Over the past week or so, residents, local officials and business owners in Brattleboro and Wilmington listened to presentations by the Downtown Action Team, a group of development and planning experts supported with money from the U.S. Housing and Urban Development. The group was put together to help towns and cities that were affected by Tropical Storm Irene.
The results, it seemed, read like a tale of two towns.
On the one hand, you have downtown Brattleboro, described as vibrant and creative, full of potential (look no further than the recently renovated Co-op and current rehabilitation of the Brooks House), with annual events like the Strolling of the Heifers and the upcoming Literary Festival bringing in visitors from throughout the region.
One of the biggest challenges facing Brattleboro is its aging population -- with an average age of 45, higher than the state average (41) and much higher than the national average (36.8) -- and declining population.
"The door has opened now for additional development to happen and additional retail to thrive in the downtown area," Project Manager Tripp Muldrow said. "But it means that you have to have a concerted effort and organized effort to do that."
Meanwhile, over in Wilmington you have a town the team complimented for its ongoing renovative, revitalization and beautification efforts.
Of all the other towns the team worked with, Wilmington had the second lowest amount of local traffic in its stores. Only 12 percent of the sales came from local consumers, including Dover and Whitingham. (Of course, it was also acknowledged that one in every four houses is a locally-owned or lived-in house, therefore three out of that four are owned by a second home owner or rented out.)
Muldrow suggested that new businesses in the future should perhaps look to satisfy more of the local consumers' needs, which segued into a recommendation that called for building on commerce with home furnishing, office supplies, dining, outdoors and "exploring missing pieces and niches."
Two towns, two different sets of positive building blocks and challenges.
In both cases, we hardly think the results were revelatory in nature, but then again that may not quite have been the point. By walking around Brattleboro, and later Wilmington, talking to and meeting with local merchants, officials and property owners, the Downtown Action Team was able to put into words what many residents have know for some time. But the team also created a plan of action behind those words.
We're all in this together. Banding together regionally, as the bigger project behind the Downtown Action Team's work means to do, can only help southern Vermont grow and develop. Flourishing local businesses at all corners of Windham County will improve the local economy and bring in younger residents looking to join (or grow) the workforce.
We believe these meetings are a good first step, but conversation can't simply beget more conversation: plans of action need to be crafted, debated and enacted swiftly. As the old axiom goes, why put off to tomorrow ....