×

‘Better Block’ Project Pops Up on Bethel’s Main Street

  • With the Bethel Better Block project starting on Sept. 30, 2016, Jonathan Braddick, left, and Andrew Howard, of Team Better Block from Dallas, sit on the back of their truck while Rebecca Stone, of Bethel, takes a selfie of herself and Faith Ingulsrud from the Department of Housing and Community Development in Vermont. Ingulsrud lives in Underhill, Vt. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Kim Prestridge, of Bethel, Vt., stands on a ladder to rearrange a sign at a pop-up store in Bethel on Sept. 30, 2016. Painting indoors is Cynthia Quilici, of Randolph, Vt. Both were there for the Better Block project. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • The Better Block project in Bethel, Vt.,on Sept. 30. 2016.(Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Kirk White, President of the Bethel Revitalization Initiative, and Kevin Barry of Barnard, Vt., chat near a pop-up taco stand during Better Block Project in Bethel on Sept. 30, 2016. Barry owns the Levere Block downtown and is soon to purchase another building downtown.(Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Business Writer
Saturday, October 01, 2016

Bethel — On Bethel’s Main Street people were scurrying about with pencils tucked behind their ears and tool belts hanging from their hips. Some carried planks of wood while others arranged outdoor seating and tables. Signs advertising the names of never-seen-before stores — Riverside Books & Beats, Sweet Gilead Confections, Lulu’s Designs, Lisa’s Joyful Pottery — were being put up on empty storefronts. Straw was placed along the street to create a pathway. A camera team with a professional-grade tripod huddled under a canopy in the parking lot.

A woman taped up a warning on one storefront door: “AARP will be filming.”

Indeed, passersby could be forgiven if they assumed a movie or TV commercial crew had commandeered Bethel’s downtown and were busy at work.

Friday afternoon’s scene easily evoked the bustle that is part of any on-location filming shoot, a mix of make-believe, purpose and anticipation that something exciting and interesting was about to happen.

But the bit of Hollywood stagecraft unfolding on the town’s Main Street was serving a purpose meant to be more lasting than simple entertainment.

Bethel organizers were experimenting with a concept in community building that has similarly occurred in scores of other towns and cities across the country: The opening of “pop-up” stores and making temporary street alterations in order to collect data and ideas on how to breathe life again into empty storefronts and neglected downtowns.

“People have been talking about how to improve Bethel for a long time,” said Rebecca Sanborn Stone, a Bethel community planning consultant who helped to organize this past weekend’s event, which was dubbed Bethel Better Block.

“They’ve been saying, ‘wouldn’t it be great if we had more stores here, or something for families and children to come here at night to do.’ This is a way to experiment with ideas and find out what might work or not work.”

Hit hard five years ago by Tropical Storm Irene, Bethel has largely recovered from the devastation.

Yet, like many former mill towns in Northern New England, Bethel struggles with an aging and declining population, old and unoccupied structures, and a town budget strained to meet the needs of the community.

Earlier this year the town suffered another economic blow when stovemaker Vermont Castings closed its Bethel plant and moved the operations to the company’s Randolph location.

There are some thriving small businesses along Main Street, such as the Cockadoodle Pizza Cafe, Bethel Village Sandwich Shop and Third Branch Wines store, but the core downtown still has several empty storefronts in need of tenants. And one of the historic buildings, 257 Main St., is in the process of being acquired by local builder Kevin Barry, who plans to renovate it for mixed use.

“You don’t like to see any place empty,” Bethel Town Manager Keith Arlund. He called Better Block “a way to image how small section of Main Street might look if it had bike lanes, traffic curbing bump-outs ... the idea is to see what might be possible and to see what we can pull from this to make the village core more accessible, more attractive.”

Better Block was launched in 2010 by the Dallas-based Better Block Foundation, an urban initiative program that advises community organizations on how to uplift downtrodden neighborhoods into viable destinations for residents and visitors. The Vermont chapter of the AARP earlier this year invited organizations throughout the state to apply for a $15,000 grant it was offering to help pay for a “community demonstration project” that would temporarily transform a single block into a festival-like event that show the “potential for new business, safer streets and improved livability,” AARP said.

AARP received seven applications and “Bethel’s was a standout,” said Kelly Stoddard-Poor, director of outreach in the Burlington offices of AARP. “There was strong town and community support behind their application. Bethel is in a unique place. The community came out really stronger after Irene, but there are still vacant businesses on Main Street, which all Vermont towns face.”

Stone, along with Bethel residents Lisa Warhol and Julie Hinman, solicited town residents through social media websites as well as tapping the email list of the civic group Bethel Revitalization Initiative, for ideas about what kind of pop-up shops they would like to see or run themselves. Several months later they had volunteers on board to “open” more than a half-dozen shops in addition to operating a beer garden in the lot of the bar and former train station Bethel Depot and lay out the temporary bike lines and seating areas along Main Street.

Pop-up shops included two different massage therapists, a children-and-family art space, an alterations seamstress, a candy and sweets maker, a weaver and a shared space that included a toymaker, a beaded jewelery maker, a potter, a quiltmaker and a nettled hat maker.

On Friday afternoon, Kim Prestridge, a Bethel resident who works in the financial aid office of Dartmouth College, was working inside her pop-up shop, Riverside Books & Beats, getting things ready for hoped-for customers to browse the shelves of used books and vinyl records. Prestridge’s husband, Dan, would be staffing the outdoor “Crazy Gringo Taco Bar.”

Prestridge said she’s not seriously entertaining the idea of opening a used book and record store in Bethel, but said she wanted to participate in the event to help show what might be possible in town. “I think maybe there are people in town who say, ‘Oh, it’s not what it used to be.’ But the idea is to look and see what Bethel would look like if it were commercially vibrant,” she said.

On the other side of the room, Bethel resident Mary Anderson was laying out her hand-loom woven scarves, placemats and hand towels. Anderson, a resident of Bethel since 2000, sells her hand-crafted wares by traveling to about 20 craft shows a year. She brought one of her four looms to the pop-up shop for on-sight demonstrations.

“I wanted to be involved with the town, so I came down here,” Anderson said, explaining she, too, isn’t interested in opening her own shop (“If I had a store I couldn’t be at home working on my loom”), but she hoped her participation might inspire others to try it. Besides, Anderson said, “it’s so much fun to see the town spruced up.”

Stone, the organizer, said the Bethel Revitalization Initiative will survey town residents in the follow up to this past weekend’s event to find out what they like most. Would it be the craft shops? Or the massage therapists? What did they think of the bike lanes, or the “parklet”? What worked, and what didn’t?

She said the data collected can then be used to seek grants to, say, build a pocket park. It would also provide information to the selectboard or state officials to justify costlier projects, such as building a permanent bike lane along Main Street.

“There are some things we could fund raise for, but others we would have to work with the town or state on,” Stone said. “It would depend on the project.”

Although it’s not problem they likely would have to contend with anytime soon, Bethel residents are firm that although they would like to see more businesses occupy the vacant storefronts, they don’t want to see the small town of about 2,000 people alongside the White River become a tourist trap.

“We’re not trying to gentrify,” said Kevin Barry, the builder who plans to renovate one of the historic buildings along Main Street. “We don’t want it to be like Woodstock or Stowe. It’s Bethel, and we want it to be the best Bethel it’s ever been.”