BRATTLEBORO—Stand at the corner of Bridge and Depot streets near the train station, and look around.
The contrast between what the landscape looked like in March, and what it looks like now, is amazing.
Look toward Hinsdale, and you see green space instead of derelict buildings.
Look across the street, and you see the Whetstone Station Restaurant and Brewery, the newest addition to the local dining scene.
Look up the hill toward Malfunction Junction, and you see the new Brattleboro Food Co-op building, the first major new commercial building in downtown Brattleboro in decades.
Finally, look down Depot Street, toward Merrill Gas and the Barrows & Fisher fuel depot. Where construction machinery and piles of dirt and gravel sat just a few short weeks ago, now an iron fence, a new sidewalk, a freshly-paved parking area, new streetlights, and a bus shelter can be seen.
Taken together, the panorama of progress suddenly hits you. After more than three decades of discussion, false starts, bureaucratic snafus, and funding uncertainties, the Union Station project is finally becoming real, and its impact on the lower end of downtown Brattleboro near the Whetstone Brook is undeniable.
On July 25, the town celebrated the progress made on the Union Station project with a ribbon-cutting ceremony featuring most of the people who have been involved in the final push toward turning an eyesore into an asset.
At a cost of $75,000, Union Station was built for the Central Vermont and Boston & Maine railroads in 1915. For the next five decades, it served as the town’s rail center. But when passenger rail service ended on Sept. 1, 1966 — the result of the Interstate Highway System and changing travel habits — the station closed and quickly fell into disrepair.
The building was sold to the town, and there was talk of tearing it down and turning it into a parking lot, but instead, the building was rescued. In 1972, the top two levels became the home of the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center. The station’s ground floor became the new waiting room for passengers when Amtrak resumed rail service to Brattleboro in 1973.
Instead of becoming a parking lot, Union Station ended up on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974.
But the area around Union Station still reflected the industrial legacy of Brattleboro, a legacy that was slowly fading away. It presented a neglected landscape to passengers coming into town on the train.
Veronica “Ronny” Johnson and Helene Henry wanted to do something about that, and pressed the Selectboard in 1977 to apply for grant money to do a study of the site.
Town Manager Barbara Sondag said that was when the first mention of renovations to Union Station took place at a Selectboard meeting.
The Selectboard decided to go forward with a $100,000 feasibility study, and that marked the beginning a long-running saga of a project that looked like it might never happen.
The initial feasibility study was conducted in the 1970s, but languished for nearly 20 years until 1998, when town officials proposed a two-phase, multi-modal project that included a downtown parking garage and a refurbished Amtrak station.
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