This commentary is by Ben Doyle, president of the Burlington-based Preservation Trust of Vermont.
If the objects of our common affection are what unite us as Vermonters, then our downtowns and villages are central to our identity. They are the places where commerce takes place, where our children learn, where we vote, where many of us worship, and where we meet and welcome our neighbors.
The Covid-19 pandemic has placed enormous stress on these places and threatens their vitality. Social distancing requirements, shifts to online commerce, and preexisting demographic trends pose significant challenges. But when we finally emerge from this crisis, it will be the built environment of our historic downtowns and villages that will shape the ways in which we reconnect, honor the past, and build a more equitable future.
Thankfully, Vermonters recognize the importance of our villages and downtowns. While the tools available to support community and economic development are limited, lawmakers have developed policies that help, and they are now considering proposals from Gov. Scott to provide additional assistance.
One proposal is to increase funding for the downtown and village center tax credit program. This program provides tax credits to rehabilitate and modernize historic buildings in designated downtowns and village centers. Since its inception, almost $30 million has been awarded to support the revitalization of dilapidated buildings. In 2020 alone, the program provided $3.2 million in tax incentives, in 30 Vermont communities, helping support $160 million in downtown rehabilitation projects — everything from a business accelerator at the Park Street School in Springfield to the renovation of the East Calais General Store.
These credits aren’t handouts; they are investments that will ultimately benefit communities through increased grand lists as well as increased revenue from rooms, meals and sales taxes. Rural and less affluent communities are the primary beneficiary of the program; since 2005, 65% of village and downtown tax credit allocations have gone to projects in counties with GDP growth below the state average. These are the communities that will most need our support when the pandemic is over.
Another strategy that offers great promise for helping our villages and downtowns is the Better Places Program. It provides “placemaking” grants ranging from $5,000 to $20,000 that improve the vitality of state-designated centers. These grants will be used to advance “quick build” projects that boost confidence, build partnerships, and spark momentum to revitalize and improve public spaces in support of local economic and community development efforts.
What’s most exciting about the program is the trust it puts in local communities to be visionary. They will design and implement the projects that can bring people together and make their public squares and economy vibrant once again, whether it’s through an expanded farmers market, increased recreational trail access, or the installation of a public art project. This year the program is being piloted in partnership with the Vermont Agency of Commerce and Community Development and with financial support from the Vermont Arts Council, the Vermont Community Foundation, the National Life Foundation, and the Preservation Trust of Vermont.
Both of these programs have broad support from the Legislature and Gov. Scott for good reason — they are excellent examples of how state government can swiftly support locally led revitalization efforts.
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It’s up to all of us, of course, to make sure our downtowns and villages remain vital. We can do that by buying local, engaging in our communities, and rallying lawmakers to support economic development programs that work. In a time of profound change, challenge, and opportunity, these are sound investments in the objects of our common affection and our shared future.