Activating Civic Infrastructure through the Arts: Vermont’s Better Places Program and Bennington’s Thursday Night Live
Bennington, a town of roughly 15,000 in southwestern Vermont, suffered through the pandemic similar to many towns, cities, and communities across the country. While adjusting to a closed world, community members listened to music at home, streamed movies online, and danced in their living rooms via Zoom lessons, knowing that recovery, healing, and some sense of normalcy would have to return one day.
In-person community connection is especially important in small, rural towns. Big cities thrive on a myriad of cultural opportunities and large events. Small towns thrive on running into friends at the country store, seeing neighbors at the local diner, or connecting with other parents at kids sporting events and school performances. Cultural events like street fairs, farmer’s markets, and outdoor music performances are key to bringing rural communities together.
The board of the Better Bennington Corporation understood that events and community gatherings were necessary to bring people back downtown and support community recovery. It was time to go back to restaurants. It was time to stop shopping online and go back to local main street businesses and show them some love and support. It was time to reconnect with one another and be together downtown.
Bennington has a brand-new stage at Merchant’s Park, right in the heart of downtown that closed almost immediately after it opened due to the pandemic. The park and downtown had been empty for too long. As the world begin to re-open, Merchant’s Park provided the perfect opportunity to bring people back together with diverse music performances, restore a sense of community, and support artists while increasing foot traffic and commerce in downtown Bennington. However, this vision needed funding, partnerships, and a lot of elbow grease to make it happen.
Enter, Better Places Vermont, a community grant program and funding partnership from the Vermont Department of Housing and Community Development that strategically coordinates the efforts of several Vermont funders and partners, including the Vermont Arts Council, who support place-based, people-focused grantmaking and community development. The program is led by the Department of Housing and Community Development in partnership with the Department of Health, the Vermont Community Foundation, and Patronicity, our crowdfunding experts.
With a focus on placemaking, the Better Places program supports vibrant, inclusive, and thriving public spaces in Vermont communities where creativity, community building, and local economies can flourish. These place-based investments and local placemaking efforts improve a community’s quality of life, promote economic vitality, and offer ways to attract new workers, residents, visitors, and businesses to Vermont and local communities. It’s place-based, people-focused economic development that brings Vermonters together to reconnect, build social capital, and advance main street recovery efforts.
Traditionally, funders have invested capital into physical infrastructure that gives little thought to whether they are investing in community building or civic infrastructure. Civic infrastructure is our physical places where community-building occurs, like parks and village greens, libraries, schools, recreation, art, and senior centers, farmer’s markets, main streets, and other community gathering spaces. The Better Places program provides funding to build this essential civic infrastructure that empowers local leaders to be part of the solution, advancing local recovery efforts, and strengthening community pride.
Better Places uses a “crowdgranting” model to leverage state dollars with local fundraising efforts to help communities invest in themselves. Crowdgranting combines crowdfunding – the practice of funding a project with small donations from a large number of people – paired with a 2:1 matching grant from the State of Vermont. Bennington was the first Better Places project to launch a crowdfunding campaign and is using the Better Places grant to bring people back downtown on Thursday evenings all summer long with a robust music series, cultural events, and kid activities. By reaching their $5,000 crowdfunding goal, Bennington received a Better Places 2:1 matching grant of $10,000 to bring music and entertainment back to the main street.
Vermont’s Better Places program is not just the act of building a park, creating public art, or fixing up a public space; it is also the community-led process that builds connections and relationships, as well as fosters the attachment to place, building local pride where people feel a strong stake in their communities and commitment to making things better. These local placemaking efforts bring residents together from diverse backgrounds, building community connections, and social capital. Building social capital means creating opportunities for people to develop trusting relationships and shared experiences. These connections are critically important to our personal well-being and health, but also for ensuring strong social connections, building resilient communities, and creating vibrant and inclusive local economies.
These small and creative investments in local communities, public spaces, the arts, and downtowns matter because place matters and because people matter. Place determines people’s health, wealth, and happiness more than anything else. Building community pride and social capital, along with fostering attachment to place, are key to community revitalization and rural economic development. And that’s what creative placemaking can do!
The first Bennington Better Places performance occurred on June 2. After worrying all day about a rain storm keeping people away—about five minutes before it began—in came the people from all directions. The fourth performance is coming up at the time of this writing and will include some of Vermont’s top storytellers. There are now Thursday Night Live “regulars.” People are excited to know who or what is coming up next and to be back together with their neighbors and friends. The community is back downtown and Bennington is a better place because of it.
Learn more about Bennington’s Thursday Night Live event series online and Vermont’s Better Places program on their program website and supporting placemaking toolkit.
About the Authors:
Richard Amore, PLA/AICP serves as planning and outreach manager for the Vermont Department of Housing and Community Development.
Jenny Dewar is the Executive Director of the Better Bennington Corporation.