News Briefs
September 28, 2016

Grassroots group plans makeover for downtown Bethel

BETHEL—A unique “do-it-yourself” revitalization project is bringing the community together to create the town they want. During the first weekend in October Main Street will come alive with a new (temporary) bike lane, pop-up shops and a youth center in vacant buildings, a beer garden and live music in empty parking lots, and murals and street art blanketing the town. The event begins at 3 pm on Friday, Sept. 30 and finishes Sunday, Oct. 2, at 3 pm.
These community-driven efforts are part of the Better Block project—a unique community revitalization strategy that will help people see what a better Bethel could look and feel like, and help the community test out possible long-term downtown improvement projects.
Five years after Tropical Storm Irene, Bethel has mostly recovered from the devastation of the storm. But like many small Vermont towns, Bethel continues to struggle with long-term problems: aging historic buildings, empty storefronts, and little municipal capacity for planning and development work.
The Better Block project originated in Dallas to directly addresses those common problems, in a very uncommon way. Bethel’s transformation is the first Better Block project in Vermont, and will serve as an important example for other communities.
“Traditional community development takes decades and tens of thousands of dollars, which Bethel and most other small Vermont towns simply don’t have,” said Rebecca Sanborn Stone, a Better Block community organizer and planning and community engagement consultant. “Better Block gives us a model for making our town more vibrant, beautiful, and active—with some pallets and paint, the help of our neighbors, and a creative, do-it-yourself spirit.”
Bethel has already embraced that do-it-yourself spirit in the years since Irene, creating unique community programs like the popular pop-up Bethel University. Better Block will highlight Bethel’s unique culture and assets, public spaces, economic opportunities, and improved transportation options for bike riders and pedestrians. Among the installations will be pop-up storefronts and a beer garden, a pocket park, buffered bike lane, street beautification, improved crosswalks, and designated transit stops—all along the town’s Main Street. It will also experiment with ideas that community members have asked for in the long term, such as a youth center, more evening events and live music, hiking trails and signage.
AARP Vermont is teaming with the Bethel Revitalization Initiative (BRI) and Team Better Block to coordinate efforts. A team of local volunteers and stakeholders will be matched with specific tasks to create the new spaces, and workshops will be held through BRI’s Bethel University to further engage community members and leaders.
“We’re excited to be able to bring this project to Bethel and work with BRI folks who are so committed to making improvements in the community,” said Kelly Stoddard-Poor of AARP Vermont. “This is a unique way to do something new in downtown Bethel, let people experience the changes and see what could be—and most importantly, to let them participate in creating it. We think people will be amazed at how vibrant and welcoming this downtown space can be after the physical transformation.”
The plan for the temporary redesign was developed by members of the community, town officials, and business owners at meetings and gatherings over the spring and summer.
“We love our town, it’s pretty great. Of course there are always things that could be better, but it doesn’t have to take years to make changes,” explained Lisa Warhol of BRI. “Better Block will help us all see how great downtown can be and test out potential improvements.”
The Better Block organization works around the world to help communities dream, test, and build momentum for change, especially in neighborhoods that have become neglected, vacant, or rundown. “The Better Block recognizes that the work of rebuilding our towns and cities begins one person at a time, one block at a time, one street at a time, one neighborhood at a time,” said Andrew Howard of Team Better Block. “When coupled with visionary and innovative leadership from the public sector, the private sector, nonprofits, and the philanthropic community, this approach can be truly transformative.”
All are invited to visit and experience the transformation, and to lend a hand in building, painting, creating and making the event happen. Get the full event schedule and sign up to help at bethelrevitalizationinitiative.org/better-block.

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