Valley News – Grant funds plan to make Bethel’s downtown more accessible

BETHEL — In recent years, the revitalization of the village that grew up around this town’s railroad depot has begun to build up a head of steam.

But there are impediments: For example, the entrances to a row of commercial buildings along Main Street sit a step or two, or in some cases several steps, above the sidewalk, making it hard for people to gain access and hard for business owners to raise funding.

“There’s not much you can do, unless you want to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars,” David Sambor, owner of Village Sandwich Shop, said Saturday.

So Bethel is taking steps toward finding grant funding for downtown revitalization by adopting a view of an accessible village that’s far more expansive than making downtown shops accessible.

The town has received a $105,000 state planning grant that will enable officials and residents to develop a village accessibility plan, which would be a first for Vermont.

The plan, which Bethel has a year and a half to complete, is intended to lay out ways to improve accessibility to and within the village, which includes elements ranging from walking and bike paths and trails, parks, traffic and pedestrian safety and connections between the downtown and the town forest, the school, the recreation center and nearby housing and workplaces.

“Looking comprehensively at accessibility, transportation and street design, and economic development is a critical next step to build on Bethel’s recent successes — new trails and recreation facilities, public spaces, village infrastructure projects, private investments and the 2016 Better Block Project,” Nicole Cyr, who is managing the accessibility planning and also chairs the town’s energy committee, said in a statement.

The Better Block Project was an effort of the Bethel Revitalization Initiative to reimagine downtown. It included some traffic calming, to slow the rumble of vehicles on Route 12, and pop-up stores that operated for a few days to generate interest and some income. Bethel’s revitalization has a foundation to build on, including the sandwich shop and neighboring cafe, a pizza shop, a market and a hardware store, among other businesses.

South Royalton resident Morgan Leonard had been selling her handmade jewelry online but last weekend opened a shop, Colorful Life Creations, in a Bethel storefront after seeing an ad for the space on Facebook. There weren’t many other nearby spaces available, she said.

“When I came to look at it and checked it out, I instantly fell in love with it,” she said.

The drive to bring some life back to Bethel’s downtown is a long road. The accessibility plan is a map the town can use to seek funding for projects that put the plan in motion, Lindley Brainard, who co-owns the downtown Arnold Block and is a member of the town Selectboard, said Saturday as she was picking up supplies at Mills Hardware, a few doors up from the Arnold Block.

“By doing this grant, it essentially puts you into the running for other grants,” Brainard said.

Developing the plan will require input from a wide range of residents, and the town is currently putting together a group to work on it.

“It’s a very lofty set of goals, but also a very important one,” Brainard said. “It will help the businesses as well as the town if we’re all working on it.”

The planning grant comes from Vermont’s Better Connections Program, a joint production of the agencies of Transportation and Community Development, which collaborate with the Agency of Natural Resources and the Department of Health to give out $260,000 in grant funding every other year.

Once complete, the plan is expected to be a model for future efforts across the state.

Alex Hanson can be reached at [email protected] or 603-727-3207.

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