This week's passing of Boston's former mayor, Tom Menino, had many reflecting on his accomplishments in transforming neighborhoods through urban revitalization efforts. Menino, who was 71 and had battled cancer, was famed as the city’s "urban mechanic."
In St. Albans, Vermont, a city of about 7,000 in the state's northwest corner, Mayor Liz Gamache pointed to her city's recent downtown improvement projects as being reminiscent of what Menino accomplished in Boston, though on a much smaller scale. "We knew that staying the same wasn't a good option, because we simply couldn't stay the same," Gamache told New England Cable News. "We were declining."
Gamache said years of hard work, and investments of federal and state grants as well as local dollars, have helped turn around downtown St. Albans. Crumbling sidewalks have been replaced, a new parking garage was christened just this week, Main Street has a handsomer face, and vacant real estate is filling up, Gamache noted. "We've got more stores," Gamache said. "Businesses are expanding."
The city has encountered significant challenges in recent years, including from the opiate addiction crisis that has gripped many communities in the northeast, and the recent closure of an Energizer battery plant just outside the city in St. Albans Town.
However, Mylan, a pharmaceutical company with a large facility in St. Albans, has seen recent job growth, Gamache said, which has contributed to the city's vitality. Construction on a state office building in the city has the mayor excited for more energy, she added.
Reflecting on Menino, whose neighborhood revitalization efforts in Boston ranged from fixing streetlights to fostering trendy housing and business districts, Gamache said, "He was such a great leader in that regard. He took an approach where he looked not just at the little things, but the big infrastructure projects as well. It's the combination; both things matter."
In Burlington, Vermont's largest city, Mayor Miro Weinberger is seeing a host of projects, too, including construction of a new hotel on Main Street and the opening of a new L.L. Bean store on Cherry Street in November. Weinberger said those developments, along with a waterfront improvement project, bike path upgrades, and other construction in the city, should increase economic and community vitality.
"He taught me something about patience," Weinberger said of Menino.
Weinberger recalled he had been in office just two weeks in 2012 when he met the much-more experienced Menino at a U.S. Conference of Mayors event focusing on food policy and hunger. Weinberger said it was a bit intimidating to meet such a giant from the political world when he was so new to his office in Burlington, but he said Menino put him at ease and he left the meeting inspired to develop a city government that emphasized responsiveness to the needs of residents.
"A mayor with sustained attention and a little bit of patience and focus can deliver big things for his constituents," Weinberger said, describing the main lesson he took away from observing Tom Menino. "And that's stuck with me."
Weinberger remembered that at the meeting, Menino didn't seem to be relying on his notes. Instead, he spoke to the group in a well-informed, compelling way, seemingly off the top of his head, Weinberger said. The Burlington mayor also said he enjoyed meeting Menino's wife, Angela. In the NECN interview, Weinberger expressed his condolences to the Menino family, his staff, and the city of Boston.
As for St. Albans, Mayor Gamache said she hopes the city will land a new hotel, continuing the kind of transformation she thinks would make Tom Menino proud. "This is a great community, and it's getting better," Gamache said of St. Albans, smiling.