Boston Globe, April 16, 2000 B8, B9 By Joyce Marcel, GLOBE CORRESPONDENT
BELLOWS FALLS, Vt. - It's late, the merlot is flowing, and at a booth at an upscale restaurant here, a group of people, mostly artists, is explaining how this tiny historic town is rushing back to life." This is a gritty town," said Rufus Chaffee, an educator who lives in Bellows Falls. "And we can sell grit."
The waiter, who is also designing a mural to decorate a downtown building, is asked if he's planning to move into one of the artists' apartments under construction at the Exner Block. When renovations on the 19th-century block of six buildings are complete, 10 downtown living and studio spaces, starting at around $450 a month, as well as six stores will be available to rent.
He says he won't, because as a musician as well as an artist, he practices late at night.
Painter Robert McBride gets excited. "We can do another building and make soundproof living spaces for musicians."
McBride, 49, has a talent for making things happen. In New York City in the late 1970s, he was part of the team that converted a former public school, P.S. 122, into a center for performance and studio spaces for 18 artists, including himself.
He came to Bellows Falls for a friend's dinner party in the early 1980s - his first visit to Vermont -saw charm behind its blight, and made an offer on an 1860's Greek Revival home the next day. People around Bellows Falls credit him with being the creative force not only behind the $1.2 million Exner Block renovation, in partnership with two nonprofit groups, but also the Rockingham Arts & Museum Project. In that role he has put on a number of art happenings and performances around town.
Nothing could be more unexpected than this coupling of art and grit in Bellows Falls, population 3,500, which only a few years ago was the epitome of a depressed and dying mill town.
"We're turning into an artist's community, and for a Philistine like me that's hard to take," said Sean Cota, 37, who is the third generation of his family to run a plumbing and heating fuel business in Bellows Falls. "It's something I would never have recognizes being an economic development tool.
But it's become that." Bellows Falls is an incorporated village inside another town, Rockingham. Located by a large waterfall at the narrowest spot on the Connecticut River, it has been a crossroads for thousands of years. Ancient petroglyphs resembling smiley faces are carved into the rocks by the river, where Native Americans gathered yearly to catch the salmon and shads they leapt up the falls on their way to spawn.
The town has seen many historic firsts: the first bridge over the river, in 1785, and - to bypass the falls - the first canal in the country, in 1802. By the 1850s, the town was a railroading powerhouse. By the 1890s, paper mills dominated the economy and employed close to 500 people. From those better days, the town still has a large number of Victorian houses and a red brick Victorian downtown built around a square; McBride likens it to "an Italian piazza."
But by the late 1980s, the stately Victorians had been divided into rental apartments, the brick factory buildings were vacant and crumbling, the downtown was full of empty storefronts, and only one-track in the vast rail yard was still in use. The downtown railroad hotel that dominates the square closed shortly after a man was busted for prostitution there."
What defined the town most then was its sense of its own inability to do anything," said Andy Broderick of Housing Vermont, a statewide nonprofit housing development corporation. "People were afraid to move forward. Some were afraid they wouldn't get a buck out of it, some were afraid things would change, and some were afraid that they'd have to face how bad things were. "To beef up the economy, at various times selectmen considered plans for a hazardous waste dump, a low-level nuclear dump, and a prison. The vote on the prison was the turning point. Out of the ugly battle, grassroots organizations were formed by residents determined that Bellows Falls had amore promising future than dumps and prisons could offer. Voters rejected the prison plan in 1998.
The downtown was immeasurably-ably helped in 1995, when a hometown boy started Sovernet, now a major Internet provider. With Sovernet giving the area local Internet access, and putting the village on the cyber map, Bellows Falls began attracting a number of Internet startup companies." This part of the state now has the highest density of sophisticated tech people providing an economic infrastructure so we can be quaint," said Tony Elliot, who co- founded Sovernet with Bellows Falls native Erik Leo. More people meant more business for the town's remaining stores, and also for the 1920's era Miss Bellows Falls Diner, which still serves egg creams and cherry Cokes. "I remember when my grandfather and I had breakfast there every morning," said Cota, one of the first people to push revitalization and someone who have served on just about every local board. "When you come to our town, you really are walking back in time."
In a spurt of creative energy, the Town Hall/Opera House clock tower, where Houdini once hung upside down in a straightjacket to entertain the populace, was fixed. A theater company formed and renovation of the opera house began. People started snapping up the old Victorians, and every year now the historical society brings in a consultant to help the new owners choose colors for them.
Then there was the Green Mountain Flyer, a tourist train that runs mainly in the summer and fall. Along with Amtrak's Vermonter, it brings an estimated 36,000 people to town a year. But how to attract those passengers downtown when the station sits on an ugly industrialized island cat off from town by the canal? The answer: Landscaping, parking, and a pedestrian footbridge across tile canal are on the drawing boards.
In 1998, the Connecticut became one of 14 "American Heritage" rivers, and Bellows Falls was chosen to host a visitor's center, which is expected to be built across from the station. Plans are also in the works for a nearby river-life heritage museum.
So by the time Oona Madden opened her restaurant, Oona's, in August 1999, the area could support a place that serves bamboo-steamed mussels with garlic butter, holds concerts, and provides a hangout where artists drink wine at night. Madden will soon be opening a coffee bar and bakery, too. Plans are afoot to renovate two more downtown buildings. At least four new businesses, including two restaurants, are set to open. And McBride, who will be the leasing agent for the Exner Block, is hoping that all these projects will generate enough energy to attract a deep-pocketed developer to revive the disgraced hotel. So what brought Bellows Falls back to life? "It's more like a rheostat that's been slowly turned on than a light," said House Speaker Michael Obuchowski, a Democrat and a lifelong Bellows Falls resident. "The jail vote had something to do with it. We knew what we didn't want. Then we had to decide what we did want," he said.
Activists and officials around town have also gotten very good at grant-writing, drawing federal, state and nonprofit aid for various projects. In the last 18 months, the village has pulled in more than $1 million in public grant money, said John Elwell, the town's development director. Cota, who was at first wary of the influx of artists, has become a true believer. "I've seen all of the bad stuff happen," he said, "and to see all these people now moving into the community because of the beauty of the mountains around us, and the river, and our beautiful downtown, is a great thing."