BRATTLEBORO—Last year, Jacob Alan Roberts hit the ground running as the new part-time downtown coordinator with the organization then known as Building a Better Brattleboro.
He spent his first two days on the job moving the organization from its longtime home in the iconic River Garden to a second-floor office further down Main Street. BaBB had just sold the building, whose expenses had far outpaced its revenues, to fellow nonprofit Strolling of the Heifers.
A year later, Roberts sits in a pop-up retail store adjacent to Superfresh! Organic Café, a restaurant he owns with partner Jessica Weston.
As the newly resigned downtown coordinator for the newly minted Downtown Alliance, Roberts pondered his year on the job.
“It was a year, that in retrospect, feels like 10 years but feels like two minutes at the same time,” he told The Commons recently.
“It was time,” is the simplified response to the question of why he decided to leave the organization which focuses on building a thriving downtown Brattleboro, now known as The Downtown Alliance.
“It was a difficult decision,” he said.
Roberts said he isn’t leaving the DA over bad feelings or frustrations.
He said he sees his work over the past year as mostly helping with the organization’s transition: bringing on new board members, relaunching some of the DA’s committees, changing the organization’s name, and gathering feedback from people in the downtown and their vision for it.
The organization made a clean sweep, he said.
An entrepreneur in the downtown himself, some of Roberts’ reasons for leaving the DA are personal. He owns Superfresh! with Weston, who is the executive chef.
The café is holding its own after a year, Roberts said, thanks to Weston — “who has done 99.9 percent of the work.”
Roberts said he wants to shift his focus to the café and Weston’s work.
He also said he plans to remain involved with the DA.
Roberts served on what was then the BaBB board for six months before taking the reins as downtown coordinator. He started the job after a tumultuous year for the organization.
BaBB had weathered a perfect storm of — to name a few — miscommunication, financial constraints (from managing the River Garden), personality conflicts, and tangled visions of what a downtown program was and what Brattleboro needed from it.
“[The downtown organization] was almost asking for permission to exist,” Roberts recalled.
People questioned the need for an organization like the DA, he added. Many wondered if the role of economic development in the downtown should have fallen to a municipal office rather than an independent nonprofit.
As part of his role as downtown coordinator, Roberts set to managing the organization’s work plan and recruiting board members (the board has expanded from five to 13 members).
Roberts said it was important for the DA to acknowledge its history as it moved forward.
“We’re not wiping the slate clean, but we’re also willing to do some bushwhacking,” he said.
A relatively new member of the Brattleboro community at the time, Roberts said he had a learning curve in the early days as the downtown coordinator, a new position for the organization. Roberts had to learn the ins and outs of the Vermont Downtown Program.
He also found himself asking what all the people who came to the downtown as merchants, property owners, tenants, workers, and shoppers expected from the DA. How would he represent the organization? he wondered. Who were the players? Who were the boycotters?
Places have their own intricacies, Roberts explained about learning to “toggle” between downtown Brattleboro’s big-picture and ground-level needs.
An organization such as the DA wrangles with big issues like how to build a vibrant economic environment for merchants and property owners while considering everyday concerns such as snow removal, litter, and parking.
Roberts said he believes that with time and attention the DA could grow its budget and programs to include a full-time director, needed support staff, a professional fundraiser, , and a business development director experienced in city planning.
Roberts said he takes those who have a stake in the downtown to include its merchants, property owners, downtown residents, and others who hang out, work, or shop there.
“I’m tremendously excited for the future of this community,” he said.
Roberts added that he spent a lot of time collecting feedback from “the base of the pyramid,” even though some expected him to take more business lunches with people at the pyramid’s capstone.
He acknowledged that his visioning sessions with “the base of the pyramid” did not please everyone.
With a part-time work schedule, Roberts felt that the most efficient way to put his finger on the pulse of downtown was to start with the grassroots — or what he calls the marketplace.
If property owners want their buildings fully rented and merchants want thriving businesses, they both need the marketplace, Roberts explained.
Feedback such as people feeling scared in downtown after dark — a common comment he received — could really affect a restaurant’s dinner clientele and consequently shift the DA’s focus to creating a more robust lighting program.
Roberts said Brattleboro has experienced a combination of struggles over recent years: the 2008 recession, the double-whammy of the Brooks House fire and Tropical Storm Irene in 2011, and ongoing demographic challenges including an aging workforce.
The community could debate causes and search for a magic bullet, Roberts said, or it could commit to not giving up and keep doing new things.
There is no reason to want someone to come in and save us, he continued.
Sometimes a community needs good news, “and we make that good news. There is connective tissue not allowing things to slip down the drain. There’s a can-do-itness here.”
The DA has the capacity to help foster change in the hands of strong leaders, energetic members, and committed volunteers, Roberts said.
“It just needed some of that subtle energy work,” he said of the organization’s transition: “Get some of those chakras opened up and get some of the funk off.”
He said he urges anyone who loves the downtown to become involved with the DA, which he characterized as “pretty direct and pretty nice.”
Roberts said he has come to believe that the DA is integral to the downtown.
Roberts also praised the current board, members, and volunteers who have brought new or renewed energy to the organization and its projects.
“These are exciting times for the organization,” he said.
Roberts said he feels optimistic about Brattleboro’s future as well.
“There’s a good cast of characters here,” he said of people in Brattleboro. “Not a lot of people sit on their hands.”