Motorists traveling south on I-89 near Middlesex in recent weeks may have noticed the appearance of a large green sign along the roadside that reads, “Mad River Byway Exit 9.” What is the Mad River Byway? A new way into Warren? A Circ-like superhighway to Sugarbush? A Big Dig to Buel’s Gore?
None of the above, reports John LaBarge, program manager for the Vermont Byways program at the Vermont Agency of Transportation. While the byway signage is new, the Vermont Byways program is not. Vermont has participated in the federal government’s scenic-byways program since the mid-1990s. Vermont’s first and only national scenic byway — the Connecticut River Byway — was designated in September 2005. In all, Vermont has nine state-designated byways, with a tenth being added in the Northeast Kingdom next month.
OK, but what’s a byway? As LaBarge explains, it’s a secondary road or state route that runs through small towns, villages and cities. Part educational program, part marketing campaign, the byway program aims to get travelers off the gas pedal and into local towns and villages where they can explore Vermont’s unique culture, history and scenery — and, in the process, swipe their credit cards at local businesses.
For newcomers to Vermont, LaBarge says, the byway program offers “one-stop shopping, so they know where they can go, what they can see, what they can do and where they can stay.”
For example, the 36-mile Mad River Byway, which includes stretches of Routes 100, 100B and 17, winds through Middlesex, Moretown, Waitsfield, Buel’s Gore, Fayston, Warren and Granville, most of it along the Green Mountain National Forest. Visitors to the Mad River Byway website can find hiking trails, bike paths, ski resorts, fishing spots, golf courses and other things to do. The site also lists restaurants and lodging.
LaBarge points out that the byway program can also be used to promote interest-specific travel routes and itineraries, such as the locations of microbreweries, wineries, historic sites and specialty cuisines. Eventually, he predicts, each byway will have its own mobile app and/or podcast.
The beauty of the program, LaBarge adds, is that it’s driven almost entirely by local, grassroots efforts. A road is designated as an official byway only after citizens and businesses get their town’s officials to apply.
Moreover, he says, the byway program is “about recognition, not regulation.
”So a state or federal byway designation cannot be used in Act 250 hearings or to override local zoning ordinances. Towns can opt out of the program at any time and have no financial burdens imposed upon them. And, while historic preservation plays a role, LaBarge says, a byway designation puts no regulatory restrictions on communities.
LaBarge, who’s overseen the Vermont Byways program for six years, says it’s been a big success. The website now logs about 25,000 hits per year, most of which come from major markets within easy driving distance of Vermont, such as Montréal, Boston and New York City. But the program also gets brochure requests from as far away as Europe, Asia and Australia.
What’s the future of the byways program? The bad news, LaBarge says, is that Congress didn’t fund the national program for the next two years. However, Vermont Byways will soon become part of the Vermont Department of Tourism & Marketing, which will allow it to promote for-profit entities such as Ben & Jerry’s ice cream factory, Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, Cold Hollow Cider and smaller businesses.
LaBarge won’t oversee the program for much longer, but he says he’s “loved every bit of it. I look at a handful of local people and what they can get done, and it’s just amazing.”
Speaking of getting things done — or not — several readers have asked what is up with the Kmart plaza on Shelburne Road in South Burlington. For more than a decade, the half-vacant shopping center, which once housed a drug store, supermarket, movie theater and various smaller retailers, has become little more than a bypass for drivers to avoid traffic lights on Route 7.
Why has a seemingly prime chunk of commercial real estate, with easy access to the interstate and downtown Burlington, remained mostly empty since Bill Clinton was in office?
Turns out, the plaza is owned by Hannaford Bros. Company of Scarborough, Maine, which is itself a subsidiary of the Delhaize Group, a food retailer based in Brussels, Belgium. With its tenant, Kmart, holding a long-term lease and a newer Hannaford store less than a quarter-mile away, the company has little motivation to redevelop the land.
“We don’t have any plans [for the property] at this point,” says Hannaford spokesperson Eric Blom.
Sandy Dooley, who’s been on South Burlington’s city council since 2007, suggests that the council has been “most unhappy” with the situation for years, but is largely powerless to do anything about it.
Ditto for South Burlington’s planning and zoning administrator Ray Belair.
“We know that eventually, hopefully, it will be redeveloped,” Belair says. In the meantime, “It is what it is and we don’t have any control over it.”
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