Onion City Resurgence: One Square Mile of Recreation, Culture and a Thriving Senior Community

September 20, 2012  
Filed under Arts & Entertainment

Art lovers mingle at a pop-up art gallery created when Opportunities Credit Union leased two downtown spaces which they combined to create a unique gallery space. (Photo by Ric Kadour)

By Phyl Newbeck

The Onion City is having a major resurgence. New restaurants, pop-up art galleries and the River Walk all make Winooski a wonderful place for young professionals to live. However, Winooski also has a thriving senior community with a vibrant senior center, four separate senior housing complexes and one assisted living community, all within walking distance of each other and the newly vibrant downtown. “It’s a good community for seniors,” said Mayor Michael O’Brien, “because it’s compact, we have a lot of services, we’re centrally located and we have a lot to offer.”

One advantage to Winooski is the transit system. CCTA buses run every half hour into Burlington from several locations with one stop directly in front of one senior housing complex and another close by. The SSTA hub is at the senior center. “Winooski is small enough to be close-knit,” said Ed Willenbaker, Executive Director of the Winooski Housing Authority, “but large and diverse enough for a variety of services and both an urban and rural experience. For those on a limited income, Winooski housing is a relative bargain.”

Winooski Senior Center Interim Director Blanche Boissy said approximately 20 seniors use the center on a daily basis, depending on the schedule. Bingo attracts the largest daily crowd, but the center offers exercise classes, medical clinics, monthly lunchtime speakers, AARP classes, and bus tours including trips to casinos and the Saratoga Race Track. Seniors interested in volunteer work can sign up at the center to help out at area schools and community centers. Organized volunteer activities include flower arranging and pumpkin carving for local events.

Willenbaker raves about Winooski as a “funky, cool, eclectic place to work and live.” One advantage to the Onion City is the scale. “Winooski is one square mile,” he said “and in that square mile you can pretty much get anything anyone would desire. You can have hustle and bustle, if you like, but you can also have solitude.”

Willenbaker noted that someone looking for the former can go downtown during one of the many street fairs that take place in spring, summer and fall, while those looking for peace and quiet only have to travel a little bit further down the road to experience the beauty of nature on the River Walk. “In one square mile,” he said “we’ve got a critical mass with lively entertainment and a great service network for seniors.” A farmers’ market which is held on Sundays adds to the attraction.

Cultural diversity

Willenbaker also praised Winooski’s diversity. Historically, the city was populated by French Canadian and Irish immigrants who worked in the mills, but now there are immigrants and refugees of all ages from countries all over the world. To cater to those cultures, and to those with inquisitive palates, there are restaurants serving a variety of cuisine. In Winooski, one can find restaurants serving Irish, Italian, Chinese, Thai and Vietnamese food. A popular brunch spot is Sneakers Bistro & Cafe, while Our House Bistro specializes in what they refer to as “twisted comfort food.” Two coffee houses, one of which doubles as a bakery, round out the selection.

Despite the differing backgrounds of Winooski citizens, Willenbaker described the city as close-knit and inclusive. Rita Martel, President of the Winooski Historical Society, concurs with Willenbaker’s assessment. A life-long resident of the Onion City, Martel said Winooski’s previous immigrant population had large families, strong morals, and respect for one another. She is counting on the new generation of immigrant families to do the same thing. “We’ll depend on them to continue our reputation for caring for our elders,” she said.

The Art Scene

A large amount of credit for the burgeoning art scene in Winooski goes to former city councilor Jodi Harrington, who has lived in town for the last two decades. Harrington was working as a marketing manager for Opportunities Credit Union and was frustrated by the empty retail space in the city. She teamed up with Ric Kadour of Burlington to turn the empty spaces into galleries. Opportunities Credit Union provided sponsorship and donated Harrington’s time, and eventually they were able to lease two downtown spaces which they combined to create a pop-up gallery. In 2011, a holiday art market attracted 26 artists and netted over $14,000. Martel is pleased to see the changes in downtown Winooski. “I went to the opening and was quite impressed with the attendance,” she said. “Anything to fill those empty spots downtown is a plus.”

This year, another pop-up gallery filled the space and Harrington is hoping this will lead to an artist enterprise zone. So far, at least 2,000 people have visited the gallery in the span of one year. Other sponsors have signed on, and Harrington has procured a five-year lease so she believes the art scene in Winooski will be permanent. “Hopefully, the legacy I can leave is that there will always be art in downtown Winooski,” she said.

Recreation

For recreation, Winooski has the newly developed River Walk along the flowing water from which the city gets its name. The six-tenths of a mile path is partly packed dirt and gravel but also has a pavement and boardwalk section and travels past the historic Champlain Mill and Woolen Mill, as well as the Winooski falls. The local YMCA also has a variety of recreational facilities including a swimming pool. In addition, there is good fishing (both regular and the ice variety) on the portion of the river known as the Flats.

“Winooski is great for seniors,” said Harrington. “We’re providing a wonderful form of recreation and culture in a city where driving is either not needed or minimal. There’s enough happening here that people don’t have to go to other places. This is a city where you can live, work and play without owning a car.”

At this point, the only drawback to living in Winooski is the lack of a grocery store, but Mayor Michael O’Brien said the city is working to remedy that.

“The cool thing about our city is that all ages can mingle,” said City Manager Katherine “Deac” Decarreau. “Where this happens, you can be any age you feel, simply by having friends, neighbors, and acquaintances that come from all over the age spectrum and all over the world.”

 

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