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Brattleboro Town Manager Peter Elwell

News / Column

New dairy processing plant: ‘real enough, promising enough’

Selectboard has ‘conceptually committed to building between $840,000 and $1.5 million worth of utility improvements,’ says Town Manager Peter Elwell

This interview is adapted from the April 18 broadcast of Green Mountain Mornings on WKVT-AM and is published with the station’s permission. Host Olga Peters was for many years the senior reporter at The Commons . The show airs daily from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. To hear audio of the show on demand, visit the show’s Soundcloud page at soundcloud.com/wkvtradio.

BRATTLEBORO—Peter Elwell, Brattleboro’s town manager, sat down to talk the morning after the Selectboard covered a meaty agenda, which ranged from discussing a new dairy processing plant’s plans to come to town to fundraising for the skatepark to Act 46.

“They had a lot of ground to cover,” Elwell said.

We started with the topic that intrigued me the most, because, well, it was my radio show. That topic: a new dairy processing plant: Culture Made Vermont, which plans to locate at the Exit 1 Industrial Park.

* * *

Olga Peters: What can you tell us about this project at this point?

Peter Elwell: It’s a planned investment of over $25 million of private money into the community. There is about another $7 or 8 million worth of public funding of one type or another that is anticipated. All of this is still evolving and being solidified.

But it is now a real-enough, promising-enough venture that the Selectboard was able to take the threshold step to approve filing for a Community Development Block Grant that would support this project with $1 million worth of federal funding that comes through the state Community Development Program. The money would pass through the town to the Brattleboro Development Credit Corporation, which will actually be the developer of the project on behalf of the private company that’s investing.

O.P.: And, if this project gets all its permits and comes together fully, the town has also talked about utilities upgrades?

P.E.: That’s correct. So the Selectboard also conceptually committed to building between $840,000 and $1.5 million worth of utility improvements. (I’ll explain why there’s a range there in just a second.) That commitment is in support not just of this project but of the other activities there at the Exit 1 Industrial Park and, more broadly, an expansion of the capacity of our water and sewer system.

Because the project serves a broader need, it raises the potential that we also might receive substantial federal funding towards those improvements. The U.S. Economic Development Administration offers grants of up to 50 percent of the cost of those improvements that where a public system is expanded to meet a regional need, not just for a particular project.

So we’re looking at doing that; as you said, if this project gets all of its permits and all of its funding and we know it’s going to be a real thing, then we would make that investment from the utility fund. And there’s a range right now because we could go about doing the water side of this in a couple of different ways.

The water system might be done with gravity piping improvements or it might be done with a pumping station at the industrial park. The pumping-station alternative is a lower cost to build but then you have all the electricity and the operating cost and the replacement of the pumps. We think that in the long run it’s probably going to be less expensive to do the more-expensive capital improvement project: put the pipes in the ground and let the system function.

The town actually has emergency power at our pump stations to keep the system functioning for the community. But there is a cost to that as well. And then you’ve got a generator system to take care of.

So, yeah — it’s all those kinds of factors that will be considered later this summer before the board decides how to move forward.

There has been discussion around those utility improvements as to the basis on which the town would make such a substantial investment of the ratepayers’ money; this money would come out of the utility fund to make these improvements.

An important part of this is by enabling this project and others like it to be built, we actually will bring revenue into the fund in connection fees and in user fees that will in a short period of time exceed the amount of the investment.

So here’s an example: the Commonwealth Dairy development about eight years ago here in town is more or less on the same scale and the same type of business that is being contemplated here. Commonwealth paid more than $350,000 worth of connection fees to the utility system and pays over $300,000 a year in user fees because it takes a lot of water to make that much yogurt.

O.P.: Right.

P.E.: So that’s the kind of scale we’re talking about in terms of how quickly the town’s investment in these utilities would pay back.

O.P.: And what about wages? Could you explain how that works?

P. E.: Sure. So the range of salaries in the initial 46 jobs that are projected in the block grant application is from a minimum of $40,000 to a maximum of a little over $160,000. That would be everything from the person in charge of operating the plant to the folks who are actually producing the product on the assembly line and maintaining the facility. In between, there would be some supervisory jobs in terms of managing the manufacturing operation, some highly technical jobs related to the science of the operation, and some sales jobs.

And so there’s quite a range of positions in those 46. But the minimum salary that any employee would be making would be $40,000.

It’s also expected that the 46 would be just at the start of the operation, and then as the project ramps up over the next three to five years, they expect to be having more than 100 employees at the facility.

O.P.: Is it fair to say the town is excited about this project?

P.E.: I think that’s fair to say. (Laughter.)

O.P.: Will it help the Grand List just a little bit?

P.E.: It’ll help the Grand List. It’ll help the utility fund in the manner that I described. You know, the project is not without its challenges, particularly as it relates to managing the sewage side of this, but we’re working through those challenges with the contractor’s engineers. the company’s engineers, the state’s engineers, and the town’s engineers, so we’ll address those issues as they come along through the summer.

But from the point of view of having this amount of private investment coming to the community, creating this many jobs, we’re always working to get the little victories when it comes to economic development. Every now and then we get fortunate and something big happens. This is something big that will happen if it all comes together.

O.P.: Peter, on the other end of the spectrum, some tires had been left in the community. These tires, just for anyone who hasn’t seen the media coverage, have been left near the one of the trailheads for the West River trail?

P.E.: That’s correct. They’re in a wetlands area just as you go past the Marina restaurant and the other few buildings that are there and get on to that access road that becomes the West River Trail. Just off to your right, just to the east at the base of the hill there is where the tires are located.

Terry Carter, a person in the community brought these tires to the town’s attention. We recognize that there was not an enforcement action for the town to take. There was no violation within the town’s jurisdiction.

So we helped Terry get in contact with the right folks at the state. The state folks said that under certain circumstances they could take enforcement action, but in this particular instance it looks like an old dump of tires — not anything that’s in violation of a permit that’s been issued by the state or anything like that.

So the state also had limited ability to intervene and had some thoughts about maybe some ways in which we might go about doing a cleanup. But that was about as far as I got.

Terry has spoken about this further at the Selectboard meeting, and there has been some recent media coverage of it as well. And in the course of that and some additional communication among all the folks who’ve been looking into this situation, the Connecticut River Conservancy has stepped up. Kathy Urffer, the river steward for the Connecticut River Conservancy, has committed to addressing those tires as part of that organization’s region-wide September cleanup.

O.P.: Wow.

P.E.: It’ll be a community-organized effort to clean up situations like this in wetlands and around the river. The Connecticut River Conservancy will take the lead, and we’ll organize something around this. Last year they collected more than 1,400 tires during their cleanup.

O.P.: Wowwwww.

P.E.: So they know how to handle tires, and we’re really excited that an organization with their kind of wherewithal is going to take the lead and allow anyone else from the community who wishes to be involved in this to get involved in a really positive way.

O.P.: So it sounds like we don’t know where these tires actually came from.

P.E.: We really don’t. We’ve heard different people say different things about where they think they came from. I think about the importance of how this has evolved from a pointing-a-finger-at-somebody, who-can-we-point-that-finger-at kind of question into a what-can-we-do-collectively-as-a-community-to-address-this issue, so we can get the tires out of the wetlands. And I think there’s a lot of positive energy in that and now that there is a point of leadership, I’m very confident that we’re going to rally a large group of people out there in September to clean it up.

O.P.: And on to good news: the skate park is moving forward with some of its fundraising.

P.E.: It is. We were talking a month ago about the request at Annual Representative Town Meeting, of course, where the $20,000 request was funded at a $60,000 level. So that obviously was an unusual outcome and a very welcome one in terms of a real boost to getting this project towards the ability to construct.

The status report that the the BASIC (Brattleboro Area Skatepark Is Coming) committee provided to the board indicated that they believe they need about $60,000 more.

They identified all the different sources of funding that have gotten them within about that range from the finish line to actually have the money to construct, and there’s currently about $100,000 that is being pursued in one form or another, most of that through grants and some of that through local donations.

So there’s a push coming right now to boost those local donations as a match. The Selectboard has approved a grant from the Tarrant Foundation that is providing $15,000 to the project. If the organizers can collect $15,000 of donations to match the Tarrant grant and get halfway to the finish line, there’ll be a lot of attention paid in the coming weeks to opportunities for people in the community to give a little or give a lot to help get those funds.

O.P.: As someone who has followed this skatepark for a while, it’s great to see it moving forward.

P.E.: It sure is — it’s been a long time in the planning. Of course, the town as a community struggled for a bit finding the right location.

O.P.: I was hoping quickly to touch base on the Act 46 letter and discussion that happened last night.

[According to draft minutes of the meeting, Selectboard member David Schoales “said that he had asked the Selectboard at the March 3 meeting to consider sending a letter to the State Board of Education and the Agency of Education seeking their approval of the Alternative Governance Structure application submitted by local school boards, school board members, and concerned citizens.”

[In response to Schoales’ proposal, “the Selectboard indicated that it did not have enough information about the two proposals to make a decision and it questioned whether the matter was under the Selectboard’s area of interest, so Schoales was asked to draft a letter for the Selectboard to consider at this meeting.”

[According to the minutes, “There was considerable discussion by the Board, including about the complexity of Act 46, whether the matter was under the Selectboard’s role, whether any proof existed that the two State Agencies had not considered the people’s vote, the fact that the alternative governance structure proposal existed but was not voted upon, the timeline for submitting such a letter, further implications about whether the Board signed or did not sign a letter, and whether a letter could be composed that could be signed by members of the Selectboard but not representative of the Selectboard. The Board asked Schoales for additional information and agreed to add the matter to the May 1 agenda for further discussion.]

P.E.: So there was some additional discussion. There was no final action taken on that. Dave Schoales, who suggested this, is going to provide some additional information to the board so that the board can discuss and make a fully informed decision — hopefully on May 1 — whether they wish to proceed with the letter.

There was some discussion that perhaps a letter of that type could be sent but maybe not by the whole board as an official action of the town. But I think they’ll give more consideration to that when they’ve seen the additional information.

There was also kind of an overarching concern of whether the Selectboard ought to be in this conversation or whether this is really squarely a school board and an education area issue as opposed to a town government issue.

And so the board really didn’t want to just flat out say no but raised the concerns that it had various members offered different concerns. They would like to see some additional information so they can decide how to proceed, and that will be discussed on May 1.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #456 (Wednesday, April 25, 2018). This story appeared on page A1.

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