Hinesburg’s Lot 15 debate should spark bigger discussion:‘Vibrant small-town culture,’ unique identity is what brings families to town

By NATHAN FRY

The Vermont Folklife Center this week launched its podcast, “VT Untapped,” combining archival material and content from the center’s ongoing ethnographic research to tell unique stories about Vermonters from all walks of life.

The podcast is available for download on iTunes, Stitcher, Google Play, Spotify, TuneIn, and VFC’s website. Listen to the first two episodes online at vtfolklife.org/untapped. New episodes will be released monthly.

Hosted by VFC staffer and audio producer Mary Wesley and edited by staffer Erica Furgiuele, “VT Untapped” tells a wide variety of stories of everyday life in the state. Examples include a look at a Putney drag queen troop, a lifelong hunter’s unlikely friendship, and traditional music in Vermont’s Bhutanese-Nepali community.

Executive Director Kathleen Haughey said the podcast is a way to share material the center has gathered over 35 years with a broader audience while helping to foster a greater understanding among Vermonters.

 “Through our podcast, we’re bringing these recordings out of the archive and into the world,” said Andy Kolovos, the center’s director of archives and research.

Founded in 1984, the Vermont Folklife Center is a folklife education organization that uses ethnography – the study of cultural experience through interviewing, participation and observation – to strengthen the understanding of the cultural and social fabric of Vermont’s diverse communities. In the spirit of the New Year and new things, I’d like to add another vision of Hinesburg’s future to the table as our community considers the fate of Hannaford and Lot 15 in Commerce Park.

Simply looking at this situation as “Hannaford versus park” is selling our wonderful town short of its potential. In my experience, communities that are selective about where and how business grows create a unique identity and culture. In considering options for our future, Hinesburg needs to understand that this vibrant small-town culture is what is bringing families to Hinesburg. What we do on Lot 15 can either enhance this culture, or it can damage it.

I’ll admit that I have no statistics to quote or figures to cite – 12 years in the military have trained me that data and figures can be misleading just as words can. Instead, I tend to observe my environment and the people in it.

My perspective on Lot 15 comes largely from having seen and lived in many different communities throughout the world and reflecting on what made them fail or succeed.

Five years ago, my family and I moved to Hinesburg after seven years of military life. We had transferred from base to base, from the deep south to the Pacific Northwest to the desert southwest, living in very diverse and different communities with each move.

When we decided to leave the military, we looked to settle down in a place we could finally call home. Everything eventually fell into place in Hinesburg. Those who have been here for many years may not realize it, but Hinesburg has a special magnetism that is bringing families to live here even as many other parts of the state see the population shrink. In the few years that we have lived here, we have personally seen three other families move to Hinesburg for similar reasons.

Throughout all of our military travels, we saw that a strong, cohesive community is a rare thing in the world and that stores and tax rates aren’t the magic bullet for community success. Instead, the quality of the interaction and support among citizens creates true strength. This interaction and support comes from a shared unique identity and, in part, from a town’s geography and physical layout.

In a longer letter to the Hinesburg Selectboard, I shared two stories about why I think this is true. In summary, my experiences with working on the village level around the world – from Afghanistan to Peru – showed me that the most vibrant and healthy villages were often the ones without the shiny infrastructure and most up-to-date gadgets. My family experienced this when we moved from a military town in Georgia with no community identity to El Paso, Texas. It was in El Paso that we realized for the first time how important the interaction of people, public spaces, and commercial spaces are to create identity, strength and support.

Those elements are evident in Hinesburg, and I believe that’s a result of our interaction around civic and commercial spaces. Furthermore, our commercial spaces also have unique identity – there is one Lantman’s, one Hinesburg Smoke and Cure, one Annette’s, and one Good Times Café in all of Vermont. These places, the other businesses in our town, and where they are located in relation to civic space creates a sense of community ownership.

The strength and vibrancy of our community depends on much more than bringing any single business to the town. The type of business, who owns it, and what it does really matters. And while Hannaford isn’t evil or bad-intentioned, it’s simply a far-away corporation with little more than a desire to expand their market share to another small village in Vermont.

With Lot 15 and Commerce Park set to be the geographic center of Hinesburg as the village expands within its Village Growth Area, where we place Hannaford – or any other new business –  in our town will speak to where our priorities and values are as a community.

If Hannaford goes into Lot 15, the center of our town and our community life will revolve around a grocery store. That means that our identity as Hinesburg will likely become tied up in that center – we will be “the town with the Hannaford,” just as Williston’s identity has become caught up in the stores at Taft Corners. That’s simply not the type of unique community identity that I believe we want to own for the next decade of our town’s existence. It’s not what brought us or any of the other new families we know here to Hinesburg, and I expect it would have a similar effect on others considering making Hinesburg their new home.

Our Selectboard, Development Review Board, and Planning Commission should use this time in the Hannaford debate as an opportunity to help us all propose a third choice, the Hinesburg 2020 Vision. We all want 20/20 vision to help us see clearly. In the same way, it’s time for our town leadership to put together a vision that helps us see clearly the future of our town in 2020 and beyond.

The Hinesburg 2020 Vision should bust us out of the tired “yes/no” debate that recycles over and over the same arguments for and against Hannaford. With a little creativity, I wonder if there is a way to both recreate Lot 15 as a central community space envisioned in our excellent Town Plan and also invite Hannaford into Hinesburg in a more appropriate spot.

Vermont as a whole is struggling to attract businesses, workers and families to live and work here. Hinesburg is currently bucking that trend as young families like us actively move in.

The Hinesburg 2020 Vision could be a plan to help us continue to lead the state and show our neighbors what it takes to bring people and business into a town in a manner that preserves the town’s character and unique identity.

If the Selectboard acquires Lot 15 through eminent domain, we give ourselves the time and space to create a shared community plan for developing the lot in the spirit of both the Giroux plan and the Town Plan.

But we can also use that time and space to negotiate with Hannaford and any other business about how to fill in our town’s geography in a manner that will enhance our unique identity for our children’s Hinesburg.

My experiences tell me that there are more than two options here and that the best option is probably one that hasn’t been considered yet – we simply need to put forth the effort to find it.

Nathan Fry lives in Hinesburg.

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