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The Way I See It: To Keep a Village, It Takes a Village

We recently celebrated spring and the waning of COVID with a Saturday excursion to Richmond, a town I’d lived in for 14 years. Bridge Street, Richmond village’s main street, was bustling with activity: knots of young, athletic-looking people in search of their caffeine buzz; couples walking dogs; and people doing their weekend errands on foot at the library, the post office, and the grocery store.

It wasn’t always that way. I’ve been reflecting on what it took to transform Richmond village from the moribund downtown I found when I moved there to the lively community center it is today: 40-plus years of people-power, respect for history, a shared vision, patience, and above all, persistence.

When I moved to Richmond in 1977, its population was a little more than 3,000 and a number of large dairy farms were still in town. It could have become another IBM bedroom community; the computer giant brought thousands of jobs to Chittenden County and, despite Act 250, suburban tract housing was springing up and spreading in its wake. Richmond’s location roughly halfway between Burlington and Montpelier, with real estate that was still affordable, made it attractive for young households like ours. But as a living, breathing community, it left much to be desired. 

The very assets that gave Richmond its identity were endangered: the famous Round Church at the end of Bridge Street, formerly used for town meetings, closed to public use in 1973 for safety reasons; the two landmark Monitor Barns on the north side of Route 2, in danger of falling down; and the former Universalist church on the verge of closure and possible demolition. The old town school sat almost empty as a new school complex was built on the north end of town.

In the 1980s, town officials proposed building new town offices on the western strip of Route 2, outside the village and close to the Interstate-89 interchange. The post office would have moved there too. The village center would have been hollowed out.

An energetic mix of 40 or so citizen volunteers, from multigenerational residents to newcomers, stepped up to oppose what they saw as a formula for the demise of the village center, working on a comprehensive revision to the town plan to preserve and re-purpose threatened buildings in the heart of the village.

Local heroes such as Gary Bressor, Dr. Warren Beeken, Lou Borie, and Jim Feinson, along with future Environmental Board Chair Marcy Harding in the lead, drafted a town plan that focused on revitalizing and repurposing buildings in the village center. In 1987, they created the Richmond Land Trust, which became and remains a vital resource for land conservation and protection of historic structures.

In the eventual vote on the competing visions for the town, the downtown preservation scenario won. The volunteers set to work applying for grants, pushing for bond votes, and getting permits. The Round Church was saved, restored to its former glory as a Vermont historic landmark and favorite calendar shot.

In 1990, the town voted to approve a bond to turn the first floor of the old Universalist church into the Richmond Free Library. The old school across the parking lot became home to the town offices, the police department, and the Chittenden East School District. The post office moved into an addition behind the main building. 

In 2003, the old church’s second floor and mezzanine were restored, creating a beautiful public meeting space. The Vermont Youth Conservation Corps acquired and preserved the Monitor Barns, those landmarks along Route 2. Federal, state, and nonprofit agencies such as the Preservation Trust of Vermont leveraged the town’s own investments with grant funds.

Those public investments encouraged small businesses to make their own commitments to the downtown. The former Daily Bread Bakery, with its killer sticky buns, was an early pioneer. The old Blue Seal Feeds building became a restaurant. The lumber yard on the south end of the village transformed into the Richmond Market & Beverage, and local resident Carol Feierabend opened Fire Robin, a toy and puppet store.

Over the years, the mix has changed and grown to include Hatchet, a farm-to-table restaurant; Sweet Simone’s bakery and café; the Richmond Food Shelf and Thrift Store; and The Big Spruce Mexican restaurant, where Daily Bread once lived. Locals can walk to the town offices, the library, the post office, and the numerous shops, eateries, and churches that constitute the village center. There’s even a brew pub, the Stone Corral Brewery. And the town’s population has grown to more than 4,000.

In an age of big boxes and virtual shopping, it’s only going to get harder to keep our downtowns thriving. I’m grateful for the work of those Richmond volunteers who stepped up and dedicated themselves to preserving their town’s heart — and to the many folks who are doing the same in Montpelier and throughout Vermont.