BRATTLEBORO — Stephanie Bonin’s love for the community shined through all the many projects she helped steer as Downtown Brattleboro Alliance’s executive director.
“I want to take a second to thank her for her advocacy for the downtown and for her work with Everyone Eats and her passion as an ambassador for the town of Brattleboro,” Select Board Chairman Ian Goodnow said at a recent board meeting. “I found it truly inspiring having an opportunity to work with her and I really wish her the best of luck.”
Bonin leaves the DBA on July 1, the same day as the next Gallery Walk. Asked if she’s doing anything special, she said, “Throwing a 2,000-person party for the town.”
Her future plans involve reflecting, recalibrating and figuring out what’s next.
“I’m really excited to work either statewide or nationally on systemic change on policy that will make a big impact,” she said.
She has no specific kind of policy in mind.
“I’m really fortunate that I get really passionate and really inspired by a lot of different issues,” she said. “So for me, it’s more about the team I’m working on and the entity I’m working with and how effective they are. What really makes me fly is knowing we’re going to succeed at whatever we put our minds to, so I really want to find the right fit that way.”
DBA has received applications from some good candidates for the next director, Bonin said. She anticipates interviews will begin this week.
The rest of her team will continue implementing Gallery Walk, Brattleboro Luv Crawl and the community marketing initiative with the Brattleboro Area Chamber of Commerce. Bonin expressed gratitude for the staff and volunteers who work on the projects.
“So much of the work is the relationships that you build,” she said. “That’s essential to getting incredible work done.”
Bonin said she’s sad to say goodbye to the people and work she loves, calling community building something that is “definitely in my DNA.”
“But also, I know I need to continue to challenge myself and grow in my professional career,” she said.
When Bonin became the DBA’s first executive director in 2018, she had left the restaurant industry. At the time, her family owned Duo Restaurant in Brattleboro and in Colorado. They still own Duo in Colorado but sold the local restaurant in 2020.
Earlier, Bonin had been involved in community organizing.
“So I felt and feel really comfortable in that role and it’s interesting how skills are so transferrable,” she said. “I think leaving Duo to take this position felt really natural to me too because I had the insider view.”
Everyone Eats, a statewide program, began with Bonin and two other people discussing how to make it happen. Brattleboro was the first community to pilot the program, which pays restaurants to make meals available for free for anyone who has been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It was a proven concept,” Bonin said, as it had come from a project in Brattleboro in which donations from the community paid for local artists to get free meals from local restaurants during the pandemic.
Continuing to serve on a statewide taskforce for Everyone Eats, Bonin said the question now is how to “hold on to some of the magic” of the program as food insecurity has existed long before COVID-19.
Her role with DBA also led to the revitalization of Gallery Walk, which is held the first Friday of the month. Bonin said the original organizer died at the beginning of 2020 and the event needed a new home.
Gallery Walk has been “a huge success,” she said. Organizing the event is one of the most enjoyable aspects of her job.
Bonin said she loves booking live music for Elliot Street, and partnering with all the art galleries and other participants.
Under her watch, DBA and the chamber successfully proposed using a portion of local sale tax revenue annually to market the community. Bonin wanted the money to help grow business in Brattleboro.
Five upcoming visits will bring travel writers, food writers, parent bloggers and social media influencers to town as part of the initiative.
“It’s creative work in figuring out what are the gems in front of us and how do we plug them in to what the different writers want to write about,” Bonin said. “It’s a really fun project and so satisfying when the writer comes and says, ‘Oh, this is amazing. I have so much content now.’”
From the start of her tenure, Bonin focused on building community among downtown merchants.
“It can be a really lonely life being an entrepreneur at times,” she said. “One of the first things that I did was start a private Facebook page so that we could have a discussion. It was between peers, and it’s certainly not very glamorous or glitzy. But there are times when that conversation that happens is so vital and helpful. And I love low hanging fruit like that, that can make a difference in making sure that people feel supported in what they’re doing and ultimately be one of many things that keeps them able to keep their doors open downtown.”
Parklets for outdoor dining set up during the pandemic and a bicycle parking area in front of People’s United Bank are other projects that bring a smile to Bonin’s face.
“It’s such a visual representation of a town that I want to live in, and I think that’s what placemaking and community building is about,” she said. “It is putting into action the place that you and everyone else want to live in.”
For the past year, Bonin served on a leadership team to create the Vermont Downtown Coalition. She led an effort to advocate for support of all 23 of the Vermont downtown organizations from the Vermont Legislature.
The coalition is asking for $20,000 a year.
“While we didn’t succeed at obtaining the funding, we did succeed at starting the conversation at the state level and working with ACCD to potential find support through their current budget,” Bonin said, referring to the Agency of Commerce and Community Development. “That’s huge.”
Seeing so much potential for the downtown and DBA, Bonin said she believes her successor will bring “their particular love” to the job to get things accomplished.
“It takes a lot of people power to make change, do events or build community, and it’s amazing to me that people just time and time again step up,” she said, citing volunteer board members and volunteers.