Designation 2050: The case for updating Vermont’s Designation Program

Vermont’s Designation Programs guide development and state investment priorities for revitalization. In response to the Program’s evolving needs, Smart Growth America and Community Workshop collaborated on Designation 2050, a strategic report that evaluates the current Designation Programs, sharing insights and recommendations for reform. The report’s key findings aim to position a reformed Designation Program to fuel a new wave of community-driven and place-based investment, revitalization, and smart growth.

Collaboratively assessed by SGA and Community Partners LLC, the report outlines crucial reforms in program structure, governance, benefits, information access, and monitoring. As Vermont faces housing crises and climate challenges, a legislative proposal is in the works for 2024, aiming to fortify needed reform. The Designation 2050 report stands as a serious and necessary step toward ensuring sustainable growth, equitable access, and alignment with local and state goals.

Vermont’s five existing designation programs guide development and state investment priorities for revitalization by offering benefits to municipalities and property owners like tax credits, grant funding, and easier permitting for housing in designated areas to municipalities and property owners. In turn, those benefits fund and fuel revitalization, growth, livability infrastructure, and other essential work. Initially, the Downtown Designation Program was created in 1999, and while they have been augmented by additional Designation Programs over time and have received support (281 active designations—67% of communities), they need an update to meet the needs of today and the future.

With the need for reform in mind, the State of Vermont selected SGA and Community Workshop LLC to review, assess, and make recommendations for improving their state designation program. We built out a collaborative and robust evaluation and engagement process, including a 150-person summit, to examine how well the programs are working now and identify recommendations to make them simpler, more accessible, and far more impactful.

During our evaluation, program users and other stakeholders underscored why change is needed:

  • The current programs are complex, hard to understand, and hard for some places to access and use.
  • Limited local and state capacity are barriers to action. Program requirements and admin are further drains.
  • Communities have diverse needs and conditions. Current programs don’t offer flexible options.

But while there are clear challenges, the Designation Program has been an overall success allowing participants to leverage hundreds of millions of dollars in funding for local development projects. With the appropriate reimagining, the program stands poised to further accelerate housing growth, climate action, equity, livability, and more.

The result of our work to evaluate and reimagine Vermont’s Designation Programs is Designation 2050, a report that shares insights and recommendations for a reformed designation program and to fuel a new wave of community-driven and place-based investment, revitalization, and smart growth.

Why now

Vermont’s Designation Programs are about to turn 25 years old. They have the potential to be powerful tools for progress, but they are currently falling short of their promise. The urgency for action is higher than ever, as Vermont faces a housing crisis, the impacts of climate change, an aging and diversifying population, and other challenges. Many Vermont towns are energized to work on projects like these and have ambitious goals, but far more projects and investments are needed, in far more places, and far more quickly than they are happening now.

This is a critical moment to pause, evaluate, and strengthen them for the next 25 years. In 2022, the Vermont Legislature authorized a project to evaluate the Vermont Designation Programs and recommend reforms for the next 25 years. The project kicked off in April 2023 and concluded in December 2023, with a companion report on designation and climate resilience forthcoming.

Key findings

Through the summit, a public survey, and 25 years of data, we analyzed and combined data points to build a framework for reform. The program evaluation and reform recommendations are organized into five key areas:

  1. Simpler Designation Structure: Number, types, goals, requirements, and processes for designation; ease of access for diverse places and people.
  2. Coordinated Administration and Governance: Oversight and management, decision-making processes and roles, coordination among partners, and alignment of goals and agencies.
  3. Better Benefits and Support: Types and amount of funding, technical assistance, regulatory relief, and other benefits available; impact on local and state goals; equitable access.
  4. Accessible Information and Outreach: Access to clear, simple, and complete information about programs; statewide awareness and knowledge of offerings.
  5. Robust Monitoring and Sharing: Data and metrics for tracking impact; sharing and using success stories and lessons learned.

Coordinated action in all five areas is essential to making Vermont’s Designation Programs stronger and more impactful, creating more equitable access, and increasing alignment with state, regional, and local goals.

Click here for a detailed summary of the framework, as well as in-depth findings from our evaluation, and additional strategic priorities and recommendations.

Next Steps

The Designation 2050 report is just the first step toward a reformed designation program. And while we believe this work established a strong framework to advance change, there is more work to be done.

Here are a few next steps:

  • A legislative proposal is currently under development based on this effort along with aligned studies on land use planning and development review.
  • The Vermont Legislature expects to consider reforms to the programs’ structure, benefits, governance, and other key areas in 2024.
  • State agencies must continue and deepen their coordination on programs and investments. Vermont Department of Housing and Community Development, Regional Planning Commissions, and the Natural Resources Board must work together to establish new processes, guidelines, and support for transition to a reformed program.
  • State and local leaders must address the limitations of current funding and capacity structures to support impactful, sustainable change on the ground.
  • Stakeholders can continue to weigh in on the direction of a reformed program via the legislative process.
  • Smart Growth America is working on a companion “Climate Resilience & Designations” report that will delve deeper into other climate risks and climate adaptation opportunities that could be integrated into the designation program.



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