Over the past few decades, the tiny city of Winooski has proffered some wacky urban development ideas. In 1979, the city fathers proposed covering the town with a dome as a way to save on heating bills (and, most likely, to attract gawking tourists). Some 20 years later, when city planners were considering a downtown roundabout, some lobbied for the building of multistory structures in the traffic circle’s center. That plan was abandoned after 9/11 cast a pall on the construction of tall buildings.
But the city’s latest scheme for reinvigoration is anything but off the wall, and it doesn’t rely on the construction of futuristic domes or skyscraper islands. It involves leveraging the talents of Winooski’s newest demographic — hip, young creatives — and attracting more of the same.
Over the past few months, Winooski has launched a rebranding campaign, complete with a design-forward new logo and community-building events such as the YMCA's Winooski on Foot, a summer marathon in stages starting June 29, and the Winooski Pop-up Gallery, a community art project organized by Kasini House, beginning June 23. These efforts, along with a retooled farmers market, are in part the work of the reenergized Winooski Community Partnership, a downtown business organization aimed at making the city an attractive, vibrant urban center.
“Winooski has been on the verge for a long time,” says Jessica Bridge, president of the WCP and co-owner of Aartistic Inc., a tattoo studio downtown. “Everything that is needed to have a livable downtown is here.”
In the 40 years since Winooski’s population peaked at 8500, the city has seen many changes. The mills that once defined it were converted to apartments, shops and office space; in 2005, the roundabout was built to move traffic efficiently through the city center. A riverfront building boom brought condominiums, student housing and retail space to the downtown, but also raised concerns about how to fill all that property when the recession hit. Slowly, new spaces began to fill with coffee shops and corner markets, but today roughly 12,000 square feet of retail space remain vacant on the roundabout.
As the city struggled with the consequences of its sudden growth, a longer-term change was brewing. The French Canadian community that once dominated the city was slowly supplanted by new residents. Those newcomers are helping shape the city’s landscape and character now.
The city will soon welcome another influx of young professionals — if not as residents, then as commuters. MyWebGrocer, a Colchester-based e-commerce and marketing company for the grocery industry, is buying the Champlain Mill, according to minutes from recent Winooski city council meetings. The tech outfit’s move to the 100-year-old historic building will bring more than 100 employees to the city.
If Winooski appeals to businesses looking for space, it appeals to individuals, too. Not for nothing do many of the Champlain Valley’s younger residents call the city — somewhat derisively — Burlington’s Brooklyn. There’s a visual reminder in the bridge connecting the two cities, though it’s not nearly as majestic as its New York counterpart. More importantly, because of its relatively affordable real estate, proximity to Burlington and abundance of restaurants, Winooski has carved out a space for itself with professional, dual-income couples looking for a starter community.
“We’re a niche community,” says Katherine “Deac” Decarreau, Winooski city manager and lifelong city resident. “We’re small in both geography and population. This is a place you can make your own.”
Over the years, Decarreau argues, Winooski could never quite decide what kind of city it was. The downtown couldn’t establish its identity, and the city’s plan for defining business development was shaky. That’s changing, she says, with the reorganized Winooski Community Partnership.
The WCP is composed of 10 members representing various interests around the city — businesspeople, municipal officials, clergy. Their goal, says Bridge, who is also a realtor, is to take Winooski to “the next level.” To that end, they’re currently in the process of appraising what the city has to offer.
One of those assets is food, the city’s boosters say. With about a dozen restaurants, bars and cafés situated on the perimeter of the roundabout, Winooski is well positioned as a dining destination, Bridge says. Anchored by flagship restaurants like Donny’s New York Pizza and Tiny Thai, the Winooski dining district is growing and attracting more nonresidents than ever before. Foodies are abuzz about the impending opening of Don Pedro’s, which bills itself as an “authentic Mexican taqueria.”
“Food is an emerging reality in Winooski,” Decarreau says. “No one said, ‘We’ll be about food.’ We just are.”
The city’s culinary expansion is exciting to resident Zack Luby, who sees food as one of Winooski’s big draws. Luby, 35, and his wife moved to Winooski six years ago, before the roundabout was constructed. Back then, Luby remembers, food options were limited.
“When the rotary happened, it changed from Little Caesars and Chinese takeout to Tiny Thai and restaurants that were more our speed,” says Luby, who owns Good Stuff Communications, a social media marketing firm that he runs from his Woolen Mill apartment.
Similarly, Winooski resident Ted Olson raves about the city’s downtown. But it’s not just the restaurants that make Winooski an attractive place to live for the 33-year-old; it’s the whole package.
“I love this town!” says Olson, one of the city’s biggest cheerleaders. “The best music venue in town is the Monkey House, and that’s all because of Angioplasty Media. The best bands ever that are playing Terminal 5 in New York City to 5000 people are playing here in Winooski.
“The restaurants are phenomenal,” he goes on. “There’s Thai and Vietnamese and the best little bakery. And if you want to get a tattoo on a Sunday night, you can, because [Aartistic Inc.] is still open.”
It’s enthusiasm like this that the WCP wants to harness to build the city’s identity and grow its cool quotient. Olson is happy to help. He designed the WCP’s new logo: the words DWTN WINOOSKI ringed by a thick white oval meant to evoke and celebrate the much-maligned roundabout. Olson, who is the art director of Burlington City Arts, also created the poster for the revamped farmers market. The latter’s flyer features the cheeky tagline “More than just wild leeks.”
That’s not just a catchy slogan; it encapsulates the shift from old Winooski to new. Some of the city’s older residents didn’t love the nontraditional logo and wondered where their wild leeks, the traditional symbol of the city, had gone.
Currently, Winooski has only 2500 residents with French Canadian surnames. That number used to be triple. Decarreau, whose family has been in Winooski since 1835 and spoke French for decades, acknowledges that something was lost with the dissolution of the French Canadian population on which the city was built.
But, rather than despair, Decarreau has embraced the population shift and the insights that come from fresh eyes on the city. The diverse new American population has opened ethnic restaurants and markets. The young professional residents have volunteered for city boards, showing a civic spirit seldom seen in other municipalities.
Megan Moir is one of those young people. The 35-year-old was recently elected to the city council, which now contains representatives of five generations.
After purchasing a house in 2004, Moir, the stormwater administrator for the city of Burlington, joined the Environmental Leadership Board. She also volunteered as a firefighter before landing on the city council, where she hopes to shape the dialogue about helping Winooski “round the corner.”
“I wanted to be a part of the conversations we are having about what Winooski wants to look like — of moving away from having a chip on our shoulder and being in the shadow of Burlington, and starting to redefine ourselves as something different, something special,” Moir writes in an email.
One of the dangers of building a community around young people is that, no matter how earnest their involvement, they may eventually outgrow their starter spaces and leave in search of more yard or more kitchen or more children’s bedrooms.
Decarreau understands that probability, and she’s OK with it. If Winooski keeps working to make itself attractive to a certain population, she says, those who leave will be replaced. That turnover might end up being what defines the city.
“People passing through, they love it while they’re here,” Decarreau says. “And they’re proud as they leave.”
Winooski on Foot is a marathon in stages. During a 12-week period, participants will run or walk 26.2 miles around Winooski, logging 2.9 miles a week. Participants will be placed on teams that meet every Wednesday at a different location in downtown Winooski. The program, put on by the Winooski YMCA, is open to anyone. Registration begins June 22; $25 per-person fee includes T-shirt, water bottle, participant medal and recognition barbecue at the conclusion of the program on September 14. To sign up, contact Kevin Hatin at 655-9622 or firstname.lastname@example.org.