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The Changing Facades of America’s Downtowns

Across America, small downtowns are experiencing the pains of transition while offering hope and inspiration. While cities and political centers deal with challenges created by size, power and attention, small towns are searching for solutions to maintain their identity, civility, and most importantly, viability.

Here in Middlebury, Vermont, our story is no different. Our community is strong. Our sense of fellowship, palpable. Our work ethic, extraordinary. As a frequent visitor to this town for six years, and now as a Weybridge resident and Middlebury business owner, I am learning first-hand of the challenges and benefits of downtown communities in rural America. My “downtown” used to mean below 14th street in Manhattan…. Now, my “downtown” is Main Street and its offshoots… hidden gems and some struggling storefronts.

Let’s be clear. I love my new downtown. And I, along with my business partner Stacey, are committed to ensuring its facades remain vibrant and reflect the values, both culturally and economically, that make us who we are. Let’s also be clear, this is hard work. Work that will require reflection, cooperation, and selfless motivations fueled by shared goals, not partisan or personal needs.

Thomas Friedman recently penned (ok, typed) a column, Where American Politics Can Still Work: From the Bottom Up.  In it, he describes the efforts of Lancaster, PA as they attempt to re-establish their foundation and create a community that can withstand their challenges and celebrate their differences. A town where residents can date their family settlement back to 1740, where crime had flourished, and where determination remained strong. Lancaster reflects the notion that no one institution can solve the challenges of downtowns. It will take stakeholders, with shared goals, checking ego and agenda at the door. The work will be hard, but important, and without question, possible.

In reading Mr. Friedman’s piece, I reflected on our opportunities here in Middlebury. He sums up his article with thoughtful learnings:

They are mostly started and inspired by civic leaders with no formal authority, and not by politicians, and are driven not by party ideology or affiliation but by a relentless “what-works attitude.”

 They all begin with a vision, strategy and benchmarks for rebuilding their community, which enable them “to harness each element of the community and mobilize their unique resources, and societal innovations, behind this vision. … We call this ‘extending the yoke.’ The longer yoke you have, the more horses you can have pulling the wagon — and in a community, the ‘yoke’ is the inspiring vision and the ‘horses’ are the business leaders, social entrepreneurs, local colleges, philanthropies, nonprofits and faith-based institutions.”

They understand that there are no quick fixes for regenerating a community, which is why civic leadership is so crucial — “because civic leaders can adopt a long-term view that transcends political tenures.”

And…, Not a single community leader I spoke to in Lancaster said the progress was due to technology — to microchips. They all said it was due to relationships — relationships born not of tribal solidarity but of putting aside tribal differences to do big hard things together in their collective interest. It’s a beautiful thing to see.

We own this. We own who we want to be, our success, our future. We need a “long yoke”, being pulled by many. We need to recognize our challenges were not caused by, nor will be solved by infrastructure alone. For our downtown to flourish, it will require us all to reflect on our contributions and our responsibilities. It will require compromise toward common goals. And most importantly, it will require a belief that we can honor our history AND build for our future.

We have what others wish for. We can’t forget that.

Now is the time for us to build the facades we want to be seen for decades to come, rooted in community, born from perseverance, and celebrated for their diversity.

I’m excited for the work ahead of us.