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Looking back at 25 years of ‘smart growth’

Gus Seelig, founding executive director of the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board, takes stock of a generation of work

BRATTLEBORO—Name a construction or conservation project in Vermont that’s been done over the past 25 years, and chances are the Vermont Housing & Conservation Board (VHCB) has helped to fund it.

In Brattleboro alone, the VHCB, working with the Windham & Windsor Housing Trust (WWHT), has helped preserve, reclaim, or construct many buildings — from the Abbott Block on Canal Street, to the Wilder Building on Main Street, to the Daly Shoe building on Birge Street, to the new Brattleboro Food Co-op.

Statewide, the VHCB has created or conserved nearly 11,000 homes and apartments over the past 25 years. But building projects are not the only thing under the VHCB’s purview.

Through its Vermont Farm Viability Program, it has worked with more than 500 farmers and agriculture-related businesses over the past decade to help establish new markets for farm products, offer technical assistance and business planning, and develop transition plans for farmers to pass their land on to new owners.

Land conservation is another big area of the VHCB’s work. From preserving land for recreational use to keeping farms and forests in active production, it has conserved more than 253,000 acres of recreation land, parks, and natural areas, and 594 farms and 144,000 acres of agricultural land over the past 25 years.

And the person who has overseen this work is Gus Seelig, the founding executive director of the VHCB. Seelig was in Brattleboro last week for the WWHT’s annual meeting, and to wrap up the 25th anniversary celebrations for both entities.

Seelig said the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board was created in 1987 by the Legislature through the work of a coalition of housing advocates, environmental advocates, agricultural advocates and historic preservationists. It was given the mission of preserving the working landscape and the historic structures of the state while creating more affordable housing units.

“Back then, nobody used the term ‘smart growth,’ but over the years, it became apparent that the way to assist the working landscape and keep pressure off it was to rebuild our downtowns and core communities,” Seelig said.

The state has invested about $250 million in the VHCB over the past 25 years, and that money has been used to leverage another $1 billion of funding through private and nonprofit sources, as well as federal grants steered to the state by Vermont’s Congressional delegation.

And Windham County, he said, offers the best example of how these programs have accomplished the goals of rebuilding town and village centers while keeping valuable forest and farm land productive.

Brattleboro was an early adopter, Seelig said, thanks to the work of Connie Snow, executive director of the Windham & Windsor Land Trust.

“They have invested in every project we’ve done,” said Snow. “Our ability to move forward on the ideas we get from the community is based on knowing that [the VHCB] is there. It’s been an incredible partnership. They are usually the first ones in on a project and can tie together all the funding sources.”

In the late 1990s, Bellows Falls tapped into the VHCB and the result was the restoration of the Exner Block, a once-neglected building now transformed into living and studio space for artists, and the Howard Block, a commercial block destroyed by fire that was rebuilt and restored as an anchor to the south end of The Square.

“I think about Bellows Falls 15 or 20 years ago, and it was really pretty empty, and now there is a fair amount of vitality there with the Exner and Howard blocks,” he said. “A lot of good things happened, and Robert McBride and RAMP (the Rockingham Arts and Museum Project) did great work.”

Snow said that the VHCB has the unique ability to marshall the resources needed to pull off projects from the West River Assisted Living complex in Townshend to restoring the Guilford General Store to keeping hundreds of acres of farm land in production in West Brattleboro, and that it is something that is rarely seen in other regions of the nation.

“What’s different about what we do in Vermont is that we have have policy makers from all the different entities, along with a citizen-based board, and that has fostered smart growth as a policy for the state and the way we wanted to go forward,” said Seelig.

In much of rural America, one sees empty storefronts and depressed local economies. Vermont avoided that fate, Seelig said, by investing in the state’s downtowns and adopting policies to preserve them.

“These projects have provided jobs, and the economic impact has been significant in Windham County,” said Snow.

This has been especially the case in the current recession. At its height, Snow said, the WWHT projects were about the only construction jobs going on in the county.

But the greatest success story to date for the VHCB is going to slow down, Seelig said, due to federal budget cuts. At least $5 million for low-income housing will not be available to Vermont in the coming fiscal year. The state will also lose about 500 Section 8 rental vouchers and see cuts in other affordable housing initiatives.

“We’re in for several hard years,” he said. “Some good projects are going to be delayed or stopped, and we will have to deal with increased needs while dealing with reduced resources. Ultimately, either the state will have to pick up more of the load, or our Congressional delegation will have to win over more friends in Congress. Hopefully, the federal mood will change.”

However, Seelig takes the long view — which is not a surprise considering that he has been involved with affordable housing and anti-poverty issues since the Reagan administration.

“You don’t get into this line of work unless you’re an optimist,” Seelig said.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #206 (Wednesday, June 5, 2013).

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