A multi-year, volunteer-driven revitalization project in Enosburg Falls village was starting to bear fruit this year. Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit. But the community has not given up, and its story of resilience offers hope and lessons for others around Vermont.
(Editor's note: Enosburgh the town is spelled with an "h." The village of Enosburg Falls lost it somewhere. Or, as the case may be, the former added the "h" the latter didn't need).
One of the first projects involved a fence. Now, forget what Robert Frost said about good fences making good neighbors. Fences turn you away, they don’t invite you in.
Just ask Jim Cameron, Enosburg Falls native and now one of its biggest boosters. On a walking tour of the village center, Cameron points out a war memorial encircled by flowers, with statue of a World War I soldier in the middle.
“For 15 years, this had a four-foot, chain-link fence, all around everything you see, all around the monuments, all around the cannon,” he said. “Up until a month ago, it had a 'stay out of here' [message].”
Removing the unsightly and unwelcoming fence was a top priority for local volunteers. But they had to get many people, including local officials, to agree. Then they had to raise the money for the work.
“Now this is a village park, the [American] Legion put up the fence, nobody was talking to each other about how to maybe make the improvement,” he said. “And our group put all those people together, got ‘em into the room and made a plan.”
Now the monument is surrounded by a waist-high metal black railing. You can easily lean over it for a close look at the flowers or the names on the memorial. A small improvement, perhaps, but one that was part of a larger strategy to make the village more inviting to walkers, cyclists, to anyone who wants to linger in the shade.
“This area right here is designed to lose two parking spaces and to create a walking plaza into about here, with tables and stuff, so people who are visiting can come and sit and visit and look at things and feel wanted here,” Cameron said.
Another key project was renovating a building owned by the Masons that stands across from the village green. The historic structure anchors one side of the green, and was a priority for the volunteers who wanted to make the place more attractive.
“Our whole working group said, ‘What can we do, what can make a difference?’ This [decaying building] kept coming up,” Cameron said.
It’s now been mostly re-painted, the huge clock repaired and many of its ornate, colored windows restored. A food shelf now operates there. Other projects for the village volunteers include a welcome center and signage linking to the Missisquoi valley Rail Trail.
Cameron said Enosburg Falls’ story and challenges are like those of so many Vermont communities. He grew up here in the 1960s; his parents owned the local grocery store. But malls and chain stores sapped the downtown of its commerce and vitality as locals drove to St. Albans or Burlington to shop.
Younger people also moved away, a demographic decline seen all over the state.
“We’re struggling,” he said. “Jobs aren’t here, and when jobs aren’t here, people move somewhere else.”
A project like bringing life back to a village center needs more than one spark to light the fire. But Cameron seems to supply both the flint and the steel. He said he sometimes needs prompting to talk. Don’t believe him: He’s a natural storyteller with an easy laugh. He also describes himself as a facilitator and administrator who thrives on human contact. That you can take to the bank.
“In March of 2017, we put together a half page piece of paper and handed it out to a bunch of businesses and people and said, 'We’d like to talk about how we can make Enosburgh better,’” Cameron said. “Literally three sentences or something like that. And we got a little over 30 people, 32 or 33 people showed up, which is more than show up at Town Meeting.”
That was the beginning. Meetings with town and state officials and the Preservation Trust of Vermont followed. Grants were written to fund planning work to revitalize the village. And other people got involved.
Perhaps the most notable is a person that Jim Cameron describes as the yin to his yang: Betsy Dorminey, who owns the Quincy Hotel on Depot Street.
(A note of disclosure: The Quincy is a VPR underwriter).
Dorminey is a southerner with roots in Franklin County — her grandfather was the county agent here in the 1920s. She loves old buildings and historic reservation. That love led her to the Quincy several years ago. The building was in disrepair, but she said she saw potential.
“It just seemed like a project to take on, you know,” he said. “I hadn’t been looking for it, but it kind of found me.”
When Dorminey was looking for someone to direct the renovation, she found Jim Cameron, who runs a construction management company and has specialized in restoring historic buildings. Cameron said the Quincy project was another catalyst helping Enosburg Fall’s revitalization. Another is the removated former Fruitland grocery store next door that now houses a thriving veterinary clinic.
Dorminey said despite its rough edges and still vacant storefronts, the village has a lot going for it, especially as people look for places to visit in this time of restricted travel. The village center has most everything you need within walking distance. Banks, a grocery store, restaurants — even the middle and high school are in the village.
“It’s completely walkable,” she said. “I have bad eyesight and don’t drive. But everything I need to do, I can do pretty much do on foot in this town... Plus, right across the street, that’s the [Missisquoi Valley] rail trail, and that’s 27 miles of a walk in the country. So in five minutes from here I can be on this path in the woods looking at Jay Peak and the Missisquoi River. That’s pretty neat.”
Like many Vermont communities, Enosburg Falls hopes to build on the recreation economy, with the rail trail, the river and a nearby ski area as major draws.
The trail does draw people here – along with needed business to a store called The Great Outdoors, just off Main Street. Store manager Mary Larose has seen the trail’s popularity grow.
“When I go home at night, I take [Route] 105, and seeing people on the rail trail, it’s always a joy to know it’s being used and people are out there,” she said.
Larose has managed the Great Outdoors for five years. The place does a good business in kayaks, bikes, and bike repairs, like flat tires. And while she's noticed the changes in town — the planted flowers, the aesthetic improvements to the park, the new businesses — Larose said the village needs a lot more business to really get back on its feet.
That’s also the consensus of some lifelong Enosburg residents, including members of the local historical society who recently gathered in the parlor of the Quincy Hotel to speak with VPR. One of the women lived in the Quincy as a child.
Together, they have a perspective that spans generations and have documented Enosburg’s time as a booming commercial center. A patent medicine company here brought wealth and prestige to the village, seen today in an ornate opera house nearby.
Janice Geraw, who wrote a book on the town’s history, read from a 1922 Burlington Free Press article that listed the town’s attributes, including a town hall, opera house, social clubs, good roads and “low tax rate.”
Betsy Reed, whose father was once the town doctor, said the place will never be what it was, when local stores were thriving, before people drove to St. Albans and Burlington to shop and work. But she sees a bright side in the current pandemic.
“Who knows, this virus may wind up being a blessing for small towns," Reed said. "As the malls dissipate, it may be that we’ll be back into small, local businesses again."
Betsy Dorminey sees an opportunity in COVID as well. People are looking for safe places, she said. Vermont, with its low infection rate, is attractive to those who want to move from crowded cities.
In her day job, Dorminey is a labor and employment lawyer. She said working remotely has had a mixed track record, among both employers and employees.
“But COVID made people really motivated to make it work,” she said. “I think a lot of employers have discovered they can save a lot of money because they don’t need all that office space anymore. I think that’s going to have a big, lasting impact. And a lot of people have discovered that if they will really make an effort, they can make it work for them. And that frees a lot of people up to move to someplace where they don’t have to be within daily commuting range of whatever job they've got.”
Of course, that new work world can’t happen without high-speed internet, and the type of jobs where you can work at home instead of a farm, store or factory.
Enosburg Falls High School Principal Joseph Donarum said the village has all the wonderful qualities of small town life – a strong community spirit natural beauty, and a walkable center. He noted he’s able to walk to work from his apartment at the Quincy Hotel.
But for young people like his students to stay here, they need something more than a rail trail, good neighbors and a pretty village.
“Vermont’s a pretty special place, and a lot of students share with me that they would like to stay here," Donarum said. "They just would like to have more opportunities in the workforce."
The pandemic, Donarum said, brought people closer in a way, even as they had to work and learn at a distance. For example, many people in town joined in the high school graduation celebrations. He’d like to build on that community feeling, he said.
“So we’re looking more and more how stakeholders in town and different special interest groups can help support what we call the future bloom of this town,” he said. “There’s a lot more interest. COVID has really shined a light on the need for the integration of school and community.”
The pandemic also slowed the revitalization effort. Businesses were put on hold. Meetings of the core group of volunteers had to shift to Zoom, although they just started to get together in person. But Jim Cameron and Betsy Dorminey agree with Donarum.
If anything, they said, the crisis has shown the importance of vibrant small towns in a post-COVID future.
Update 7/15/2020 1:30 p.m.: This post has been updated to include a disclosure about The Quincy hotel being an underwriter of VPR.