[Update: Since posting this article I’ve learned that the phrase “red-headed step-child” is an ethnic slur against Irish immigrants dating from the 1830s. My apology to anyone offended.]
April 10, 2016
At the first NCDN meeting back in December, someone suggested the need to do more for economic development beyond Depot Square and the downtown area, wondering aloud if Northfield Falls is being treated like the town’s
It’s easy to imagine why Northfield Falls residents and business owners may feel left out. Sure, they receive some of the same basic services as those on Depot Square and the University area. But it sometimes seems as if a disproportionate amount of infrastructure and development dollars go toward upgrading Depot Square at the expense of other neighborhood locations.
So why is this happening?
Well, we can chalk it up to good news. And it’s the kind of good news that gives Northfield potential to increase its work beyond its tiny downtown vale.
Northfield participates in Vermont’s Village Center Designation program, putting Depot Square higher on the State’s priority list for grants, tax credits and a whole lot of state & federal resources.
Northfield’s downtown received Village Center designation in May 2010 and won renewal in 2015.
This is good news, and it was achieved by hard work on the part of former Zoning Administrator Michele Braun, the folks on the Planning Commission & Zoning Board, and of course the Town Managers who served throughout the application, designation, and renewal periods. Achieving and maintaining Designated status is a huge step toward revitalization. Everyone who played a role in this effort deserves a long applause.
But you’re probably still wondering, how is this good news for Northfield Falls?
It’s possible to do the same for the Falls as what’s been done for the downtown. And more.
At a recent NCDN Weekly Workgroup meeting, the core group met with Richard Amore, Planning Coordinator for the Village Centers program at the Department of Housing & Community Development. Amore said not only is it possible for a single town to have multiple Designated Village Centers, several towns have two, some have three and one has four such districts. In fact, over twenty Vermont towns have more than one Designated Village Center. (To see the entire list, download the Excel file: Vermont Designated Village Centers.)
Northfield could apply for Designated Village Center status for the Falls, which would provide the same grant and tax credit opportunities currently available in the downtown. Additionally, the Town could apply for the Neighborhood Development Areas program, which encourages developers to provide new housing within a one-quarter mile radius around each Village Center. Northfield Falls doesn’t need to be left behind as the narrowly defined Depot Square area Village Center begins to thrive. Falls residents and business owners who may feel like their end of town is Northfield’s
red-headed step-child may consider approaching the Town Manager to inquire about the application process.
The likely response may be that it will be better to wait until we have a new Zoning Administrator. It takes a lot of work to put together the paperwork, meet with the appropriate people, etc, etc, etc. We need a ZA to lead this kind of project. But it also requires public input and commitment. This is where members of the NCDN (outside of the Weekly Workgroup) can play a positive role, if and when the decision to apply comes forward.
The Falls is an essential part of our community. It features the Town’s major non-event tourist attraction — four covered bridges — and roughly 1/4 of Northfield households. It’s the location of two local restaurants, two baseball fields, and four volleyball courts.
Northfield Falls is also the home of the St. Jacob of Alaska Mission, serving all of Central and Northern Vermont. This is one of only two Russian Orthodox churches in Vermont, adding to Northfield’s developing diversity in non-Western religions. (The Trijang Buddhist Institute in Little Northfield is the North American Seat of His Holiness Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche.)
Defining neighborhood districts also creates new branding opportunities. For example, a segment of Northfield Falls may be branded as the Bridge District. It makes more sense than “the Falls” because of the iconic covered bridges along Cox Brook Road. There may be two sets of waterfalls, but one is dammed and inaccessible, and the other doesn’t have a nearby parking area. Tourists come for the covered bridges. It would make sense to brand the district for its primary attraction.
For examples, the hypothetical Water Street & North Main districts could be prime for housing revitalization. The field along the west side of Route 12 South in the hypothetical 12 and 12A district (bottom right, in dark blue) is an excellent location for mixed use development. And the hypothetical Highland and South Main Districts are areas where we can focus on historic preservation.
Obviously, we don’t need twelve Village Centers as outlined in the Google map pictured here. But the exercise of defining discrete areas helps us identify different opportunities.
The timing is perfect for this kind of forward thinking. At the March 22nd Selectboard meeting, the board approved the formation of a Development Review Board model of local planning. Without going into details, the bottom line is that the Planning Commission will focus exclusively on planning and policy. This means the members will have more time to think about Northfield’s long-term future. Who knows, maybe this might include the creation of a Northfield Falls “Bridge District” Village Center.
Some residents and business owners who don’t live or operate in the Falls may wonder, “What’s in it for me?” if we create a second Village Center. I suppose the first thought that comes to mind is: “It’s not about me. It’s about us.” (Yea, yea, it’s a political soundbite, but the sentiment is appropriate for community development.) This is about developing new opportunities for Northfield as a whole, encouraging more people to visit and possibly reside in any Northfield neighborhood.
One of the principles of economic development in a good planning process is to integrate government, businesses, and the community to work together toward the common good. In Northfield, this means looking beyond the tight boundaries of the downtown Common. Let’s look to the Falls as an opportunity waiting to happen. And let’s roll up our sleeves to get this work started.