Ellis: And now, the hard part

by Kevin Ellis

The North Branch of the Winooski River is quiet and clear now. Beautiful really. 

It doesn’t look like the raging, angry torrent that destroyed homes and businesses in the state capitol just four weeks ago. It doesn’t look like the river that made life untenable for dozens of residents of the North Branch apartments on Elm Street. Many of those people had to be relocated to the Barre Auditorium, usually beloved for its high school basketball playoffs, now transformed into a Red Cross shelter. 

The adrenaline and passion of that first week have dissipated. The volunteers have gone back to work and their lives. Traffic has returned. But we are not back to normal. People still need to do business downtown. Strangers, many of them from Texas, South Carolina and elsewhere, are cleaning up these buildings, drying them out. 

At the Pavilion office building, which houses the governor’s office, massive dryers run 24-7. State office buildings from the DMV to the Secretary of State are decimated. Those government services have been relocated. State government is operational but not in the usual location. If the pandemic was Phase 1 of remote work, this is Phase 2. 

There is almost NO commerce going on in downtown Montpelier, save for the places that didn’t flood. The Skinny Pancake is open and making food for free for local workers. Sarducci’s, the old reliable Italian restaurant, is open and working. So is Shaw’s grocery store. They were above the flood line. The North Branch cafe, because of its granite basement, is open and serving food.

Ever so slowly, the hum of emergency generators is giving way to the surge of screw guns. Subfloors are being installed. Sheetrock is going back up. Plans are being made for the comeback. Bear Pond Books, Bailey Road, Capitol Stationers, the Savoy Theatre, the Aubuchon Hardware Store, the Pink Shutter, Capitol Grounds Coffee, and others are all coming back. 

Over on Langdon St., the Langdon St. Tavern, Onion River Outdoors, Roam, Bent Nails Bistro and J. Landon’s Antiques are all closed. They are cleaning up. 

We have all seen and documented the determination and optimism of these downtown merchants and landlords. Behind the optimism, there is a trauma that will be felt for years. You can see it in their faces and hear it in their voices. They will tell you if you ask them. This recovery, this survival really, is tough and demanding work. And it’s expensive. 

Some have their heads down, determined to get the insurance company or the politicians to pay attention. They have to hit their computers to apply for grants under the governor’s new $20 million grant program, the Vermont Community Foundation program, or the Montpelier Alive/Montpelier Foundation fund. 

They are torn between the sheetrock dust on their face, the sewage smell in their stores, and the need to get that grant money. It’s crazy, they say, that there wasn’t more help. No checklist to tell them how to deal with this – again. No National Guard. Most of them are on their own, figuring it out with family, landlords, friends, and contractors. 

Carlo Rovetto and his wife Melissa don’t know how they can reopen because their staff chops veggies and preps food in the basement of their Positive Pie restaurant. They feel neglected by the city and state governments. 

“We pay a lot of taxes to the city and the state and this keeps happening over and over,’’ said Rovetto, who has been downtown since the mid-90s. “I cleaned out our basement with a bunch of high school kids. It was totally dangerous. Where was the help from the government?’’

I was standing the other day with Karen Williams, the owner of Woodbury Mountain Toys, a downtown mainstay, when three guys from the State Health Department went door to door telling restaurants what they could keep and what they must throw away. They wore clean t-shirts and were there to help. But something in Williams snapped, three weeks of frustration got the best of her. 

“Now they show up,’’ she said. “Three weeks later?’’ It was understandable. 

It is just really really hard, all around. And the work is just beginning.  

The non-profit Montpelier Alive has announced a series of public forums to discuss what happened and what comes next. They will be led by Montpelier citizen Paul Costello. This is a good thing. Costello is a steady hand who can insulate this process from a city government that is focused on picking up the trash, turning on the power, and doing the basics of municipal government.

These sessions should lead to some very hard decision making, including:

  • Why do we continue to build along a river that floods?
  • Should we tear down certain buildings that exacerbate the flooding?
  • Should we acquire certain buildings that no longer serve a purpose? I am thinking of the dry cleaner at the corner of Main and Barre Street, the gas stations on Memorial Dr., and the buildings on Stonecutters Way. 
  • How do we let the flood waters go where it wants between our buildings?
  • And how do we design a downtown that can thrive economically and environmentally in a climate change world?

These meetings will succeed if people bring their best thinking. The leadership of the city – the city manager, the city council – is not built for jobs like this. The structure of city government is still built for the 19th century. It’s built to pick up garbage, deliver clean water, and plow snow. It was never meant for this. 

But now it must change. We must change. We must innovate. The Dutch have been dealing with the North Sea for generations. New Orleans with the Gulf of Mexico. Let’s hire some of the experts out there to help with this redesign. 

Let’s form a blue ribbon commission of leading Montpelier citizens to take on the issue of the city’s future. We have the know-how and the ability. The city government doesn’t have the time or the expertise. The commission should meet monthly, take testimony, meet with experts from around the world, and issue a report with recommendations for the city’s future. 

We have a chance to modernize Montpelier. Let’s take it.  

I know most of the people downtown. I eat at their restaurants and go to their movie theaters. I urge you to do the same. Give to their Go Fund Me’s, give to the Montpelier Alive fund, and above all patronize them when they come back to life. Buy local. Eat local. Resist Amazon. When you pay $3 for a coffee at Capitol Grounds, just round up to 4 bucks. It is the difference between them being in business and not. And if they are not, this will be a very very different place and not for the better. 

The author is co-host of Vermont Viewpoint on WDEV and a former Vermont lobbyist and journalist. He lives in East Montpelier. Republished from

Categories: Commentary

9 replies »

  1. The way folks in Vermont come together & help their neighbors is awesome; we give to flood relief in one way or another a couple of times per week.

    It’s just a damn shame that these same people are so utterly ignorant & foolish & naive when it comes election time and don’t care to see the utter destruction their public servants are reaping upon this once-great little state.

    Oh, and Jay Dee? Nix the cut & run…it’s cowardly. No wonder you couldn’t hack L.I.; it’s not for cowards.

  2. when the citizens of Montpelier rely upon their own wit and wisdom, they will come up with solutions. The Government will only hand out other people’s money (OPM). The worst ideas imaginable come from OPM, and OPM does dry up at some point.

    The entire Vermont development plan is wrong across the state. It is a top down problem, the state is following the you will own nothing and be happy plan. We can do better, Vermonters have traditionally been filled with common sense and wisdom, some who work in fancy roofed house, not so much.

  3. Wow. Mr. Ellis manages to use that many words to say just about nothing. His questions he describes that would lead to some “very hard decision making” can be summed up with a very easy response: the geography of the state we live in. Village centers and transportation corridors in our mountainous state leave no choice but to develop in flood plains. Not to mention Act 250 which has left little to no option for development outside of these previously developed areas in river corridors. I imagine that Mr. Ellis lives comfortably on 5+ acres in an area that Act 250 would prohibit moving some of the commerce and housing options from places like Montpelier to. Not everyone has the option to move to Vermont in an idyllic setting with money in hand and lecture Vermonters on what they should do. Nice to know he ventures into the town to spend his money though.

  4. Hegelian dialetics in play and one the state shills pushing it…
    Lets hire another expert and rely on their cityscape urban solutions to a problem Vermonters did not create, and have been warning about for decades…we are effing this up ourselves.
    Interview a climate engineer…or one of those airplane pilots painting lines in the sky…or manufacturing industry workers or anyone who lives outside any part of the year… or is over the age of 50…
    Or someone who reads and does their research and does not accept ‘authority’ that is paid by government to tell us what to think…
    Common sense says we did not create the problem – we are not contributing significantly to the problem, and the solutions are making a whole lotta mullah for those pushing it…
    But yeah…lets hire a lobbyist I mean a sales person I mean an expert to tell us what we are doing wrong….NOOOOOWWWW!
    I feel over mommied.
    Do you?

  5. But wait… If we just spend all of our tax dollars on renewable energy projects and lower our carbon footprint we will combat climate change and these storms won’t ever happen again. Isn’t that the solution Ellis and his pals have been leading us down for the past twenty years?

  6. If legislators understand that the climate is changing, why are they spending like drunken sailors instead of anticipating the environmental impacts and putting money aside to help Vermonters deal with the repercussions? Vermont is now, thanks to the Dems and Progs, too stretched thin financially to help those who really need it.

  7. Ellis is crying another river. The legislature can’t be bothered with actually improving our infrastructure, they are too busy saving the planet, funding diversity, equity and inclusion and wasting needed money on social engineering and keeping plastic bags out of the ocean. They’ve twisted our elections into a month long ballot harvesting fraud, they want to fill our fields with cheap solar panels and destroy beautiful mountain ridges to construct worthless steel windmills. And they have admitted that nothing they do will change the climate.

    Our state roads and bridges need massive repair but the money, 8.5 billion just can’t make it’s way past the climate hysteria and fraud. After the 1927 flood the civilian conservation corp built Wrightsville dam. My father worked on it as a young man. Imagine the foresight then that is nonexistent today. Instead of selling tin plates to raise money, the legislature should stop it’s idiotic agenda and use all available moneys to address these reoccurring problems. They should immediately repeal this foolish green agenda and tend to the real problems right here in our backyards. Now imagine if the dam hadn’t been built. We need common sense in our legislature and a new governor from the republican party and kick these carpetbaggers and RINOs out of government.

    Ronald Reagan said it plainly, the most frightening 9 words you will ever hear, “I’m from the government and I’m here to help”. Most of our problems have been created by the same people who every election promise to fix the problems they created. The voters are suckers if they keep voting for the continued destruction of Vermont. Vote democrat/progressive and this is what you get. Open your damn eyes.

  8. Did we not listen to the same ideas spoken differently in 1992, when ice jams caused the same result in Montpelier? Again in 2011? Did Vermont taxpayers not fund Hundreds of millions for restoration after Irene, in Montpelier, Barre and Waterbury for state infrastructure? Apparently the 100 million or so spent to rebuild the Waterbury State Office complex has some flood protection designed in…but not quite enough-
    In July’s flooding, the Vermont Emergency Management Center, in the DFS building in Waterbury was abandoned… due to flooding!
    The diatribe of the liberal elitist is tedious to hear, yet again.