Collage of photo and image of Vermont

Luke McGowan wants to keep Burlington, Vermont’s tight knit sense of community while exploring an ambitious sustainable business agenda.

Photos courtesy of Luke McGowan and from iStock

Nation & World

The sustainable city

4 min read

“People don’t just want to grow a successful business here, they want to do so in a way that is sustainable.”

Spend any amount of time in Burlington, Vermont, and you will quickly sense that, while it is the biggest city in Vermont, they haven’t sacrificed their tight knit sense of community for an ambitious agenda.

“We’re a small city, but we’re doing big city things,” Luke McGowan, M.P.A. ’17, says, explaining the approach the Community Economic Development Office (CEDO), which he leads, takes to economic development.

McGowan, a passionate advocate for the department’s emphasis on putting the people of Burlington first, stresses that the only way to get things done is by harnessing the power of community. Because Burlington is small, McGowan and his colleagues at CEDO are able to connect with their neighbors in special ways, be it at a Neighborhood Planning Assembly, a city council meeting, or while their kids play at the local YMCA — something that happens to McGowan often.

And McGowan understands how important a connected community can be.

Shortly after he and his wife moved to Vermont to be closer to her family, McGowan was in an accident that left his car overturned on an icy stream. What he describes as the loneliest time of his life quickly turned around when his new neighbors were on the ice helping rescue him.

“It was a really special moment for a lot of reasons, but I look back and think that, even though I was in the least populated area I had ever lived, within minutes [the community was] there to help,” McGowan says, though he doesn’t dwell on the experience because there is so much happening that he’s excited about.

Coming from the city, Luke McGowan and his family quickly adjusted to life in Vermont.

Photo courtesy of Luke McGowan

CEDO provides a helping hand to those seeking to start a new business in Burlington, manages the city’s major development projects, oversees Burlington’s Community Justice Center, and is charged with executing the 2020 census. The agency is large, and their responsibilities are vast, but McGowan sees everything they do, from social justice initiatives to business engagement as essential to running a successful city.

“It’s important to me to make sure it’s not only the voices that are always heard, but also the communities that don’t always speak up [are heard as well],” says McGowan.

His position leading CEDO is a natural culmination of a diverse career path, from political campaigns and the federal government to the private sector, helping business owners expand their companies. This experience has given him the tools to help the public, private, and non-profit sectors in Burlington come together and achieve great things for the city.

“Burlington is committed to the idea of sustainable business, and we punch above our weight when it comes to that area of the economy,” says McGowan, noting that this is nothing new for the city — he says there is “something in the water, or in the IPAs,” in a nod to the region’s vibrant brewing industry. “People don’t just want to grow a successful business here,” McGowan says. “They want to do so in a way that is sustainable, that supports workers and customers, and the environment.”

With Burlington, like all cities, addressing the impacts of the global COVID-19 pandemic, McGowan has taken on the leadership of a city task force leading Burlington’s response. That job, while different from his day job, is still focused on his primary objective — serving the people of Burlington with the best local government possible.

“We set up an interdepartmental team, which we call the Resource and Recovery Center, to take any call, any email from a Burlingtonian looking for help on anything COVID related and answer those questions quickly,” McGowan says. “About 40 people from eight different city departments have logged requests from 1500 Burlingtonians over the course of the crisis on a variety of different issues.”

McGowan’s to-do list isn’t getting any shorter with his added responsibilities to his already demanding day job, but his exuberance to continue pushing forward on a “big city” agenda for his tight-knit community abounds.

This story is part of the To Serve Better series, exploring connections between Harvard and neighborhoods across the United States.