BERLIN – Three Washington County communities figured prominently in Tuesday’s roll-out of the latest batch of municipal planning grants – nearly $470,000 in all – that Gov. Phil Scott described as a small, but important investment in Vermont’s future.

Most of the 31 municipal recipients weren’t mentioned at all during a brief ceremony that saw Scott single out three of them – Berlin, Middlesex and Waitsfield.

Scott, who lives in Berlin, hailed his home town’s efforts to develop “a vibrant mixed-use town center” anchored by a re-imagined property owned by the Berlin Mall. One major housing development on the mall property is now just an Act 250 permit away from starting construction and another is in the pipeline and hopes to break ground next year.

Berlin’s bid for “New Town Center and Neighborhood Development Area” designation, along with the perks that come with it are viewed as a key component of the latter project and the $22,000 planning grant the town will receive will help finance a consultant’s work toward obtaining that special status.

While Berlin will receive one of the largest grants to help underwrite a $60,000 planning exercise, Waitsfield will receive the smallest, but plans to put the money – $4,938 – to good use. The grant will be used to identify and map wetlands and other important natural resources in Waitsfield Village and Irasville in an effort to identify areas suitable for infill development.

In Middlesex, plans to create a “... walkable, bikeable vibrant village center” received a $20,000 grant that will finance most of the $22,225 design phase.

Representatives from all three communities attended Tuesday’s ceremony at the Central Vermont Medical Center where Josh Hanford, commissioner of the state Department of Housing and Community Development, described the grants as valuable resources for communities with big ideas.

“These planning grants are really part of a community discussion that will lead to something great,” he predicted before turning the microphone over to Scott.

Scott was equally enthusiastic.

“Your vision and my goals are one in the same,” he told those in attendance. “To build a stronger economy by reinforcing our community centers, growing our workforce and making Vermont more affordable.”

Scott described “community planning” as “a team sport” and noted projects – like Berlin’s town center proposal – relied on a broad mix of partners.

“I’m so proud to lead a state where people at all levels of government along with businesses, non-profits, and public entities work towards a better future for all,” he said.

Scott noted the modest grants, which have been awarded for more than three decades as part of a highly competitive process, underscore the “if-you-plan-it-it-can-happen” mentality that has eventually led to several successful projects including Montpelier’s recent riverfront improvement.

Though the grants don’t represent big dollars, Scott said they can make a big difference.

“This small, flexible grant program has helped jump-start initiatives that address local challenges and planned for social, economic and environmental success,” he said.

Bonnie Waninger, executive director of the Central Vermont Regional Planning Commission, agreed, predicting that would be true of the latest batch of grants.

“These funds will help towns focus on building, enhancing and making connections in the community to develop the town centers of the future where both businesses and residents can thrive,” Waninger said.

In Berlin that means advancing plans for a town center that includes new housing and a major childcare center on the mall property. In Middlesex it means building on its village center designation and exploring ways to make it more pedestrian and bike friendly. And in Waitsfield it means identifying areas where affordable housing can be developed bringing economic diversity to the community.

That’s in central Vermont.

Other municipal grants awarded will fund a wide range of projects in municipalities large and small throughout Vermont. A study to resolve the childcare shortage in Randolph will largely underwritten by a $9,518 grant, while the largest grant – $31,000 will help St. Johnsbury and Waterford evaluate the potential for inter-town firefighting. Poultney will receive a $9,000 grant to prepare a plan to bolster its downtown following the closure of Green Mountain College. Several towns – Rutland, Castleton and Springfield among them – will use grants to revise zoning regulations and take other steps to improve local housing opportunities.

david.delcore @timesargus.com

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