Vermonts downtowns celebrated for their resilience
By Gayle Hanson
STAFF WRITER | June 09,2013
Jeb Wallace-Brodeur / Times Argus
State archaeologist Giovana Peebles leads a session on surveying historic sites during the Downtown & Historic Preservation Conference in Barre on Friday.
BARRE — The annual conference celebrating downtown and historic preservation took place in Barre under soot-gray skies spitting rain.
The steps leading to City Hall were impassable due to continuing renovations, and the sounds of jackhammers working in the building next door could be heard in the background of the historic downtown Barre Opera House.
All the better for a meeting Friday that celebrated the resilience of Vermont communities and 15 years of the state’s downtown and historic preservation programs.
“Could anyone have looked me in the eye five years ago and told me that the Cornerstone Pub would be open, and that the entire building would be leased,” said Gov. Peter Shumlin, referring to the restaurant that opened in the Barre’s historic Aldrich building on North Main Street.
Barre Mayor Thomas Lauzon took the compliments in stride, handing off the credit for the city’s impressive renewal. “Every compliment I accept as mayor I accept on behalf of my team. We will not be denied.”
If Barre’s renaissance took pride of place at the conference, which was presented by the state Department of Housing and Community Development and the Preservation Trust of Vermont, representatives of cities from Rutland to Montpelier shared their stories of revitalization and renovation.
Tropical Storm Irene was in the background of many of the success stories that emerged in panel discussions that embraced everything from fundraising to how to design downtowns to appeal to women.
However, at a panel on creating flood-resistant downtowns and villages, participants heard the word that if we can’t protect our cities from future ravages all the good work will have gone for naught.
Both Irene and the May 2011 storm that swept through Barre and other towns taught Vermonters that in order to be prepared for the future they need to look at rivers and streams, sewers and runoffs.
“Streams and rivers are going to continue to do what they have always done,” said Chris Campany, executive director of the Windham Regional Commission, which has oversight over 27 towns in southeastern Vermont. “When we were settling our communities we settled along rivers right by the places where there was enough hydro power for a mill. Now we need to start looking both upstream and downstream from our village centers to plan for the health of our future.”
Campany quoted Wendall Berry, who said in his book “Watershed and the Commonwealth”: “Do unto those downstream as you’d have those upstream do unto you.”
To mitigate problems, towns and cities need to look beyond their own borders.
If the 1927 flood set the high-water mark in many cities, the difference between that storm and the more recent devastation is the amount of time it took for the damage to occur.
In 1927 it took 36 hours for 8 inches of rain to fall. In May 2011, 5˝ inches of rain fell in Barre in seven hours.
Mike Miller, director of permitting and planning for Barre, said it was important to understand how and where damage occurs so that in the future damage can be minimized.
“We didn’t have any damage under Irene,” he told the audience. “Barre is pretty flood-resistant. But our problem was that storm sewers got plugged in the Granite Street area.”
Miller hit the streets during the May 2011 storm and began documenting the damage and talking to everyone he encountered.
“You can’t fix things unless you know what’s going on,” he said. “I took more than 800 photographs after the storm.”
One of the issues that emerged in Barre after the rain receded, Miller realized, was that many of the city’s residences had electrical panels in the basement.
“We were talking to renters who were saying that as the water was rising they got calls from their landlords telling them to go into the basement and throw the breaker switch,” said Miller. “After the flood we were able to get dozens of those panels moved upstairs.”
If the complications of our climate, rivers, and built environments have created situations in some communities that have made them vulnerable to flooding. There are some steps that can be taken to help with water flows in some situations.
“One of the things that we found was that on streets where there are curbs we didn’t have erosion,” Miller said. “You can’t fix what you don’t understand. The plus side of going through a flood or disaster is that you can see the unique problems that need special attention as well as creating rules that will reduce damage in the future.”
Talk of future floods seemed distant during the awards part of the conference, when individuals and communities across Vermont were recognized by the state’s downtown program.
Montpelier Alive’s “Poem City” program, which has grown to include more than 300 poets throughout the state, received an award for best special event. The organization also was acknowledged for it’s volunteer program in the category of best public/private partnership. Mike Coppinger of the Downtown Rutland Partnership was acknowledged as best downtown executive director.
The Barre Partnership received an award for best retail promotion for “The Barre Treasure Dig,” an ongoing campaign that lured people to downtown Barre during the midst of construction.
One of the biggest rounds of applause went to the Cornerstone Pub and Restaurant, which was named best new business.
As the business of handing out awards concluded, the rain outside continued to fall gently as folks meandered through the Barre downtown in search of lunch. Nobody was talking about disasters of the past or future.
“For 15 years now we’ve been dreaming about making real differences,” said Shumlin. “So congratulations.”