Endangered Vermont: Compromise Will Produce a Great Solution

May 2004
by Paul Bruhn, Executive Director of the Preservation Trust of Vermont

Once again the National Trust for Historic Preservation has given Vermont a wake up call. It's a gift that we should use well. We were put atop the National Trust's list of Eleven Most Endangered Historic Places because of the threat of mega big boxes and Wal-Mart's desire to build seven 150,000 square foot stores around the state.

What's the threat? Disinvestment in downtowns, sprawl, undermining the sense of community and loss of civic discourse that comes with great public places (this issue isn't just about dollars and cents), loss of locally owned businesses, loss of local and regional identity, and undermining the Vermont "brand."

Though we might sometimes take our special place for granted, Vermont is worthy of extraordinary efforts to make sure we grow in ways that do not undermine the essential character of the state. In 2004 Vermont received another designation -- National Geographic Traveller Magazine named Vermont as one of the World's 50 Greatest Destinations. Only nine places in all of North America were included in the list. It would be hard to overstate the ultimate economic value of being one of the World's Greatest Destinations.

That said, we do have a dilemma. Since several Ames Stores closed a few years ago, residents in several communities feel like they do not have places to buy basic goods, close to home, at inexpensive prices. We absolutely understand.

So how can those needs be met in a way that does not undermine the vitality of our downtowns, spoil our countryside, and destroy our locally owned economy?

One answer is within an hour or two from where you live. In Rutland, there is a good compromise and a terrific solution. It's a 70,000 square foot Wal-Mart located in the center of downtown. We actually worked closely with Wal-Mart and local officials to make the project happen in 1997. It's a solution that meets consumer needs, strengthens the downtown, and is small enough so that homegrown businesses can survive. Similar solutions will work in other downtowns.

As special as Vermont is, it is also fragile. Carefully done, we can have growth without spoiling our nest. We can make sure that consumers have what they need, and strengthen our downtowns and community centers. We can support our homegrown, locally owned businesses. It's not easy work, but with some hard work and a collaborative spirit, I bet we can do it!

If we use the National Trust's gift wisely, we can sort out a future for our communities and state which will help us stay on the list of the World's Greatest Destinations.