What a difference 20 years has made

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BELLOWS FALLS — Twenty years ago, Bellows Falls was a decaying old railroad and paper mill town that had seen far better days.

On Friday, state and federal officials lauded the past two decades of work and dedication in Bellows Falls rebuilding, revitalizing and creating a lively community. In the past 20 years, millions of dollars from the federal and state governments have come to the village — to build apartments in burned-out buildings, rehabilitate historic buildings and build up businesses to create jobs, the officials noted.

The Exner Block, the Howard Block, the Waypoint Center, and restoring the Bellows Falls Opera House were celebrated as helping to boost the local downtown. But there was also the mundane, "below ground" work of laying new sewer and water lines and an upgraded sewage treatment plant that supported the community and kept the Connecticut River clean.

Friday's event marked the 20th anniversary of Bellows Falls becoming one of the state's first "designated downtowns," a state program that helps with tax credits and other funding to support downtowns all over Vermont.

State, federal and local officials gathered Friday afternoon to celebrate the past 20 years of revitalization, which was attributed to not just the cash but community leaders and community spirit, some of the people who handed out that money said.

At a gathering first at The Waypoint Center, and later in the Hotel Windham on the Square, people paid tribute to the spirit of Bellows Falls, and the people who helped it bounce back. Ted Brady, deputy secretary of the Agency of Commerce and Community Development, said in his travels around the state it is obvious some towns are struggling and some communities are thriving. Bellows Falls is one of those thriving communities, said Brady, who is also a former aide to U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and worked on many federally-funded Bellows Falls projects. "The key to Bellows Falls' success is the vision of its community leaders," said Brady. "There are towns that are doing well and towns that are not doing well," Brady said, adding that the key was creating "complex, adaptive coalitions" - a phrase he said he borrowed from New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman.

"I think Bellows Falls created that before Friedman said it existed," he said. And while millions of federal and state funds have gone to businesses and community projects, he said it is not an accident. "That money just does not show up," he said. "It's not about the money, it's about the people."

He said what happened in Bellows Falls was that community members, not necessarily elected leaders, got involved in their community in a profound way.

Municipal Manager Wendy Harrison said that while she had been managing the community for only about 10 months, she had been visiting this area of Vermont since the 1980s. And, she said, she was also impressed with its beauty and liveliness. "Bellows Falls is a much more vibrant community" since her earlier visits, she said. "That doesn't happen by accident."

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"This is really a town that is on its way up," Harrison said.

Many state officials praised Robert McBride, the executive director of the Rockingham Arts and Museum Project, which was very influential in some of the earlier projects, including the revitalization of The Exner Block that is now home to artists and their studios. Housing Vermont Executive Director Nancy Owen reminded people gathered at The Waypoint Center that the Exner Block, notable now for its press-tin siding and location on the banks of the Bellows Falls Canal House, was "a dreadful building." Housing Vermont helped create 51 apartments, and 7,700 square feet of commercial space in The Exner and Howard blocks, she said.

"Bellows Falls has been terrific at accessing those resources," she said.

Laura Trieschmann, the state's historic preservation officer, said when she first came to Vermont six years ago from Washington, D.C., she kept hearing about Robert McBride. "'You have to meet Robert, you have to meet Robert,'" Trieschmann said was the constant refrain.

Trieschmann said she loves coming to the area. "Bellows Falls just really, really excites me - the enthusiasm and the excitement," she said. She said Bellows Falls received the very first roadside state historic marker in the 1940s.

"You guys really care about your community," said Chris Campany, the executive director of the Windham Regional Commission based in Brattleboro. Campany's group has worked closely with Rockingham and Bellows Falls officials on cleaning up contaminated sites to funding new businesses.

He said what makes Bellows Falls unusual in his mind is that community members "invest for yourselves, which makes it much more authentic." Too often, he said, communities have given up. That's not the case in Bellows Falls, he said. "Don't forget to celebrate what you've done," he said.

Later, people gathered at the Hotel Windham to hear from local businesspeople, including Tony Elliott and Kathleen Govotski. Elliott said he was still trying to decide how to develop the second and third floors of the old railroad hotel, and whether to convert it to apartments, condominiums or create a small hotel. Govotski said she created Halladay's Harvest Barn dips "these silly little packets of herbs," and her company now makes more that one million of those "silly" packets that are sold in 1,000 stores nationwide.

Contact Susan Smallheer at ssmallheer@reformer.com or at 802 254-2311, ext. 154.


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