MONTPELIER — A sense of place and identity were overarching themes of the 20th annual Downtown and Historic Preservation Conference in the Capital City on Wednesday.
Delegates from across the state were welcomed at an opening plenary session at the State House, with everyone from the governor on down celebrating the State Downtown Program, the landmark legislation that has helped transform many cities, towns and villages into vibrant communities.
Participants also attended workshops that focused on policies and programs that help state and civic leaders support Vermont’s traditional settlement pattern and advance the state’s smart growth goals.
The day’s program ended with a street party on Langdon Street, with art displays, music, food and refreshments. The event was organized by the Department of Housing and Community Development, which oversees the Downtown Program.
There was much pomp and circumstance surrounding the celebration of the 20th anniversary of the Downtown Program, with pioneers of policies and programs lauded and presented with ceremonial pens by Gov. Phil Scott.
There also were practical pointers on how to duplicate and develop initiatives to revitalize community centers.
Montpelier Mayor Anne Watson welcomed delegates, saying she was proud of the city’s historic, thriving downtown, and highlighted initiatives that include turning a former railway yard into the Taylor Street transit center and housing complex, and the recent rehabilitation and preservation of housing in the French Block on Main Street.
“This kind of historic preservation and strong downtown doesn’t happen by accident,” Watson said. “It takes intention, good policy, and a lot of investment. It takes the dedication of people like you who care about our towns. So, thank you all for being here and engaging in these conversations. “
Dan Groberg, Montpelier Alive’s executive director, presented a video of various aspects of Montpelier that make it an eclectic and attractive city for residents and visitors alike. Highlights included the historic State House, Hubbard Park, the Saturday Farmers Market, the city’s ArtFest celebration and quarterly Arts Walks, the academic offerings of the Vermont College of Fine Arts, and major corporate supporters like National Life.
Paul Bruhn, the revered executive director of the Preservation Trust of Vermont, noted that preservation of the classic Vermont landscape of compact settlements and historic buildings, surrounded by farms, was no accident.
“The point is, the work is never done,” Bruhn said. “It needs great stewardship over the long term, and more importantly, this is very much a team sport. It takes a lot of people doing a lot of different things all the time to make great places work.”
There was also a review of some of the state’s infamous incidents that had tested communities which rose to the challenges. They included the 1992 flood in Montpelier and the destruction for places like Wilmington during Tropical Storm Irene in 2011, and disastrous fires in Hardwick and Brattleboro.
There was also discussion of downtown tax credits, Tax Incremental Financing, for municipal projects and public and private partnerships that had helped to revive once thriving commercial and industrial cities like Winooski and St. Albans.
The keynote speaker was Ethan Kent, an internationally recognized expert on projects in public places, who spoke of placemaking efforts in the U.S. and around the world that had helped transform and revitalize communities of all sizes. He said he had also been a frequent visitor to Vermont.
“It’s such an honor to be here with all of you,” Kent said. “I’ve always thought of Vermont as the state that has the deepest connection with place.
“And I’ve always thought of Vermonters as people who are most likely to be shaped by place,” Kent said. “Placemaking is the process through which we shape our shared principles, the process through which we give purpose and meaning.
“You all have been doing this for generations and leading placemaking for generations. Around the world or the country, we all have an idea of the special sense of place in Vermont,” he added.
Workshops around the city covered “A Sense of Place, Cultural and Historical Resiliency,” “Public Art Planning in Downtown,” “Homes for All Ages,” “Face the River” and “Third Places: Secret to Small Town Success.”
The event coincided with the start of Montpelier Alive’s two-day cultural extravaganza, ArtsFest, on Wednesday. And the two-day, biannual New England Foundation for the Arts’ Creative Communities Exchange on Thursday and Friday in Montpelier will be another opportunity to celebrate place and purpose, with dozens of venues around the city presenting a variety of cultural offerings.