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Brattleboro takes new look at town plan

BRATTLEBORO—Yes, being next door to “tax-free” New Hampshire affects Brattleboro’s economy.

“But it’s not destiny,” said Stuart T. Arnett, an economic developer with Arnett Development Group, LLC, of Concord, N.H.

As part of Brattleboro Town Plan 2011, the town plan revision process, the planning department hired consultants Roger C. Hawk, of Hawk Planning Resources, LLC, of Concord, N.H., and Arnett to facilitate and make suggestions for the integration of Brattleboro’s three neighborhood plans.

Hawks and Arnett attended an open forum with Brattleboro residents at the Brattleboro Museum and Art Center on March 31 to present their preliminary findings on how Brattleboro’s economy compares to the economies of surrounding communities like Keene and Lebanon, N.H., and Greenfield and Northampton, Mass.

Brattleboro Planning Director Roderick Francis said that the “key function” of the Planning Department’s work is to understand the present realities of the town’s four neighborhoods and decide how residents want their respective districts to develop.

The next step requires deciding which kind of business or zoning suits each neighborhood, said Francis.

Community members in three of Brattleboro’s four neighborhoods — Canal Street, West Brattleboro, and Putney Road, also known as the North End — had previously developed individual neighborhood plans. These plans act as guiding documents for neighborhood development, from the types of businesses to traffic flow.

“Surprisingly,” Arnett said, the fourth district — downtown — doesn’t have a plan, but the community should develop one in the future.

Harmonizing with downtown

The neighborhood plans don’t harmonize with one another at the moment, Francis said recently, adding that the goal of integrating the neighborhood plans is to prevent economic competition between the districts.

Hawks and Arnett said that they used the most current economic data from the U.S. Census Bureau, gathered from 1997 to 2007, to compare Brattleboro’s economy against those of surrounding New Hampshire and Massachusetts communities. The businesses reporting to the Census Bureau only included employers offering unemployment benefits.

According to Arnett, the teams chose the census data over other forms of data collection because it would be consistent across Vermont, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire.

Brattleboro’s population growth has stagnated, showing only a 0.34 percent increase since 2000, the consultants told the audience. In comparison, communities like Keene and Lebanon have grown by 3.8 and 4.6 percent, respectively.

Communities across the board, however, said Hawk, have dropped in the number of manufacturing and retail businesses.

The retail numbers reflect a trend of the “big box” retail stores gobbling up the business that once went to smaller retailers, said Arnett.

In Brattleboro, the manufacturing, retail, and education sectors will remain flat, in part because of slow population growth, said the consultants.

But the numbers did indicate that Brattleboro’s economy shows strength in the areas of health care, professional and technical services, and retail, said Hawk.

Audience members took issue with Hawk and Arnett’s numbers, saying that they excluded small businesses of one or two employees, or the many freelancers prominent in Brattleboro. Also, according to Francis, Brattleboro’s data is subject to severe percentage variances because of the tiny sample population.

Imperfect data applied constantly can still reveal trends, said Arnett in a later interview.

Brainstorming

At the meeting, the audience brainstormed what types of businesses and people Brattleboro could attract to fuel its economic engine.

Their suggestions, 21 in all, included businesses related to telecommuting, the arts, the hightech industry, and value-added agriculture like cheesemaking.

All of this preparation work is to guarantee that everyone “starts in the same integrated place,” said Arnett.

Decisions on economic development, land use, and zoning should develop in tandem, even though people often separate the discussions, said Arnett in a later interview.

What’s the point of having beautifully designed zoning laws that stall the economy? asked Arnett. Or supporting a business that is an “economic juggernaut,” but that drives people from their homes because it’s polluting the air?

“But a town has to deal with both [business and zoning],” Arnett said.

Despite the audience’s concerns with their data, Arnett said that he thought last Thursday’s meeting went well.

“[All those suggestions] that’s what you want to hear,” he said.

Arnett said that Brattleboro’s economic challenges “are serious and sobering. but not out of whack” with the surrounding region.

Or insurmountable, he said.

For example, he said that although Brattleboro’s population growth has been flat, it hasn’t decreased. Also, although Brattleboro must contend with neighboring tax-free New Hampshire, it’s an easier location for people in larger markets in Southern New England to reach via Interstate 91.

“The problem with Keene,” said Arnett, “is that it’s too easy for Brattleboro residents to get there.”

Tax tolerant

Arnett feels that Brattleboro’s economy still holds its own against other communities.

Brattleboro can’t directly compete with tax-free New Hampshire but, “it’s not [economic] destiny,” Arnett repeated.

The trick, he said, is to attract more “tax tolerant” businesses and consumers.

Smaller locally owned businesses fare better than big box stores, because they don’t fall into the same corporate or property tax brackets, Arnett said.

Also, Brattleboro probably can’t compete with Keene for big purchases like refrigerators or furniture, but it could compete with customized purchases like one-of-a-kind furniture, when people buy less on price and more to meet a specific desire.

Regarding keeping shoppers from crossing the Connecticut, Arnett challenges people to rethink their retail habits.

Arnett breaks retail shopping into three levels and says that everyone can fall into any category, depending on how and why the shopper hits the stores.

Level 1 shopping consists of quick five to 30 minute errands, like buying gas or groceries. The purpose of the trip is focused, hinging on price and convenience, said Arnett.

Level 2 shopping tends to last 30 to 90 minutes, and includes browsing at the library, shopping for clothes, or meeting friends for coffee. Arnett said that these consumers are still shopping with a to-do list but move at a more leisurely pace.

Level 3 shopping, in which people spend the day shopping because they want to, said Arnett, comprises any shopping experience that lasts more than 90 minutes. It includes dinners out, shopping for that perfect couch, or spending the day in town because it’s raining at the ski resort.

Arnett said people’s shopping habits fall into these three categories, regardless of other demographic factors, including being a tourist.

He advises that people look at Brattleboro’s neighborhoods and see which shopping levels they provide.

The area around Exit 1, for example, caters to Levels 1 and 2, with stores like Price Chopper and multiple gas stations. Downtown, however, said Arnett, provides “a real richness of Level 3.”

And someone sitting in a Brattleboro cafe because he or she likes the coffee and has plans to browse the one-of-a-kind shop afterwards cares less about Vermont’s room and meals tax, said Arnett.

Arnett said that the next steps for the consultants will be to take the audience’s 21 suggestions and see which ones fit different neighborhoods. Arnett and Hawk will then propose the strongest business and zoning choices for each neighborhood.

The hope, Arnett said, is that as the town planners fine tune the town plan, and that organizations such as Building a Better Brattleboro, the Southeastern Vermont Economic Development Strategy, and Brattleboro Development Credit Corp. will “have their own parts to play.”

The Brattleboro Planning Department, as it revises the town plan, is hosting a series of open meetings to solicit feedback from the community. Visit www.brattleboro.org to read a copy of the Town Plan in progress.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #95 (Wednesday, April 6, 2011).

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