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Breathing new life into Northeast Kingdom downtown areas


By AMY ASH NIXON, as seen in the Caledonian Record:

ST. JOHNSBURY, Vt. (AP) — Downtowns across the Northeast Kingdom are hurting from some of the same forces impacting rural America everywhere, but there are myriad efforts afoot to bolster and position many of them for better days ahead.

From infrastructure improvement to tax incentives to lure new businesses, new events, projects to make town centers inviting and more, volunteers and community officials are trying to bring people back to town centers to support local economies and keep Vermont's villages vibrant.

"Rural economic development is a priority for this administration and it's a hot topic in the legislature," said Chris Cochran, director of community, planning and revitalization for the Department of Housing and Community Development. "We run a state designation program, so we designate our traditional centers like Newport, Lyndonville and St. Johnsbury and smaller centers like Danville."

Cochran said, "The intent of the designation program is it recognizes our traditional centers and the goal is to target state investment to these centers. The major benefit of our state designation are tax credits that improve existing buildings within the centers," he said. He mentioned the Armory building on Main Street in St. Johnsbury as an example.

"In Newport, our programs will play an important part in re-building that downtown," Cochran said. "How do we get the most of the state's boardwalk there? What is the market for a new hotel in Newport? We've funded a study for that."

Cochran said, "In Lyndonville, the Bag Balm building, they want to revitalize that, our program will play a part in that, the tax credits."

Gary Holloway, downtown program coordinator with the Community Planning and Revitalization program within the Vermont Department of Housing and Community Development pointed to the recent grants from National Life and the Vermont Community Foundation, through which St. Johnsbury received $20,000 to enhance Depot Square Park.

In Newport, Holloway said, the town recently went through the Vermont Council on Rural Development Community Visit process and task forces are focused on enhancing tourism, marketing the town, attracting and supporting businesses, and more.

A hotel feasibility study and market assessment was completed recently for Newport's downtown, said Holloway, and the town is starting a Downtown and Waterfront Masterplan that is funded by a Community Development Block Grant.

Additionally, said Holloway, Newport is "Working on connecting trails from downtown up the coast of Lake Memphremagog to Quebec trail system.".''

St. Johnsbury recently was among a handful of downtowns to be chosen for downtown improvement grants, announced by Gov. Phil Scott on Downtown Day earlier this month.

"The work to revitalize Vermont's downtowns and villages is a team sport, so I truly appreciate the growing number of state, local, public and private partners who are working to build stronger, more vibrant communities," said Scott at a press conference at the Statehouse.

In Danville, a Better Connections grant will help improve connections from the town to Lamoille Valley Rail Trail, according to Alison Low, senior planner at the Northeastern Vermont Development Association.

"The project specifically focuses on 'hotspots' where the Lamoille Valley Rail Trail (LVRT) crosses Route 2, or other critical junctures, such as the old train station and Joe's Pond," said Low on Friday.

Island Pond also secured a Better Connections grant, said Richard Amore, planning and project manager for the Community Planning and Revitalization division of the Vermont Department of Housing and Community Development, aimed at helping to "grow the local economy with a plan to improve the streetscape and create more opportunities for residents and tourists to walk, shop and enjoy the scenic beauty of Island Pond."

Northeast Kingdom communities which are state-designated village centers have received Downtown and Village Center Tax Credits to support the redevelopment of the renovations to 137 Main St. in Newport, bringing a dilapidated building back to productive use and at 194 Main St., the history Montgomery Ward building, said Amore, where work is planned to upgrade that building into "a community hub."

In St. Johnsbury, Amore pointed to two projects: 73 Prospect Street, St. Johnsbury — The Sunset House (1915) is the former home of Vermont Supreme Court Justice Luke Potter Poland, now renamed the McGuire Center, the building will be renovated by the renowned Fairbanks Museum as a café, public radio station and community room, and a formerly vacant storefront on Main Street that now houses a new restaurant.

In Island Pond, the program helped to renovate 138 Cross St., an 1866 building that houses the Essex House at the entry to the town, taking a formerly empty building and restoring it to include a restaurant and bar and 11 hotel rooms, noted Amore.

Joe Kasprzak, St. Johnsbury's assistant town manager, talked about efforts around improving and addressing housing stock to beautification plans and a new Tax Increment Financing (TIF) district for St. Johnsbury, which would leverage municipal investment to try to land new businesses here.

There had been a moratorium on TIF zones, and last year St. Johnsbury pitched in with other municipalities in Vermont to hire a lobbyist and the state has approved six new TIF zones. St. Johnsbury is one of those.

There are businesses looking to find a home here, and officials working to make that happen.

The former glove factory building, owned by the St. Johnsbury Development Fund, is now "working on hiring consultants to perform design and engineering specs," he said. "The St. J Distillery is still looking at potential locations in St. J," as well, Kasprzak said.

Much hope is pinned on connecting the trailhead of the Lamoille Valley Rail Trail project to downtown St. Johnsbury, as well.

The town recently received a Northern Border Regional Commission grant with help from the Northeastern Vermont Development Association for that project, and just this week issued a Request for Qualifications for the engineering, design and bid review services for the work, said NVDA Senior Planner Irene Nagle.

The total project budget including construction will be $540,000, of which 79 percent of the funding will be covered by the grant, officials said this week.

The grant is to "design and construct an extension of the Town's Three Rivers Path into the Bay Street area of St. Johnsbury's downtown, and to convert a derelict 2-story industrial building on a .21-acre parcel into a trail-head center with space for recreational equipment rentals and related retail uses, interpretive exhibits showcasing the natural and cultural history of the Passumpsic Riverfront, and limited parking."

The amount of visitors expected to use the rail trail are in excess of 55,000 visitors annually, said Nagle of St. Johnsbury's hope to tap into that hoped-for growing tourist market, "It's pretty significant."

"It's going to be a really great asset," said Nagle.

Chad Whitehead, town manager in St. Johnsbury, said on Friday the town is also working on a Route 5 bike path piece, which began before the rail trail project, to bring bicycle traffic into the town using a VTrans grant that covers 80 percent of the work estimated to cost about $200,000.

"That also includes pedestrian improvements around the South Main Street, Route 5 intersection (where Main Street goes uphill to St. Johnsbury Academy), there will be crosswalks and signage, and we'll also be reducing the number of lanes coming into town there with the intent to slow traffic and make it more pedestrian and bike friendly," explained Whitehead.

As part of its Community Visit process, the Vermont Council on Rural Development has visited and assisted dozens of Vermont communities with efforts to improve life in towns across the state - with the focus oftentimes on downtown revitalization.

A downtown revitalization task force in Lyndonville has been working on art installations in a handful of vacant storefronts, and recently secured a Vermont Community Foundation grant for $2,500 for a downtown mural project.

Another group that came out of Lyndonville's visit process, the Economic Development Committee, is seeking a USDA Rural Development grant for a downtown Wifi project.

In an interview this week, businessman Eric Paris said he and his family believe in Lyndonville and its downtown and are investing in its future.

"We're excited about doing this project in downtown Lyndonville," said Paris of their plans to convert the old Bag Balm building into a restaurant on the first floor and a co-working space with high-speed internet and office and desk rentals in a partnership with Northern Vermont University on the upper floor.

Paris said, "Downtown Lyndonville is a busy place, it's a busy hub. There is really positive energy right now in Lyndonville moving forward with some really positive projects that have been going on for awhile and it shows now sign of slowing down."

"We're giving our kids reasons to stay and seek careers in Lyndonville," said Paris of the momentum he feels and why he's investing in downtown Lyndonville as a business owner expanding in the village. "We're giving our younger generations more options than they had in the past, and I can only see this energy snowballing."

Evan Carlson, a young tech professional and town native whose idea for the coworking space is moving forward, chairs one of the task forces aimed at jump-starting the local economy in Lyndonville.

On Tuesday, Carlson said, "The downtown revitalization task force has put on lantern parades, facilitated art walks and is actively working on a large public mural. They're currently collaborating with the Economic Development task force to support the growth of the farmers market and apply for a USDA Rural Business Development Grant."

"We're also collaborating on various pop up businesses. The idea behind the pop ups is to perform short term test on the viability of a business concept before making a larger investment in a full retail build out," said Carlson. "There are a number of vacant retail spaces in Lyndon and while we want them all to be full, we should be strategic about what businesses open. The key is to attract pedestrian traffic and commerce, we want to work with business owners to create diverse business to ensure that their doors stay open long term."

Carlson said, "Additionally, I strongly believe that it is important for the youth of the area to be involved in the revitalization process. Instilling a sense of ownership, responsibility and developing community will have a impact on whether young adults remain or return to the region after high school and college."