Airports are normally among the more placeless places in existence, but upon my arrival in Burlington, Vermont, I know I’m in a different sort of place. Wooden reliefs with maps and quotes cover the walls, and a row of rocking chairs runs down the center of the concourse. Most stunningly, a series of quotes on the state’s opioid crisis lines the glass skywalk to the parking garage, a raw admission of a glaring issue and a call for redemption all at once. I develop an immediate appreciation for Vermont’s willingness to confront reality and be itself. If jetting in and out in 30 hours can really give one a true appreciation for a state, I got one in my two quick nights in the state last week.
I make the 40-mile drive from Burlington to Montpelier beneath a giant moon just past its full stage, gently coasting down I-89 through the Winooski River Valley. The Vermont State House is lit up for the night, but the town is silent, and half a block away I find my resting place at the Capitol Plaza Hotel, a grand old thing with rich red carpeting and textured wallpaper and some intricate woodwork here and there. It also shows its age at times, with its questionable elevator and inconsistent updates to some of fixtures in its bathrooms, but I decide this slightly-past-its-prime grandeur is exactly my style. The night desk attendant, a middle-aged man in a sweater and suit coat one might mistake for an English professor, sets me on my way, and after a lengthy but successful struggle with an iron, I turn in for the night.
I wake to find Montpelier blanketed in fog, but get out for a quick run so I can see the town before I confine myself to a conference and then bid it farewell. The downtown is picture book New England quaint cuteness, a couple of main streets lined with restaurants and bookstores and a few church steeples rising above it all. The side streets are lined with more slightly shabby grandeur, old Victorians and Federalist homes, many of them with peeling paint or carved up into separate apartment units. I struggle up a hill to the Vermont College of the Arts and make my way back down around town before an aggressive climb up a steep hill in Hubbard Park, which lords over the city and offers a few vistas through the mist.
I’m in Montpelier to speak at conference on opportunity zones, a federal tax incentive that tries to make everyone happy by giving rich people a tax break for investing in projects in designated low-income or high-poverty zones. The incentive, a product of the 2017 tax cut bill, certainly can be abused, as recent accounts highlight all too clearly. But with up-front community planning we can also drive conversations to focus these funds on projects with a social impact, and in Minnesota, a couple of colleagues and I have worked to do just that. Our grassroots effort is, to my pleasant surprise, one my new Vermont friends would like to emulate.
While I don’t know if anyone explicitly planned it this way, a northern Minnesotan is a good fit for a conference on economic development in Vermont. The state’s chief metropolitan area, Burlington, is roughly the size of Duluth, and both cities are regional centers for some old towns tucked away in the hills. Despite its cool vibe, some of the figures wandering downtown Burlington wouldn’t look out of place in downtown Duluth. Outside of those two outdoorsy metros, the poverty isn’t extreme, but not much is growing, either. The opioid crisis afflicts them all, but they also have rich histories and a promise of renewal. I find no shortage of common ground with the conference attendees, even though the visit is brief.
After the conference I take the scenic route back to Burlington. It follows U.S. Highway 2, the same road that works its way through Superior and Duluth, and it weaves around the interstate and the Winooski and through a few more classic New England downtowns before it heads into suburban Burlington. I head downtown after checking in to my hotel, and after an initial rush of envy over the Church Street pedestrian mall and a molten gold Lake Champlain at sunset, I start to do some calculus on how Burlington stacks up to my hometown. Duluth wins on stunning natural environment: its lake is superior, its ridgeline more prominent, its parks full of more hidden gems. It seems to have more prominent neighborhoods, while Burlington devolves into more of a series of urban strips out toward its airport and beyond. Burlington, meanwhile, wins for its compact urban form: a walkable downtown, a college campus with immediate access to said downtown, a planning regime that has figured out that bike lanes are not some great menace to urban commerce. Church Street is a gem, its food and beer scenes are superb, and the attractions are all in one general area instead of sprawled out across and segregated between a tourist-heavy Canal Park and a dead-after-five downtown and up-and-coming Lincoln Park. Duluth’s leaders should spend some times comparing notes with their brethren on Lake Champlain.
In many ways, Vermont exemplifies northeastern liberalism at its best: tight-knit democratic communities, a sense of history and order and progress, a belief in education and knowledge for its own sake, connections to the natural world. The downsides: arcane state-level zoning limits that stifle any development or drive it further outward, part of a broader struggle to reconcile a wish for personal freedom with that puritan sense of order; an abstract commitment to humanity that upholds laudable principles but sometimes forgets that societies must meet their constituents at both their best and worst, and also sometimes forgets that leaving a better world for future generations means actually cultivating said next generations. All of those traits, the good and the bad, are all too familiar from my own circles back in Duluth.
My early flight the next day gives me one last glimpse of beauty, with a bank of morning fog spilled like a river of milk down the valley of the Winooski. Vermont and I, I realize, have much to learn from one another. Yes, I want to measure my Minnesota work against the efforts of a comparable place, and I also hope to explore some Green Mountain hamlets, cruise Champlain, strap on some skis at Stowe, meander Middlebury, and eat more food like that incredible burger with foie gras and drink more beer from its many excellent breweries. Vermont, I shall return.