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Vermont’s Downtowns Build Back Stronger after Floods


Eight historic downtowns in Vermont, turned massive flooding into opportunities to improve their physical design, hone their marketing messages, and strengthen partnerships to achieve greater economic resilience and build back stronger than before the flood. State leadership and federal disaster funding empowered these eight communities to go beyond flood recovery and take steps to improve public safety and strengthen their economy while enhancing their ability to bounce back quickly from future floods.

Flooding Hits Vermont’s Downtowns

In 2011, Vermont was devastated by the worst flooding in 83 years. In May, torrential spring rains flooded several communities followed by Tropical Storm Irene in August, which washed out roads and bridges, left homes and business under water, and brought commerce to a halt in many communities. While the immediate response focused on a restoration of services, many communities lacked plan to restore flood damaged businesses and market the downtown as “open for business.” 

State of Vermont’s Response

Vermont’s villages and downtowns are unique historic and cultural assets and their vitality is critical to the state’s economy and high quality of life. Recognizing the need to fast-track the economic recovery of communities impacted by floods, the Vermont Department of Housing and Community Development used Federal Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR) funds to assemble the Vermont Downtown Action Team (V-DAT). 

V-DAT brought together an interdisciplinary team of marketing, urban design, and planning experts that used the Main Street Four Point Approach to develop and implement community tailored economic recovery plans for eight of the hardest hit communities. The teams conducted multiday community charrettes that identified a range of ideas to improve the vitality and economic recovery of each downtown. These inclusive and interactive workshops focused on each community’s unique assets and provided a forum for members of the public to discuss the future direction and vision for their downtown. The V-DAT community process and accompanying illustrative reports, provided municipal and business leaders a clear direction, grounded in a comprehensive four point analysis and a community-driven vision.

Barre immediately implemented a new community branding effort following the community charrette, including installing downtown banners, a new downtown organization website, and use of the new tagline and attributes to brand community events. Image: V-DAT

Local Action Plans

During the three day charrettes in each community, the V-DAT team transformed public and stakeholder input into action plans built upon local market analysis, community branding and promotion, a physical master plan with urban design and architectural enhancements, and prioritized steps to guide the short and long-term recovery process.

The market analysis included a zip code survey at retail establishments to determine where customers were coming from and a detailed retail gap analysis to inform future development potential. The community branding and a place-based marketing package was tailored to each community with logos, taglines, wayfinding sign concepts and other collateral material to help attract visitors to the downtown, help speed economic recovery in the short term, and promote sustained branding and marketing efforts moving forward. The master plans were light on text and rich with graphics including “before and after” visualizations, artist renderings, and 3-D modeling to quickly capture the public’s imagination, restore hope, and generate enthusiasm and buy-in needed to support implementation. 

To create these master plans, the V-DAT took a bottom-up approach, working directly with stakeholders and private and public property owners to identify ways to improve their individual properties as well as the larger commercial district. This approach quickly built the community buy-in, vetting, and project prioritization needed to support rapid implementation. Community visions as depicted within the physical master plans include a phased improvement plan to guide investments in the built environment and spur related downtown revitalization efforts. The master plans include conceptual designs for the redevelopment of underutilized sites, public infrastructure improvements focusing on the streetscape, and other public/private improvements and redevelopments in the downtowns.

 Brandon’s illustrative poster highlights the V-DAT recommendation for downtown, displaying the community brand, the streetscape recommendations and wayfinding signage. Each community received an executive summary poster that displays recommendations in a graphically-rich and accessible way. Image: V-DAT

Successful Public Involvement
V-DAT focused on listening to the community and utilizing creative methods to transform public comments into compelling visuals. Public involvement in each community followed these steps.
  1. Created a master plan advisory group consisting of key leaders, including town officials, volunteer board members, downtown organization staff, elected officials, property owners, merchants, and residents.
  2. Conducted a three-day charrette - this length of time provided an efficient and effective way to gather public and stakeholder input while offering immediate planning and design results to generate excitement and enthusiasm.
  3. Organized a property owner’s workshop during the charrettes. Interested property owners signed up for individual design consultations and the following day the design team presented participants with conceptual design improvements specific to their property. These individualized plans, together with the public sector improvements, helped communities expedite recovery efforts and restore downtown vitality.

The V-DAT project included the ‘usual suspects’ involved in local planning but also focused on engaging those often neglected in typical planning efforts, such as small business owners, merchants, property owners, volunteer groups, art and environmental nonprofits, and individual residents to gain valuable input and secure critical support in the community.


The V-DAT worked with communities to develop a roadmap to recovery that prioritized short, medium and long term recovery strategies. Each V-DAT plan included detailed implementation strategies and action steps to identify the who, what, how, and when each recommendation will be implemented. The V-DAT also worked with each community to implement top recommendations from each plan by obtaining additional CDBG-DR funding to plan, design and construct future physical improvements to increase the vitality of the downtown.
Northfield is addressing the flood devastation along Water Street (site of seven FEMA home buy-out properties) through the creation of a community park that will provide a recreational amenity that enhances the livability of the neighborhood, provides future flood protection and offers better connections between the downtown, the residential neighborhood and Norwich University. Image: V-DAT

All the participating communities received CDBG-DR implementation funds to support a variety of projects, including constructing new town halls safe from flooding, renovating and floodproofing historic buildings, building new public green spaces, and adding streetscape and sidewalk improvements. Many of the V-DAT communities rolled out their community branding campaigns immediately, with new websites, street banners, and consistent marketing and event coordination. Since the floods, 38 historic building improvements in V-DAT communities were supported with state or federal rehabilitation tax credits.

Today, historic landmarks in each downtown are back in business and additional tax credit projects for renovations of historic commercial buildings are in progress or nearing completion. Over $2.25 million in state tax credits will leverage almost $40 million in private investment across the eight downtowns to create new jobs and restore community vitality. The resulting public and private sector construction projects gave the communities hope at a critical time and created the momentum needed to speed recovery and build back stronger.

 Waterbury and the downtown organization, Revitalizing Waterbury are capitalizing on under-utilized alleys to connect local businesses to their outdoor spaces, provide a venue to showcase local art, and activate the streetscape. Before and after photos show the existing and proposed appearance of an alley next to a downtown business, Alex’s Gallery/Frame Shop. Image: V-DAT

A Plan to Rebuild and Recover

The V-DAT process provided hope and inspiration, helped communities agree on clear goals and objectives to restore their economies and re-imagine a brighter future in the wake of disaster. Three years later, the progress made in each of the V-DAT communities in the face of adversity is a testament to their will and community spirit. It exemplifies what can be achieved when communities pull together and unite around a shared goal to rebuild a devastated downtown. Now armed with an action plan supported by community consensus, they continue to rebuild and recover in a stronger and more resilient way. To learn more, visit the V-DAT website.

Results of the V-DAT in each community were summarized in a graphic-rich report and on a one-page poster that can easily be consumed at a glance. Each report also included a detailed market analysis.

  • Barre –  Community Branding, Streetscape and Building Improvements. Report and Poster.
  • Brandon – Community Branding, Intersection and Town Green Improvements. Report and Poster.
  • Brattleboro – River Connections, Parking Improvements and Façade Improvements.  Report and Poster.
  • Northfield – Gateways, Streetscape Improvements and Neighborhood Park. Report and Poster.
  • Waitsfield – Community Branding, Pocket Park and Streetscape Improvements. Report and Poster.
  • Warren – Traffic Calming, Infill Development and Village Green Improvements. Report and Poster.
  • Waterbury – Community Branding and Wayfinding, Art in the Alley and Infill Development.  Report and Poster.
  • Wilmington – Community Branding, Pedestrian Improvements and Building Redevelopment.  Report and Poster.

 On August 28, 2011, Tropical Storm Irene dropped up to 15 inches of rain in Wilmington, causing the Deerfield River to rise nearly 27 feet in the downtown, bringing nearly six feet of water onto Main Street and throughout the downtown area. The damage in Wilmington was among the worst in the state with over 48 businesses flooded. Tucked in the mountains in southern Vermont, Wilmington, a classic skiing and recreation town, is now a poster child for what can happen when people collaborate and unite around a shared goal to rebuild a devastated downtown economy. Thanks to the hard work of municipal leaders, the downtown organization, local residents, a strong and dedicated group of second-homeowners, local foundations, businesses, private investors, and state policymakers, Wilmington’s revival is now well on its way. Image: V-DAT

Project Acknowledgements

This project was supported by funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Community Development Block Grant – Disaster Recovery. The local action plans were prepared as a cooperative effort of the State of Vermont Department of Housing and Community Development, the Division of Community Planning and Revitalization and the Towns of Barre, Brandon, Brattleboro, Northfield, Waitsfield, Warren, Waterbury and Wilmington. For more information on the Vermont Downtown Action Team [V-DAT], contact the V-DAT project manager, Richard Amore

Project Team

Richard Amore, Leanne Tingay (formerly), Noelle MacKay, Jennifer Hollar (formerly), Josh Hanford, Cindy Blondin, Carl Bohlen, Nathan Cleveland, Claire Forbes, and Ann Karlene Kroll with the Vermont Department of Housing and Community Development, Tripp Muldrow, Ben Muldrow and Tee Coker with Arnett Muldrow & Associates, Tom McGilloway and Nate Scott, Mahan Rykiel Associates, Randy Wilson with Community Design Solutions, Margie Johnson with ShopTalk, Stephanie Francis and Stacy Pair with South Coast Consulting, Laz Scangus and Heather Fontaine with Arnold Scangus Architects, Leigh Minor Nagy with Minorbird Retail Consulting, Steve LaRosa with Weston & Sampson and David Boehm with Engineering Ventures.