More than 500 people turned out for a massive brainstorming session focused on Montpelier’s resilience and recovery from the July 10 flood. At least 300 people showed up in person for the Aug. 10 event, held at Alumni Hall at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. At least 200 attended the August 10 meeting via the interactive video-cast provided by ORCA Media.
Led by Paul Costello of Montpelier Strong — a collaboration between Montpelier Alive and the Montpelier Foundation — the goal of the night, he said, was to come up with “points of vision” for a second forum scheduled for Tuesday, Aug. 22, at the Vermont Statehouse.
Before hearing from the community, Rev. Joan Javier-Duval, minister of the Unitarian Church of Montpelier, opened the event with a speech that culminated in a story about mucking out the church basement and finding blueprints dated February 1928. The blueprints, she said, were developed when the church was being rebuilt after the 1927 flood.
“How serendipitous that it took another flood almost 100 years later to uncover them,” she told the crowd.
More than one voice cracked while people talked about their experiences in the month since one of Montpelier’s most devastating floods. Several people spoke with sadness about missing their walks downtown, and the bustling activity that, up until a month ago, characterized State and Main streets in Montpelier.
Downtown is Empty
Lauren Parker, owner of the North Branch Café, was able to remain open (her café is raised several steps higher than street level and didn’t suffer as much damage as neighboring shops).
“We need to pay attention to the fact that our town is empty,” Parker told the crowd, saying tourists have been coming to town confused and not knowing what just happened. Parker added that it’s been lonely as one of just a few businesses still open.
One person suggested shopping at local businesses through their websites while recovery is underway. Many of those present thanked Montpelier Alive — the nonprofit downtown revitalization organization — for its role coordinating help for businesses and citizens in the past month. Montpelier Alive executive director Katie Trautz walked to the podium to loud applause, including a standing ovation from a row of local business owners.
Later Trautz told the crowd “I could not do the work I’m doing without the … experts and professionals … . In future meetings … there are some plans to invite these experts to the table, but we don’t know who you all are … We are eager to hear from those people.”
Many participants offered their expertise throughout the evening, including about river conservancy, climate issues, and financing urban revitalization projects.
The Rivers are Residents Too
Kassia Randzio, of the Vermont River Conservancy, talked about the need to preserve wetlands “to slow down the river and absorb water.” Randzio suggested selling the Montpelier High School building currently sitting in the floodplain and using the proceeds to purchase one of the VCFA campus buildings currently for sale.
Another man suggested that future plans should consider three residents of Montpelier: “the Winooski, the North Branch and the Dog [rivers]. We need to give these residents the room they need to reinvent themselves — only in doing that can we reinvent ourselves.”
Several ideas were proposed for how to rebuild differently to avoid the kind of damage and heartbreak that came out of the July 10 flood, which, as one participant put it “annihilated” most downtown businesses and many homes.
Dave Gram, a former Seven Days columnist and WDEV radio host, said we are in “a long-term abusive relationship with our rivers and we need to get out.” He proposed creating a new downtown on college hill, where the VCFA campus sits, and moving housing to terraces on surrounding hillsides.
Carolyn Grodinsky suggested getting the Green Building Council involved in rebuilding efforts, adding, “Is there any way we can open up the basements so the water can flow through, so we don’t have to lose the downtown?”
A Regional Approach
Others spoke of the need for a regional solution. Montpelier resident Didi Brush recalled a similar process after previous floods. “As far as I know, nothing happened,” she said.
“I want to see a very vibrant group … taking concrete steps,” she said. “… this is not a Montpelier problem, it’s a Vermont problem, and we haven’t seen the courage yet to really tackle what’s in front of us.”
Eve Carnahan pointed out that the flood happened regionally, not just in Montpelier, and “We are going to be competing with resources with all these other communities that were affected … I’m very worried that this can’t be solved just by Montpelier itself.”
Climate Change is Here
One thing that many acknowledged: Montpelier has a history of flooding; this flood will not be the last, and future floods could be worse.
“Climate change is no longer out there to deal with (later). … It’s here … we are living in a chaotic situation that’s going to get worse and we have to start acting like that is the truth,” said Dan Jones, longtime sustainability advocate and former executive director of the Sustainable Montpelier Coalition.
Miriam Serota-Winston, a 15-year old Montpelier High School student, told the crowd of adults that “climate action can’t wait” and urged people to lobby their representatives in the Statehouse for legislative action.
Several business owners said they are having a hard time finding workers. “I am desperate to find people to work,” said Chris Pratt, of Open Sash Windows, a sentiment echoed by others in the room. A lack of workers came up multiple times as people spoke about rebuilding in ways that attract and keep young people in town.
Suggestions were also made to make sure that any rebuilding includes consideration of affordable housing, those who are homeless, space for art, walkability, and public transportation, and includes a system to hold landlords accountable to their tenants during disasters.
“We all need to be advocates for the city when we leave the room,” said Rep. Conor Casey, who represents Montpelier in the Statehouse along with Rep. Kate McCann. “There are people in other areas of Vermont that have already forgotten this flood has happened … . We need to get loud.”