Revitalizing downtown

Editor’s note: Article used with permission from News & Citizen.

Nearly 14 years ago, the town of Johnson began a project to revitalize Main Street, and since then the efforts have expanded across downtown. Over the years, there have been challenges and triumphs with multiple projects occurring simultaneously, but the goal of improvement and beautification has always remained the same.

“It’s really been a process,” said Municipal Manager Duncan Hastings. “The Main Street Project started even before I got here, with the planning commission driving a process, which actually started with the Pearl Street Bridge proposed reconstruction. They tried to influence the process on having a more visually attractive bridge in the downtown that led to at least a couple planning grants.”

Only two years ago this week, the Johnson Main Street Project earned statewide recognition for streetscape improvements implemented in downtown Johnson. The community earned the award for its thoughtful approach to addressing travel needs of motorists, pedestrians and bicyclists alike, and for the attractiveness the improvements brought. The award was presented at the annual Vermont Downtown and Historic Preservation Conference held in Barre on June 7, 2013.

Even after receiving recognition for improvements, the town of Johnson just couldn’t sit still, and is continuing to pull in state funds for further revitalization. They pushed forward with plans to reconstruct the Main Street Bridge, following concerns from citizens regarding a possible increase in traffic and speed in downtown Johnson.

“A committee of people got together, and started to think about what it was we could do to reduce the traffic speeding effect of our wide Main Street,” said Community & Economic Development Coordinator Lea Kilvadyova. “That’s how we started. We involved the state legislative representatives, and managed to get significant grants to help reconstruct Main Street. At the same time we started to look at streets that join Main Street and branch out.”

Work on the Main Street Bridge was completed in Oct. 2013. The town of Johnson believes it has now come up with a comprehensive plan to continue to improve the pedestrian network throughout the village. With two bridges completed and renovations on two others, the Powerhouse Covered Bridge and the iron-truss bridge on Rail Road Street, one of the next focuses the revitalization will take will be around Johnson Elementary School, specifically on School Street and College Hill Road.

This will mostly be a sidewalk project as sidewalks in that area are in a state of disrepair, and they are also not complete all around the elementary school. There are gaps that leave people walking along the road. The goal is to close the gaps, complete the network around the school and redesign crosswalks as to be a little safer.

“For the School Street and College Hill Road Project, I am particularly excited, because I know firsthand, my two children are in the elementary school, that when we pick up or drop-off there are gaps in sidewalks where children cross right now. It doesn’t feel safe,” says Kilvadyova. “So, it’s really nice that we have got the funds to address the situation.”

In addition to the grant to revamp sidewalks, the town received grant funds to be able to grind and repave School Street, as well as fix storm drainage up College Hill Road. Both Kilvadyova and Hastings said that the town tries to combine multiple projects whenever possible so as not to disrupt people often, and this is just one example of that with basically three projects being completed at the same time.

According to Hastings, all of the past and future infrastructure work, including upgrades to the sewer system and ancient water system back in 2006 and 2008, has really increased the town’s ability for residential and commercial development.

After flooding in 2011, the town saw a few setbacks in revitalization, which included losing the local grocery store, Grand Union, and it had to look at how to attract a new anchor business. After two years, Pomerleau Real Estate and new proprietor Mike Comeau began to rebuild the store better than the storm found it, and opened it’s doors on Oct. 1, 2013 after much support from the community.

“One category of revitalization is business development,” said Kilvadyova, “and I do believe our greatest achievement in that category is helping Sterling Market establish itself in the downtown. That project wouldn’t have gone through if we didn’t get involved, because we as a municipality were able to achieve some grant funds and loan it to the business at a very favorable rate.”

According to Hastings, if the municipality didn’t get involved in bringing in a new grocery store, the town would have very likely had a dollar store in the plaza instead. The town of Johnson has been involved in many other revitalization projects over the years, whether they were infrastructure, residential, or business related, and will continue to work toward establishing an aesthetic community with a unique appeal that it hopes will draw in more people. According to Kilvadyova, Johnson has many things that other rural towns have, but it also has two things that are unique to the town. With Johnson State College and the Vermont Studio Center occupying a large space, Johnson has a concentration of artists that is really very rare in a community of its size.

“It would be great to do a little more in the regard of promoting arts, and making arts more visible in Johnson,” said Kilvadyova. “We already have the people who make art, and I think finding a way of increasing their public presence would make us really stand out.”

Kilvadyova says the revitalization and beautification of Johnson’s downtown would not have been possible without a fair number of volunteers such as Johnson Works, among others, which took on smaller beautification projects, and helped promote the use of Main Street within the community.