a big-box store by $634,000 per acre of taxes received by the town versus $6,500 received from a big box structure that "paves paradise" with acres of asphalt, to quote an old song.
One local shop's street sign seemed to capture the feeling of the day. Much-needed sunshine arrived with conference attendees to make this a stellar day of learning and basking in the beautiful weather, and meeting new and old friends alike in between sessions. Plus, shopping for locally-made art and artisan-inspired craft added to the feel of the importance of the local downtown WRJ vibe as a powerful force to help Vermont and Vermonters thrive.
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