Changing face of downtown

After a period of stagnation, change is coming to downtown Rutland.

Some change is inevitable: Stores close or move away; others open or move in. That change is also short[term cyclical.

The change I’m discussing is also cyclical, but over a much longer term. At one time, downtown was the social and shopping center of the city, even the county. Then strip malls started to eat away at the downtown, here and elsewhere, followed by enclosed shopping malls, enticing people with ease of parking and controlled climate. 

A walk through Diamond Run Mall in Rutland Town shows how consumers are choosing not to shop at “the mall” as much as they used to; a look at the national trends shows the choices are hardly isolated to Rutland County and encompass far more than Act 250’s control over highway signage. Going to the mall is, well, so ’80s.

Now “big box” stores are the fashion, and they attract shoppers from around the area to the new-look strip mall south of the city. But setting aside the political, transportation and social choices big-box retail represents to many, they don’t replace the community aspect provided by a downtown. That’s one of the big pushes behind a national movement, reflected in Rutland, toward reclaiming walkable, liveable downtowns.

Friday Night Live started five years ago as an initiative of the Creative Economy to test the viability of pedestrian space in downtown — think Church Street in Burlington. It’s been a runaway success, but could probably use some fine-tuning:

Should it expand to an adjacent block? A renovated Center Street Alley? There was some friction between groups of users this summer, with some older and family visitors concerned about large numbers of teens present. Others simply rejoiced that there was something for teens to do on summer evenings in Rutland besides look for adventure — and often find trouble.

Should Friday Night Live split into a youth-oriented and a family-oriented event at two separate but nearby venues? It would allow more diversity of music with less danger of the power trio drowning out the string trio a block away.

Expect a public conversation soon on how to make Friday Night Live bigger, better and more self-sufficient.

And that’s only part of the discussion. The farmers’ market, another runaway success because of its downtown location, not in spite of it, deserves a permanent, year-round space. Talks about reshaping Evelyn Street are part of that discussion, but would seem to favor keeping seasonal markets in two spaces. What to do with Center Street Alley?

And then there’s parking. With the state pushing the city hard to take over the deck, how can we make into more of an asset? Should we change the traffic pattern on Wales, particularly given the impressive new community college building going up on the corner? How to improve the confusing mess that is the Merchants/Evelyn/Center Street intersection?

Given the various initiatives and pressures in Rutland, some change seems inevitable. How, when and what changes are up in the air. It’s an important moment in the city’s evolution to make your voice heard.

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