COLLECTIVE GROWTH

VT Route 30 Collective energizes the business community in Southern Vermont

STORY BY BENJAMIN LERNER
PHOTOGRAPHY COURTESY VT ROUTE 30 COLLECTIVE

TOP ROW: Cotton Design, Fat Crow, Fire Arts Bakery + Cafe, Retreat Farm. BOTTOM ROW: Roll’en Homes, The Newfane Store, WW Building Supply

On a scenic stretch of road that spans from Bondville to Brattleboro, an exciting initiative is breathing new life into the local community. The VT Route 30 Collective aims to promote economic vitality in the historic Route 30 corridor in Windham County by building symbiotic unity among independent Vermont businesses. The collective’s mission is not just about empowering local businesses; it’s also about preserving the vibrant culture of rural Vermont.

The VT Route 30 Collective is comprised of local businesses, farms, shops, and nonprofits in eight towns in Windham County: Bondville, Rawsonville, Jamaica, West Townshend, Townshend, Newfane, Dummerston, and Brattleboro. Member businesses include restaurants such as Fat Crow and River & Rye Restaurant and

Motel, popular stores like The Newfane Store and River Bend Market, and artisan craft and design businesses, such as Robert DuGrenier Glass Art Gallery and Cotton Design Architecture & Interiors, among others. Over the course of a three-year campaign, VT Route 30 Collective aims to drive economic development through a comprehensive suite of services, including branding, marketing, management, outreach, communication, and community engagement. In doing so, the Collective seeks to encourage visitation, help businesses, and catalyze growth throughout the area.

According to Gibbs Rehlen and Matthew Banks, Co-Founders of VT Route 30 Collective, the genesis of the initiative was motivated by a series of challenges that local businesses were facing. “After the pandemic, the 2023 floods, and a series of extensive road construction projects, we wanted to help encourage growth on all levels,” explains Banks. Seeing the potential for transformative impact, Banks and Rehlen worked with local farmers, shopkeepers, and business owners to form a strong plan. With their respective experi- ences in international and local economic and nonprofit development oversight, they were ideally suited to spearhead the initiative. Leveraging their knowledge, they have worked diligently to ensure that the Collective’s efforts are both sustainable and impactful, creating a solid foundation for the long-term prosperity of the Route 30 corridor. This strategic approach has enabled the VT Route 30 Collective to seamlessly integrate community engage- ment and economic development into a cohesive strategy that benefits all mem- bers. The initiative was officially launched at the Newfane Heritage Festival in 2023, and it has gained healthy momentum over the past year.

From the beginning, the Collective employed a multifaceted approach to mar- keting and engagement. “We’ve used a lot of different tools,” says Rehlen. “We use social media, we use our website, we use radio promotion, and we work with store owners to create effective signage that draws new clients and visitors in.”

This summer, VT Route 30 Collective has planned a summit forum where they are partnering with key members of Vermont state government who lead commercial and community development. “We are also bringing in regional tourism organizations, regional planning agencies, universities, other recreation interests, and destination design experts,” says Banks. “We want to ensure that the Route 30 business corridor remains healthy and inviting for years to come.”

Looking towards the future, the VT Route 30 Collective is also embracing the lessons learned from the past. Their collective intention goes beyond just economic growth, with an aim to strengthen the community while building on the efforts of previous tourism campaigns. Historically, Route 30 has seen various business and tourism bureau groups promoting the region’s offerings. This dates back to the early 20th century, where local businesses formed symbiotic promotional initiatives, banding together in the pursuit of unified prosperity.

According to Robert DuGrenier, a tal- ented glassblower, business owner, and the Curator of the Townshend Historical Society, the enduring appeal of the Route 30 corridor played a pivotal part in the early development of Vermont’s tourism economy. In the late 19th century, the Route 30 corridor served as a vital railroad link, connecting rural Vermont to broader economic hubs. “The train facilitated a burgeoning tourism industry throughout the West River Valley,” notes DuGrenier. “People flocked to the scenic beauty of rural Vermont.” This cultural momentum brought about an era where small bed and breakfasts and inns thrived in the early 20th century, setting the stage for future tourism booms.

DuGrenier believes that VT Route 30 Collective is reigniting the economic en- gine of the past while adapting it to the modern era. “The Collective harnesses the resources and ingenuity that has defined the Route 30 corridor for years, and we use modern promotional tools to draw new attention to its incredible independent businesses.” DuGrenier is enthusiastic about the potential for the VT Route 30 Collective to foster sus- tainable, community-focused economic revival. “It’s a well-designed plan to bring Vermont’s independent businesses into a new age.”

To that end, the Collective’s efforts to boost agritourism and support local craft businesses have created a new gateway to Vermont’s natural and artisanal riches. “The whole premise of the Route 30 Collective is to slow down and appreciate the culture in each of these villages,” says DuGrenier. This sentiment captures the essence of the collective’s mission: to intertwine the corridor’s historical narrative with contemporary economic and cultural initiatives, elevating the community while bringing visitors closer to Vermont.

In addition to serving as the curator for the Townshend Historical Society, DuGrenier has played a central role in the West River Community Project (WRCP), which has converted the historic West Townshend Country Store into a thriving, multipurpose community space. The West Townshend Country Store is a proud member of Route 30 Collective, and it features a cafe, a thrift store, a post office, and a wood-fired pizza oven. All of these elements bring the community together in West Townshend, seamlessly aligning with VT Route 30 Collective’s foundational values.

Reflecting on the project’s beginnings, DuGrenier recalls, “The West Townshend Country Store was built as a general store in 1848. In 2000, there was a fire in the building. It was going to close, so we got together and formed a nonprofit called the West River Community Project.”

Working together, DuGrenier and like-minded community members rebuilt and modified the space, creating a vibrant center for independent economic transformation.

The WRCP epitomizes the enterprising spirit of the region, drawing on extensive community support. “We figured out what brings people together,” says DuGrenier. “The main elements are music, art, locally-made and sourced goods, and great food.” In recent years, the wood-fired pizza oven has become a focal point. WRCP’s weekly Pizza Nights are held every Friday. They feature wood-fired pizzas made with locally sourced ingredients. These gatherings are more than just a meal; they are a celebration of community and local craftsmanship, accompanied by live music from local artists. The casual, inviting atmosphere makes it a perfect evening outing for families, couples, and solo travelers alike. WRCP’s community kitchen, a cornerstone of the initiative, has served as a launchpad for local food entrepreneurs. The fully-equipped commercial kitchen allows producers to create and sell Vermont-made goods, which range from traditional maple products to innovative culinary delights, including locally sourced kimchi and natural sodas. Visitors interested in Vermont’s rich agricultural heritage will find the community kitchen’s workshops particularly engaging. These sessions cover a range of topics from cheese making to the preparation of traditional Vermont preserves, offering powerful, hands-on experiences.

WRCP’s thrift store, located on the upper floors of the country store, offers secondhand goods, local crafts, and vintage finds. Each purchase supports the community and the continuation of the project. For those visiting during the summer months, the Townshend Farmers Market, hosted at the West Townshend Country Store, is a must-visit. Held on Fridays, this market offers an array of local produce, meats, bread, and more, all sourced from the surrounding Green Mountains. While the primary aim of the WRCP is to celebrate and support the local community, it also serves as a charming detour for visitors traveling to or from Stratton. Visitors in search of a taste of true Vermont life can unwind with a slice of wood-fired pizza, stroll through the farmers market, or find unique local goods in the store while experiencing the welcoming community spirit of the Green Mountain State.

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