With the re-opening of retail businesses still fresh, this moment feels like an inflection point in the story of COVID-19 and for our community in general. We know that things may not quite go back to “normal,” but what does the new normal look like? While that’s anyone’s guess right now, the City Council spent time over the past couple of weeks talking through what it hopes to accomplish in the coming year, that might help shape the new normal for Montpelier. Recovery from the impacts of COVID-19 was at the forefront of our minds as we went through our strategic planning process.
We created our annual strategic plan with the understanding that it is aspirational. Given the financial uncertainty of our present time and that much the city staff will be furloughed through June, we are already planning on re-visiting our strategic plan in six months to see if it needs to be adjusted.
The full strategic plan is available on the city’s website. I’ve included the council’s top initiatives in the chart above. I want to highlight a few of them.
The first is the COVID-19 Response. For the past few years the city has worked on eight major goals: community prosperity, environmental stewardship, more housing, responsive and responsible government, sustainable infrastructure, inclusive equitable and engaged community, thoughtfully planned built environment, and public health and safety. This year we have added a ninth goal: COVID-19 response. Under this goal the city plans to work closely with the Montpelier Development Corporation and Montpelier Alive as partners in helping our businesses and residents recover from the financial hardships resulting from closures and loss of cash flow. The city itself does not have a lot of financial resources to put toward the recovery effort, but we are open to suggestions for ways we can help. This might mean temporary street closures to create outdoor eating venues. It might mean enabling more sidewalk sales and other open-air vending opportunities. It might mean considering further extension on property tax payments. We’ll continue to be in dialogue with our partners to see how the city can play its part in recovery. This is a top priority for us. It’s very likely that we will continue to have updates and potential solutions regarding the recovery at our council meetings going on for the foreseeable future.
Under Responsive and Responsible Government, you’ll see an initiative called Childcare Option Study. Washington County has a shortage of available high-quality childcare. It was a problem before COVID-19 arrived and it will continue to be a problem afterward. The city may be well-positioned to help fill this community need. The council is not proposing that we start this program this year, but rather that we take the time to study the logistics of starting such a program. There are many questions that would need to be answered. What is the specific need for childcare in Montpelier? How would the business model look? What upgrades would need to be done for our facilities to meet the standards for childcare? This year we will study this issue and put together a plan that we can hopefully begin to implement the following year.
While we recover from the health and financial impacts of the COVID-19 crisis, we cannot ignore the other slow-burning crisis that is climate change. I was glad to see that the council continued to support its net zero goals in this strategic plan and specifically its plan to help make city operations net zero energy by 2030. Put a little different, we aspire to have all city operations running on locally, sustainably produced energy by 2030. This year the police department purchased its first hybrid cruiser (just before COVID-19 hit). This was an important first step for the city, hopefully the first of many steps in this direction.
Additionally, a subcommittee within the city has been working on an energy information ordinance that would ensure home buyers are provided with standardized energy information about a home before they buy it. This ordinance has three purposes for the city: (1) It is consumer protection for home buyers; (2) buyers who have this kind of energy information available to them are statistically more likely to make energy improvements than if they don’t; and (3) this helps the city to understand how it’s doing in terms of its net zero energy goal for the whole community. There is otherwise very poor information available about home heating. The subcommittee is working on making sure that this process is simple, easy, and reasonably accurate. This is likely something the council will consider over the course of the next year.
As we look forward toward what the future may look like for Montpelier in the coming years, it will be significantly shaped by two recently adopted plans. The Barre Main Street Scoping Study increases bicycle and pedestrian facilities within Montpelier. It adds a traffic light at the Barre Street and Main Street intersection and a round-about at the Spring Street and Main Street intersection. The second plan is the Downtown Master Plan, which proposed more street trees, permeable pavers, and two new pedestrian-friendly plazas—one in front of City Hall and one on the Rialto Bridge on State Street. I am personally quite excited to see these changes come to Montpelier, but these plans will not be implemented overnight. Even before COVID we knew that it would take some years to implement the vision in these documents, as it’s mostly a function of available funding. Given the budget adjustments necessary due to COVID-19, it’s likely that we will make less progress than expected this year. However, this is still where we’re going in the long term. As a small city with limited resources, we will make the changes as we can, while being mindful of the fiscal uncertainty we may be facing as the FY21 budget unfolds.
I have confidence that we will still have a vibrant downtown when this is all over. We will still have thriving neighborhoods. And we will still be a wonderful place to live. None of that is going away. It may look different. There may be changes. But through this time of difficulty and change, we will find ways to support each other, and help carry each other through it. That may mean being a good friend or a good neighbor. It may mean intentionally spending your money locally. Now, more than ever, it is important that we spend our money at locally owned businesses.
Beyond simply “making it through” these challenging times, I believe that in many aspects we will emerge better than we were before.
This page was paid for by the City of Montpelier.