Burlington, Vermont: The People’s Republic

Everyone knows Burlington is cool, but its hipness has become institutionalized now that Ben and Jerry, the city’s most famous entrepreneurs, have named their newest ice cream flavor after Phish, Burlington’s best-known band. These two local icons typify the spirit of this city by Lake Champlain, where entrepreneurial drive and solid progressive government are seen as complementary, not contradictory, values.

It’s no wonder Outside magazine included Burlington (population: 39,000 and home to the University of Vermont) as one of its American Dream Towns. A nine-mile bike path with a view of the Adirondacks runs along the lake for the whole length of the city. On the waterfront, where other cities might have a private yacht club, Burlington has a beautiful community boathouse where the public can rent sailboats. While pedestrian malls in other U.S. cities are deserted failures, the downtown Church Street Mall is actually thriving, like a European shopping street, with upscale outlets like the Gap and Banana Republic next to a locally owned used-book store or coffee shop. But don’t mistake it for an Aspen of the East. What sets Burlington apart emerged over more than a decade of progressive municipal government under independent socialist mayor Bernie Sanders (now in Congress) and his Progressive Coalition successor Peter Clavelle. At a time when Congress is locked in a big-government-spending-versus-private-sector debate, Burlington has quietly pursued another solution. “It’s a city that’s really putting its resources into the third sector, the nonprofit sector,” says Brian Pine, coordinator of Burlington’s federally funded Enterprise Community project.

That means that during the 1980s, when rents and housing prices in town were appreciating twice as fast as the average income, Burlington skipped the usual two methods of creating affordable housing–building publicly owned units and giving private landlords lavish incentives to provide homes for low-income people–and instead put its money into creating nonprofits that built and rehabilitated affordable housing. The houses and condos are occupant-owned but price-restricted. “When people move out,” says Pine, “they don’t get to take all the equity, most of which has been created by society and not by the individual. The public subsidies that went into making that house affordable in the first place stay locked into the house.”

When Burlington was designated an Enterprise Community, it used the $3 million in federal funds to create nonprofits to manage a wide range of projects, primarily in the low-income Old North End. It extended public transportation from the inner-city neighborhoods to the suburbs, where most of the new jobs are located, and founded the Community Technology Center, which offers free computer access and training to low-income residents. Elsewhere around town, in typical Burlington fashion, the community and economic development office converted an industrial zone into the Pine Street business incubator, where several old factory buildings provide space for more than 80 startup businesses. With the entrepreneurial spirit spread so widely across this community, it’s easy to understand why Ben & Jerry’s feels at home here.

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