By Al Clark
Sunday, July 14, 2013
While on vacation, my wife and I spent a recent Friday evening in downtown Burlington, Vermont. At the end of a splendid summer day, we found a lot more there than we had anticipated.
We drove from the airport about 15 minutes to a downtown hotel. Across the street was the first thing we hadn’t expected — a beautiful waterfront park overlooking majestic Lake Champlain. As soon as we checked in we walked back to take a closer look.
As we faced west, the sunlight shimmered over the water; New York State’s Adirondack Mountains rose from the large lake’s far shore. It was like seeing the ocean at Emerald Isle with the Blue Ridge Mountains on the other side.
After a late afternoon stroll around the waterfront, we headed back up the hill on Main Street to Church Street in the center of the downtown area.
We had noticed all the people milling about on our drive into town and knew we wanted to go back to see what was going on. When we got there, Friday evening was in full swing.
The city had developed four city blocks into a pedestrian mall now known as the Church Street Marketplace. This night peopled filled restaurants, many eating outside under umbrellas. Up and down the street at least a half-dozen street musicians and entertainers held forth. Shoppers steadily flowed in and out of a variety of stores – even a large shopping mall was part of the mix.
We had dinner on the waterfront on a lake-side porch, complete with an Adirondack view. Then we headed back to Church Street for dessert at a sidewalk cafe. Later I even bought myself a shirt, on sale, at an Eddie Bauer outlet a short walk up the street.
Throughout this brief visit, the similarities between Burlington and Greenville were evident — some actual, others proposed or imagined: city size, the park near the water, downtown hotels, outside dining — it seemed to us downtown Burlington, also a college town (University of Vermont), appears to be today what “uptown” Greenville hopes to become.
Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger told me in a phone conversation this past week that the Church Street Marketplace concept goes back more than 30 years when many cities, including Greenville, used federal grant dollars to turn downtown streets into pedestrian malls.
“Our success has been the result of vigilant, active management, nurtured over time,” he said.
The mayor said the city has struggled in the past with issues Greenville knows well, such as late-night confrontations between police and late night revelers. But such instances have largely subsided over time, while the popularity of eateries with outdoor dining has grown dramatically during the last six or seven years.
I also spoke last week to Ron Redmond, current executive director of Burlington’s Church Street Marketplace district, who told me how city leaders in the ’60s brought back a vision and concept they had seen in Europe and wanted to recreate in Burlington. Two years after the pedestrian mall was built in 1979, the city created a commission to oversee the district and hired a director for hands-on-management. Nine commissioners — citizens, merchants and property owners appointed by the City Council — have met monthly ever since keeping this vision in mind.
The questions they have faced include many of those officials and restaurant owners in Greenville were discussing here last week, such as rules for outdoor dining.
Redmond said the Burlington downtown model stresses the need for high-quality eateries and shopping, and that the resulting competition motivates merchants and restaurateurs to regulate themselves. There are 22 eateries in the four-block area defined by the Church Street district, and 80 restaurants in downtown Burlington altogether.
“We have been averse to too much regulation,” Redmond said. “We are mindful that we need to keep the festival atmosphere of the district.”
As an example, he said there are no restrictions on the use of sandwich board signs, which have become, in his words, “wild and crazy.”
“You want to have a place where there are different colors, shapes and sizes. You want there to be a variety of experiences” to bring customers in and keep them interested in coming back, he said.
Redmond said in the Church Street district there are no specific restrictions on umbrellas or furniture used for outdoor dining, which he said adds to the desired variety. But he said that customers notice quickly if a restaurant’s facilities are of a lower quality.
“Competition rules,” he said. “Customers here have developed high expectations. Restaurateurs know they need to make it nice for them.”
Street musicians and performers under the auspices of the commission have developed their own set of guidelines for performing. There are some 200 who have licenses to perform and they have clear rules governing their appearances.
“They are required to change places every hour and there is generally no amplification,” Redmond said. He said the district auditions performers each week. “Most make it,” he said.
The director said among the keys to the overall success of Burlington’s downtown district has been the flexibility of all the parties involved.
“Things are constantly changing,” he said, emphasizing the need to adjust to the ebb and flow of public tastes. He also said consistent funding and management infrastructure are crucial to keep the area “safe, clean and fun.”
We saw and enjoyed first-hand how Burlington has certainly achieved that goal.
Al Clark is executive editor of The Daily Reflector. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 252-329-9560.
via The Daily Reflector.