Better Places Helps Community Projects Take Off
Artists Calvin Laituri (left) and Caroline Stjarnborg at the High Street Mural in Brattleboro
Guilford, Vt. has many charms: The covered bridge, the sugar maples that turn a brilliant autumn red, the scones at the former tavern turned café.
Public gathering places, though, are relatively few in the small town. Now residents are changing that with the creation of Guilford Community Park, a new amenity completed earlier this year with help from the Better Places program supported by the Vermont Community Foundation.
The park has a large timber frame pavilion, a bluestone labyrinth, a stone fire pit, and a children’s play area. It’s being used for dances and concerts, picnics and stargazing, as well as casual meetups between neighbors and friends.
“It’s all about creating safe places for people to gather, to be together, to develop community,” said Dunham Rowley, who helped lead the effort to create the park on land purchased by the Guilford Community Church.
The project is one of 35 around the state created with assistance from the Better Places program. Administered by the Vermont Agency of Commerce and Community Development, the program was launched in 2021 and has leveraged over $934,200 in project investments since then.
The idea is to give people more power to revitalize and activate public spaces in their communities through a combination of crowd-sourced funding and state-matching grants.
The collaboration between Vermont state government, the Vermont Community Foundation, and crowdfunding company Patronicity matches local people with a coach who helps them refine their ideas and pitch them to friends and neighbors who can easily donate online.
Nearly 3,000 people have donated to Better Places projects so far, generating almost $390,000 in crowdfunding that has been matched by $662,100 from the state of Vermont.
“The Better Places program is a perfect example of how multiple partners can bring together what we each do best to support communities,” said Karen Scott, grants coordinator for Strategic Partnerships at the Vermont Community Foundation.
“The crowdfunding process, while daunting at times, has become a catalyst for developing a stronger sense of community in numerous towns around Vermont already, and I am excited to see new projects as they emerge and gain energy from the involvement of diverse groups of community members, many of whom are venturing for the first time into raising funds for their own community.”
Recently Better Places put on a road trip to showcase some of the projects that have been completed and others that are under development. The first stop was Guilford Community Park.
Then it was on to Brattleboro, where Better Places helped residents and local arts nonprofit Epsilon Spires transform a graffiti-laden retaining wall in the downtown’s entryway with a colorful mural.
The High Street mural stretches down a long block and features iconic seasonal images of Vermont, but with a fresh take: Baby-blue rooftops on historic downtown buildings, tree canopy the color of orange sherbet, migratory birds and deer that are twice as tall as the people walking by on the sidewalk.
It was completed last November and has already become a local landmark where locals and tourists snap pictures. Before the project started last fall, the dilapidated, heavily tagged wall was anything but photogenic. “It really needed a lot of help,” said Calvin Laituri, a local artist who co-designed the mural.
He put a projector into his truck and beamed the design onto the long wall in sections, which other local artists then helped bring to life. “It was really fun to be able to do something for the town that you live in,” said artist Caroline Stjarnborg, who lives up the street from the mural.
The mural gets tagged occasionally but the graffiti doesn’t stay up very long. The mural artists have a sense of ownership over the project and often paint over the graffiti themselves. “We’re local and you know, kind of really got to give directly back to the town,” Laituri said. “And if anything needs touching up, we’re nearby and so we maintain it for a longer lifespan.”
Sixty miles away in White River Junction, Better Places helped turn the nonprofit Junction Arts & Media (JAM) on Main Street into a downtown creative hub where community members can create a multi-media exhibit, record a podcast, or screen their own documentary.
And a few blocks away, Better Places supported a vivid mural on the side of the COVER Home Repair building. The nonprofit, which provides urgent home repairs for low-income people, partnered on the mural with the Energy Justice Clinic at nearby Dartmouth College and worked with artist Julio Munoz (also known as Ragko) to lead the creation of the mural.
Also in White River Junction, volunteers are working to raise funds through Better Places for a World War I and World War II monument that would replace older, dismantled monuments that are no longer on public view. The new monument will list the names of all who served from the town of Hartford, which encompasses White River Junction.
The granite monument with cast bronze plaques will be located in Veterans Memorial Park, said Mary Kay Brown, chair of the monument committee, as she showed visitors the spot near a walkway in the park.
“It would just be a place for people to remember and share and talk about the history,” said Brown. “I would love to see the schools bringing kids over here and incorporating that into their curriculum, of you know, appreciating the people that fought for our country and lived and worked and built this town that so many of us love.”
Learn more about the ways to work with the Vermont Community Foundation to support efforts like Better Places and much more.