Vermont is Creating Better Places
Thanks to a new grant program called Better Places, the Vermont Department of Housing and Community Development is providing tools to support community members in creating projects that add vitality to our villages and downtowns.
Editor's Note: This story was originally published by ThinkVT. We are proud to partner with the Vermont Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD), the Vermont Department of Health, and the Vermont Community Foundation on the Better Places Vermont crowdgranting program.
Vermont is home to stunning natural beauty coupled with towns and villages full of local character, charm, and vibrancy. The real force that makes our communities sing are their people. Vermonters are creative, resourceful, and passionate about lifting up and celebrating their towns. Thanks to a new grant program called Better Places, the Vermont Department of Housing and Community Development is providing tools to support community members in creating projects that add vitality to our villages and downtowns.
The program supports community-led projects that create, revitalize, or activate public spaces, bringing people together to build welcoming and thriving communities across Vermont. How? By providing one-on-one project coaching, local fundraising support, and two to one (2:1) matching grants ranging from $5,000 to $40,000 to make community-led placemaking ideas happen.
So far, 23 local projects have been supported and over $270,000 has been crowdfunded from nearly 1,800 donors—that’s a lot of support for creating great places!
Better Places is about uplifting and building community, not just implementing projects. Let’s take a tour of our brave little state’s newest public spaces.
Thanks to Better Places, Vermont is…
1. A place where you can make a difference, together
Better Places is bringing community connection and a renewed sense of belonging to Vermont communities small and large.
In White River Junction, located on the state’s New Hampshire border, Junction Arts & Media (JAM) turned an empty storefront into a free, public media arts “playground” where community comes together through the arts. Experiences at the new community space include video art installations, community art activities, media arts workshops, live performances, activism, and pop-up outdoor film and music events.
“I can’t tell you how transformative this experience has been and how I toot the horn of Better Places and the advantages of crowdfunding on the front end to convey the vision and recruit community involvement,” said Samantha Davidson Green, Executive Director of JAM.
The town of Guilford has grand plans to create a Community Park in the center of the village, including a large and artfully designed timber-frame pavilion to host community events such as concerts, weddings, and family reunions. A labyrinth will be set into the ground for a “meditative walk” using the classic seven-circuit design inspired by ancient mystics and used across Europe and the United States.
In the town’s Better Places application, officials quoted Andrew Carnegie, writing, “’Every vital attracting village needs a general store, a church, a library and a PARK’. In Guilford, we have the first three, but not the park!” Now that they’ve met their crowdfunding goal, Guilford can fully realize the quad of amenities in a truly vital attracting village.
2. A place that inspires
Many of the Better Places projects add vibrant public art and a sense of creativity to the daily lives of communities, from beautiful murals to fun and free concerts.
“If people can see art on their way to the grocery store or work, it adds a deeper dimension to living,” said Rutland artist Lopi LaRoe. “Public art impacts people’s daily life in a really positive way.”
LaRoe is the artist behind Rutland’s “Beginner’s Mind” mural, which was made possible through a Better Places grant. The theme of the project promotes reading and books as a gateway to imagination and adventure, especially in our technologically saturated world.
Bennington was one of the first communities to launch a Better Places campaign in spring 2022. “Better Bennington Thursday Night Live!”, an effort to reinvigorate community life with free diverse entertainment, was a smashing success: over the summer, the Better Bennington Corporation hosted 18 live performances that included a variety of diverse music, spoken word, storytelling, a drumming circle, and a dance party to close out the season.
“Thursday Night Live provided a wonderful opportunity for the community to come together and enjoy a huge variety of high-quality musical and spoken word performances,” said Bennington Selectwoman Jeanne Conner. “Many people in Bennington would not have access to performances like this which makes them even more important. Everyone deserves to experience the power of listening to live music.”
3. A place that cares
The Better Places program is guided by the belief that all Vermonters deserve access to vibrant and welcoming public places in their lives and communities, and are committed to lifting up placemaking projects, policies, and practices that contribute to social and racial equity for a more just, inclusive, and equitable Vermont.
A great example is the Lamoille Art & Justice Project’s outdoor mural project on the Stowe Recreation Path. The Better Places grant helped install a beautiful community mural directly on the recreation path during a multi-day open community paint workshop in July 2022. Juniper Creative Arts guided participants in painting parts of the overall mural design, which was inspired by the podcasts, readings, and conversations about racial justice that their project has led over the two years. This community-driven project helped transform a popular summer spot for mixed-use recreation into a declaration of the community’s creativity, inclusivity, and values.
Another project that celebrates a community’s diversity is the High Street Mural in Brattleboro, a collaboration between local designers and recently resettled Afghani refugees as part of Art Lords, an international nonprofit, all passionate about making Brattleboro a better place to live and visit. The mural graces a formerly dilapidated wall in a central location with beautiful public art that sparks local pride and co-ownership of public spaces.
“Through this grant, we have been able to successfully replace a neglected stretch of wall in our downtown with a vibrant mural representing our town,” said Jamie Mohr, Director of Epsilon Spires, the arts nonprofit that facilitated the Better Places project. “The community response has been OVERWHELMINGLY positive, and we have been flooded with messages conveying joy, inspiration, and pride around the mural.”
4. A place where you can enjoy the great outdoors
The beauty of the Better Places grant program is that it embraces all kinds of public spaces and expands the meaning of a public gathering place. Many projects showcase Vermont’s extraordinary natural setting and create new opportunities for folks of all ages to get outside in a healthy way.
Middlebury, with its proximity to the Green Mountain National Forest and Trail Around Middlebury, is a recreationist’s paradise. And now, through the support of Better Places, Middlebury will add another recreational asset to make biking more accessible—and fun!—for all: a pump track.
Pump tracks offer an opportunity and location to develop important mountain bike skills such as cornering, jumping, and positioning on the bike. They are a great way for children and beginner cyclists to experience riding common trail features in a controlled environment and experts can also enjoy challenging themselves as well.
Art and outdoor recreation are coming together in Hyde Park, one of the 18 towns along the nearly-completed 93–mile Lamoille Valley Rail Trail. “We want to create an attractive place that can pull folks together to have a fun picnic, start a walk or ride on the rail trail, and inspire visitors to travel the short distance up the hill to explore the village and the town—this art can be an anchor for the Village and act as a community gateway,” says the town’s Better Places crowdfunding page. They’re calling the vision Hyde Park Views, which is designed by Vermont artist Dan Gottsegen and reflects the stories and images shared with him by local elementary school students, senior citizens, and community members.
5. A place where you belong
The Better Places program looks to create public spaces and events that everyone can enjoy. Through Better Places, Vermonters are increasing access to inspiring public places for all people in Vermont, regardless of background, race, gender, sexual orientation, class, age, ability, religion, or geography.
St. Johnsbury, a town of 7,500 in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, activated their downtown through Final Fridays, which brought people together from different socioeconomic, political, racial, and other identity groups to create a shared sense of community on three beautiful summer evenings. Each Friday, between 30-45 different free art, music, and food experiences were featured, culminating in an event that turned the street into a pop-up concert venue in the evening. And the events were a smashing success.
“We achieved our goals of creating an inclusive event where folks across all income levels came out,” said Gillian Sewake, Director of Discover St. Johnsbury. “Most folks who are low income in our downtown can’t attend our cultural programming. This really changed that.”
Pickleball is currently the fastest growing sport in the United States, and it is an especially age-friendly sport as well. The town of Arlington wants to use pickleball to bring the community together to enjoy the sport’s many social and physical benefits.
Arlington’s Common Ground project is all about creating inclusive community: “Finding common ground isn’t always easy, but it brings us closer to joy! Help us create the Arlington Common Ground project to enhance the entire community’s fitness, social interaction, and well-being,” they write in their project pitch. The result would be two outdoor pickleball courts with beautiful gathering spaces for players and spectators.
6. A place where you are empowered
Better Places empowers residents to play an active role in shaping their community. Anyone with an idea to improve their town can find resources, funding, and support to make their project possible.
The town of Pittsford has big dreams for a new Village Farm Pavilion, which will be used to foster community though after-school programs, community events, weddings, fundraising events, flea markets, book sales and more. However, community members got most excited about the empowering prospect of crowd-granting. A memorable moment came when they asked the Better Places team, “You’re going to teach us how to fundraise?”
Sure enough, that’s what happened: Pittsford has exceeded its $11,000 goal to pay for building materials, labor, tables, and landscaping. And, in true community fashion, lots of other support has emerged: Casella Construction has generously donated the excavation work and will pour the concrete pad, and local businesses, Carrara Concrete and Gagnon Lumber are reducing the cost of their products. Now, the Village Farm Pavilion will be a reality!
Home to three ski resorts, countless mountain bike and hiking trails, and dozens of swim holes, the Mad River Valley is a recreationist’s paradise. The only amenity missing? A safe place for dogs to play. After different community groups tried to build a dog park for over a decade, the Better Places grant provided the perfect mix of funding, support, and community building to bring this dream to life. And in the process, new local leaders emerged and found a platform to participate in the community. Thanks to Better Places, the Mad River Valley Dog Park will create a new community hub for humans and canines alike to gather and socialize.
7. A place where you can get things done
Better Places uses a method of grantmaking called “crowd–granting” that builds local awareness, excitement, and shared investment in community-led projects that brings the power to the people, not a distant grant-making committee. Crowd–granting combines crowd–funding – the practice of funding a project with small donations from many people – with non-competitive matching support from the State for every eligible project.
Barre City in Central VT had a big idea: lighting up the downtown with holiday lights for the trees in City Hall Park, and beautiful lighted garlands for the poles along North Main Street. They were calling it Merry Barre Holidays Light Up the City. The only problem? The event was two months away, and Tracie Lewis, Director of the Barre Partnership, had just learned of the Better Places grant.
Since Better Places is a nimble grant with an innovative, grassroots model, Barre launched its campaign and successfully fundraised $5,000 with the support of 32 patrons—in less than a month! Funds were distributed, and the city hosted a successful holiday event with horse drawn carriage rides, caroling, hot cocoa, and sweet treats. “Had the process been more difficult, I don’t believe we would’ve been able to pull this off as successfully as we did,” said Lewis.
“Seeing this project come to life, having so many people come to the event and seeing everything come together was absolutely magical.”
The campaign was recognized by Governor Phil Scott’s “Rays of Kindness” initiative as an example of how a small act of service can spread goodwill in a community.
Vershire is small but mighty: the town of 672 hosts a variety of public events throughout the year. February is Snowshoe-A-Thon, March is Town Meeting Day with soup luncheon gathering after, May is the Book and Plant Sale, July features the annual Volunteer Fire Dept BBQ, August brings the children’s VerShare Summer Camp, October Fall Festival with “Stone Soup,” and December offers Local Artisan Craft Fair. However, they lack one important feature: a place to host outdoor events under shelter.
Thanks to the Better Places grant program, that place will be the Vershire Town Center Pavilion. The most remarkable part of the Vershire story is that this town of 672 raised $28,000 to bring their new community gathering space to life—and, in true small-town fashion, there will be a pavilion-raising this summer!
Vermonters have the tools to make their communities more livable and vibrant thanks to; the Better Places program.
About Better Places
Better Places is a community matching grant program empowering Vermonters to create inclusive and vibrant public places serving Vermont’s. The program is led by the Vermont Department of Housing and Community Development in partnership with the Vermont Department of Health, the Vermont Community Foundation, and Patronicity, our crowdfunding experts. The program supports community-led projects that create, revitalize, or activate community gathering areas that bring people together to build welcoming and thriving places across Vermont.designated downtowns, village centers, new town centers, or neighborhood development areas.