MONTPELIER – Can Montpelier hike, cycle and paddle its way to prosperity, or is its already vibrant city center reason enough to invest strategically in outdoor recreation?
Parks director Alec Ellsworth told receptive councilors that he believes the answers will be “yes” and “yes” during what is likely their last fully virtual meeting on Wednesday night.
City councils will meet briefly early next month to set the tax rate and will return to face-to-face meetings at City Hall on July 21, City Manager Bill Fraser said arrangements will be made to accommodate residents who prefer to be remote , Pandemic or no pandemic to participate.
Ellsworth told city councils that the COVID-19 crisis did nothing but back up the argument that outdoor recreation can provide fresh fuel to the local economy even in communities that are not blessed with ski slopes.
“The pandemic really woke people up outside,” he said.
Ellsworth said there are opportunities there and Montpelier is well positioned to showcase itself as a place where visitors can do a lot more than take a selfie in front of the state house and maybe have lunch before heading back to the state house Go street.
“We’re trying to turn a few hours of visit into an overnight visit or a weekend visit,” he said, suggesting that this has paid off in other Vermont communities, including some not far from Montpelier.
The towns in the Mad River Valley make it work, as do Waterbury and Barre Town, which have no ski resorts but have invested in hiking trails that draw thousands of visitors each year to growing networks of trails that together give a significant boost to the people provide the local economy.
“The communities that are really successful recognize their strengths and then tell their story really well,” said Ellsworth. “Then the people come. It’s not that complicated. “
Montpelier, according to Ellsworth, has a story to tell and a focal point for outdoor recreation, even if its 15 miles of walking trails lag behind nearby communities like Waterbury and Barre Town and are mostly used by locals and have no tangible link to its historical past Downtown.
Montpelier will never be your typical “rural” Vermont like East Burke, home of the Kingdom Trails, and it cannot lean against a mountain like Stowe or the Mad River Valley. However, Ellsworth said the geography is on its side, the topography doesn’t hurt, it has a convincingly diverse downtown area that is already an attraction, and it is ready to expand its network of trails and provide access at the confluence of two of the three rivers .
That’s a pretty good start, and Ellsworth said the planned expansion of Hubbard Park, the planned creation of Confluence Park, and a recently extended bike path that runs from one end of the city to the other and which will soon join the Cross Vermont Trail, will soon join the city able to present itself credibly as an “outdoor leisure center” – even if some of these experiences are made in the surrounding communities.
“We’re so close to so many fantastic outdoor recreational opportunities,” he said, suggesting that “wrapping this up for the people” would pay off.
Ellsworth received no argument from councilors who liked what they heard.
“We’re in the midst of so many opportunities,” said Councilor Jay Ericson, saying it wasn’t hard to imagine promoting Montpelier as a “starting point” for activities outside of its boundaries and right in its backyard.
“We have an inner city that people can return to,” he said.
Ellsworth said making that connection is vital and should continue to focus on strategic investments in expanding and improving outdoor recreational opportunities – including removing miles from the city’s idle rivers.
“We have everything else the people of spades are looking for,” he said.
Ellsworth said accessible and diverse outdoor recreational opportunities are good for existing businesses and attractive to potential businesses and the employees they employ. However, he said that outdoor recreation is not a “silver bullet” and that Montpelier has a lot to do.
“We are about five to ten years behind the communities that have ridden this wave and 20 to 30 years behind the cities that have been at the forefront of this trend,” he said.
Ellsworth praised the council for its support and these strategic investments are beginning to show.
“There has been a lot of good momentum lately,” he said.
Over the past two years, Montpelier has raised $ 1.1 million for outdoor recreational activities, including the $ 500,000 for Confluence Park and the $ 300,000 for the Hubbard Park extension.
The city has also received a number of smaller grants, including a partnership with Montpelier Alive, to promote the city’s outdoor leisure economy. This $ 45,000 grant was made last year by the Trust for Public Lands.
Going forward, Ellsworth said that forming and promoting alliances with Wrightsville Beach, the Cross Vermont Trail, and nearby communities like Barre Town and Northfield that have invested in their own unique trails should be part of the strategy.
With four square kilometers, mostly developed, miles available, Ellsworth said Montpelier should make the most of what it has while playing to its strength.
“We need to make strategic investments to connect our hiking trails to our inner city so that adventures can start and end downtown,” he said.