Join me for a pleasant outing in downtown Burlington. Really. This is not aspirational.
A few weeks ago, Mayor Miro Weinberger spoke to the Rotary of Charlotte-Shelburne-Hinesburg.
To his credit the mayor appeared shortly after the shooting of three college students of Palestinian descent. He could have made his excuses but he did not and, not surprisingly, Miro is bullish on Burlington. So, I decided to put his enthusiasm to the test.
I drove up St. Paul Street on a grey Saturday afternoon. Although it was just 3 p.m., gloom and dark had settled in. Ahead of me, looming over the town, scores of white lights twinkled in the sky. A 10-story building, the tallest in Vermont, is rising from The Pit, the blocks of walled-off and graffitied excavation that have lain dormant for years in the heart of Burlington.
Fun fact: of all the states, Vermont has the shortest tallest building.
Steel beams sparkled as did a crane somehow suspended up yon. Before long, this mixed-use edifice will house residential units, both market and affordable, commercial and retail tenants, and possibly a hotel. City Place, now stewarded by three well-established, local families in the construction business, Ireland, Farrington and Senecal, is the largest private investment ever in Burlington.
After using a machine to purchase on-street parking (know thy license plate number), I continued on foot past restaurants we know and love, still here after the pandemic.
I strolled to City Hall Park, lured by music, flickering fire pits, and curiosity. What are those little houses? The BTV Market hosts a rotating group of 20 artists, makers and food vendors, Friday to Sunday afternoons mid-November through December 23. Shivering sellers featured jewelry, dried flowers on stationery and value-added foods like flavored vinegars in festive bottles.
As co-sponsor of the market, Burlington City Arts (BCA) opens its doors into the market space so it’s easy to take in some visual art and get a little blood flowing in the fingers enroute to Church Street.
Shimmering lights dominate the pedestrian thoroughfare as trees lining the street sport tiny white lights, luring walkers toward the evergreen that towers at the top of Church Street. The pleasure of fellow travelers, one I’ve missed these past few Decembers, warmed my spirit if not my extremities. As Weinberger affirmed, empty storefronts are filling with new tenants, the space of Dobra Tea will soon host an Asian market, a new eatery takes over the spot vacated by local favorite Penny Cluse Café. Three other new restaurants have or soon will open. I spotted few vacancies along the four pedestrian blocks.
Mayor Weinberger did not shy from grim statistics. With the local police force down 30 percent and recruiting difficult in this economy, some bad actors carry on with impunity.
“The drug crisis unfolds across the state, with the number of overdoses in Rutland comparable to those in Burlington,” he said, and educated us about Fentanyl. “Whereas a hit of heroin lasts 8-10 hours and is pricey, Fentanyl is cheap, about a dollar a dose, but the high lasts only two hours before withdrawal begins, hence the drug paraphernalia scattered about town.”
There’s more but we’ll return to the good news.
Cell phone data confirms that foot traffic has returned to pre-pandemic levels. Tax records indicate that gross receipts, too, are equal to those of 2019. The only segment that is down is retail, largely due to the inability of businesses to hire workers. Hotel demand exceeds the limited supply, keeping room rates high. A new hotel or two could ease that. A record number of carts dot Church Street this year. Northfield Savings Bank has moved into the space vacated by Stephen & Burns.
“The bank has doubled down on Burlington by bringing its headquarters to Church Street,” the mayor said. “It is safe to dine and shop in downtown Burlington.”
We know that bad news generates clicks, but there is another side to the story. Consider a Burlington outing. Mine certainly cheered me.