BRATTLEBORO—Building a Better Brattleboro, the organization designed to support the economic, cultural and residential environment of downtown, hosted its annual membership meeting at the River Garden on Sept. 30.
“This one [meeting] felt particularly good,” said BaBB Executive Director Andrea Livermore.
Over the past year, BaBB’s downtown designation from the state earned town businesses $230,167 in benefits, said Livermore. Two property owners received tax credits totaling $180,567 to help with updating safety features. Also, $47,000 in Downtown Transportation Funds came to town through the Vermont Division of Historic Preservation, and a free business training for members brought $2,100 in benefits.
According to one audience member, the $230,167 represented a 300 percent return on the downtown businesses’ contribution.
Livermore and members serving on various committees highlighted BaBB’s successes over the past year.
Livermore said she appreciated the numerous partnerships forged over the years with the Brattleboro Area Chamber of Commerce and the Brattleboro Museum and Art Center, and she complemented Lane Construction for making the Main Street reconstruction project easy on local businesses.
She also pointed to the poster sponsored by the museum hanging in the River Garden’s portico listing the month’s activities.
“We love the One and Only Brattleboro [brand],” she said. “For a small community, there’s a huge amount of quality stuff happening here.”
Bob Stevens, head of the design projects committee, said the committee has applied for grants, and the town will see improvements to the sidewalks downtown once Lane completes repaving Main Street.
The committee is in the process of applying for grant monies to provide wayfinding signs — signs to direct visitors to parking and other destinations — and bike racks.
The Agency of Natural Resources has also approached BaBB about providing funds to improve stormwater treatment facilities downtown.
Branding and business matchmaking
Dan Yates, president and CEO of Brattleboro Savings & Loan, discussed two projects in the hands of the Economic Restructuring Committee.
The first, a marketing and branding assessment conducted by Arnett Muldrow & Associates, will take place later this fall. Representatives from Arnett Muldrow will visit town Oct. 12 for a meeting.
“It’s critical we get a wide variety of people participating. This is about getting businesses to come [to Brattleboro] and getting people to come,” Yates said.
The committee also plans to complete a database that will track the rental status of downtown properties to help potential tenants find landlords.
Yates shared a story from a recent trip to Silver City, N.M., an “arts town” with a monthly gallery walk and downtown business program comparable in size to Brattleboro. It also has a Main Street with one out of four storefronts vacant.
“It helped put things in perspective of how great Brattleboro’s downtown is,” said Yates.
Peter Johnson, economic restructuring committee member and owner of Emerson’s furniture store, talked about BaBB’s continuing work on Elliot Street.
“We’ve noticed serious changes. This summer was much more pleasant,” he said.
But, he cautioned, merchants are seeing some troubling behavior return, and they expect to see more as the police presence eventually dwindles. He said the restructuring committee is working on budgets for items they can take action on.
Christopher Grotke, of the promotions committee, said the committee has not spent money on promotions lately, opting instead for research and strategy building.
“We don’t want to spend money without knowledge,” he said.
In the meantime, the committee is working toward an ad campaign.
BaBB has also increased its use of electronic media with e-mail announcements and electronic postcards to people making enquiries to the BaBB website.
Bob Prohaska, of the River Garden committee, said the goal is to make the River Garden a source of revenue, or at least revenue neutral. There is more work to do, he said, but this year, money from rentals increased by 141 percent over last year.
Strengths and weaknesses
Livermore and BaBB board president Gail Nunziata, managing director of the Brattleboro Arts Initiative, guided members through a brief exercise listing the town’s strengths and weaknesses.
On the strengths side, members listed Brattleboro’s national recognition, a courageous retail center, historical buildings, good mix of indoor and outdoor activities, an active and loved downtown, its proximity to Interstate 91 and the people.
For challenges, members listed lack of cell phone and broadband Internet coverage, a need to attract and maintain a younger population, a need for better quality jobs and wages, the potential economic impact of Vermont Yankee’s closure, opportunities to buy what people want elsewhere — such as Keene, N.H., and not enough feet on the street to support businesses adequately.
Members also recognized retiring BaBB officers and directors Peter Blackmore, Peter Richards and Don Webster.
Prohaska, Grotke and Sean Conley were elected to the Board of Directors.
Yates received the Larry L. Cooke Memorial Service Award. He received a standing ovation from the membership.
After the meeting, Livermore said BaBB is looking to increase its membership.
Downtown property owners automatically receive membership in the organization, but she hopes other people become involved, such as tenant businesses and downtown residents.
Residents have a “huge stake” in downtown, she said.
“They would do well to get more active, and we’d love to have them,” she said.
In conversations with business owners, said Livermore, it is clear the old patterns of business are changing. Weeks once busy see no customers, while traditionally slow weeks can have wall-to-wall people.
“We’re [Brattleboro] staying afloat. We have a lot, but we need more,” said Livermore.