Church Street Marketplace Turns 20

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(Host) Burlington’s Church Street Marketplace is now 20 years old. Commentator Tom Slayton has some thoughts on that anniversary.

(Slayton) A dead downtown is not a pretty thing. The dusty windows and boarded-up doors reek of failure and broken dreams. And sadly, in this age of suburbia, more and more downtowns across the nation are dying, killed by mega-stores, shopping malls, drive-ins and road culture in general.

That’s one reason the idea of revitalizing downtown Burlington with a downtown mall, hatched some 20 years ago by a few far-sighted city leaders, looks so good today.

As the recently concluded Discover Jazz Festival made clear, Burlington’s Church Street Marketplace is thriving. And two events earlier this month also underlined Burlington’s vigorous comeback. One was the official opening of City Market, basically an enlarged, more inclusive version of the Onion River Food Co-op. Despite opposition from some who wanted a standard supermarket, the new store has successfully learned from other expanded co-ops, and leaves it to the consumer to choose between natural foods, gourmet items, and conventional mass-market foods. Consequently the new City Market has won approval from all quarters.

After Mayor Peter Clavelle, U.S. Senator Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Secretary of Commerce and Community Development Molly Lambert, and other officials opened the market, they walked a block to a downtown party celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Church Street Marketplace.

Several of the speakers noted not only the success of the Marketplace, but the fact that it took a lot of government funding to make it a success. Twenty years ago, Senator Leahy’s office secured more than $5 million to transform Church Street from a congested thoroughfare to a pedestrian mall, and Mayor Clavelle declared: “People say there’s no role for the federal government today. I tell them, ‘Come to downtown Burlington and I’ll show you a role for the federal government.'” Leahy’s office has secured an additional $1.5 million for maintenance and infrastructure upgrades on the marketplace, to keep it from becoming run-down.

But it took much more than just federal money to make Church Street. It took a major infusion of energy and enthusiasm from Burlington area people like Pat Robbins, Paul Bruhn, Penrose Jackson, Ernie Pomerleau and others to turn the Marketplace into what it has obviously become – the living heart of the community.

Vermont, known as a rural state, is also very much a state of villages and small cities. Not every place in America has vibrant villages and downtowns, but Vermont does. They’re a genuine asset because they attract tourists, encourage walking, save gasoline, combat suburban sprawl and – best of all – bring people together.

The Church Street Marketplace in downtown Burlington is a striking example of the best of all those things. It’s a great place, a real part of today’s Vermont.

Tom Slayton lives in Montpelier and is the editor of Vermont Life Magazine.

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