BRATTLEBORO—Can a spiffy new information kiosk at the Vermont Welcome Center in Guilford drive more tourists off Interstate 91 into Brattleboro?
Can a bright new banner hanging off the corner of the Brooks House lift the spirits of downtown merchants and visitors?
Brattleboro Area Chamber of Commerce executive director Jerry Goldberg hopes so.
“We’ve got three exits off the Interstate, which is great, but we want to give visitors more information,” he said.
Building a Better Brattlboro (BaBB) executive director Andrea Livermore agrees.
“We’re trying to get people off the highway and out of their cars,” she said. “We hope this sign can bring people downtown.”
Both signs were unveiled with great fanfare last month to boost tourism in Brattleboro.
But the town, and Vermont as a whole, has a bigger problem now.
Tropical Storm Irene put the state in the national headlines, and did considerable damage to many businesses along the Whetstone Brook. At the same, much of downtown Brattleboro escaped unscathed.
Now, Goldberg and Livermore have to convince people that Brattleboro is still open for business, and that the town wants visitors to come, spend money, and have a good time.
“We got all that attention from the storm,” said Livermore. “It would be nice if we got as much attention to the fact that we’re open, that Vermont is still beautiful, and that you can still get around if you are patient.”
A sign full of info
The new sign at the Welcome Center sign doesn’t just provide information on attractions and historic sites in Brattleboro. It also offers visitors an instant postcard — a blown-up view of the Brooks House, circa 1920, with a “Welcome to Brattleboro” banner and “put your face here” cutouts that put visitors into a flapper-era Brattleboro street scene before they even arrive in town.
The postcard is just one side of a six-panel information kiosk installed outside the Welcome Center as a collaborative effort by the Chamber of Commerce and BaBB as part of the ongoing “The One and Only Brattleboro” branding campaign.
In addition, the Welcome Center is one of multiple locations distributing a new Brattleboro shopping, dining, and lodging guide published by Primetime Concepts of Dummerston. The full-color guide showcases businesses and attractions of interest to tourists in and around Brattleboro, along with a calendar of events and maps.
The goal of both initiatives is to entice tourists into stopping in Brattleboro and to help them find their way around.
The kiosk, according to Livermore, was planned as a way to engage tourists while offering information about what attractions tourists can reach via Exits 1, 2, and 3; a map of downtown Brattleboro plus a wider-area map; a list of seasonal events; a list of unique “Brattleboro superlatives;” and photos of the area.
“We’ve been watching how people interact with it,” Livermore said, “and on busy days, at least a dozen families every hour are taking pictures there. That works out to thousands over the course of a season. And when they share those pictures on Facebook, they’re telling all their friends about Brattleboro.”
The Welcome Center — the only such venue in the state that’s open around the clock — is a natural place for a sign like this. According to Kathy Dowd, the center’s manager, approximately 750,000 people pass through the center every year.
Dowd said BaBB and the Chamber approached her with the idea of a new Brattleboro information sign.
“We try to be open-minded about what will work and be interesting to our visitors,” said Dowd. “We always promote Brattleboro, but this sign is definitely an attention getter.”
The kiosk will stay at the Welcome Center through the autumn months and will return for spring, summer, and fall 2012.
Brooks House boost
The Aug. 28 flood came on the heels of another traumatic event for the downtown, the Brooks House fire.
The April 17 blaze left Brattleboro’s largest commercial building empty, pending renovation of the building by its owner, Jonathan Chase.
As has been the case with the intense news coverage from Irene, the coverage of the Brooks House fire left some prospective visitors with the impression that the downtown was devastated, even though the bulk of the Brooks House’s structure was saved and the clean-up after the fire went more quickly than expected.
That’s why, Goldberg said, it was worth reminding people that the Brooks House won’t be dark and quiet for long.
On Aug. 23, the Chamber hung what Goldberg called “a gi-normous banner” on the tower corner of the Brooks House. It hangs from the sill of the fourth-floor window to just above the awning of the former Dragonfly Dry Goods store. The banner features an image of the tower itself and says “BROOKS HOUSE RISING 2011-12.”
Still more to do
On Sept. 16, BaBB held a morning meeting at the River Garden for business owners to come up with strategies to attract people downtown.
More than 30 businesses were represented at the meeting, an encouraging sign to Livermore.
“Maybe it takes a crisis to get people involved, but it was good to see that many people show up,” she said.
But the meeting quickly broke down a lengthy discussion into a perennial downtown complaint — parking.
Merchants and shoppers alike are upset over rising parking rates and what some see as over-aggressive enforcement of parking regulations.
One suggestion was to make a bigger effort to market the town’s “smart cards,” which for now can only be purchased at the parking office in the Transportation Center in Flat Street. The cards, which can be used at meters and in the “pay and display” lots, eliminate the need to carry a pocketful of change when one parks downtown.
“If other merchants downtown could sell and recharge the cards, I think you would see more people using them,” said Livermore.
Another suggestion that generated debate was offering special “The One and Only Brattleboro” reusable cloth bags that would entitle users to a 10-percent discount at participating merchants.
While many thought it was a good idea, some merchants opposed it, saying it would increase the number of potential shoplifters in their stores.
Other ideas included temporary signs on Interstate 91 to announce downtown attractions, having a special flood recovery sales tax holiday, and stores cross-promoting one another’s businesses.
What should downtown be?
Livermore said that despite the Brooks House fire and the lingering effects of the ongoing recession, “things haven’t changed that much on Main Street.”
She said that business and foot traffic are about what they were last year, back when the big concern was how the Main Street reconstruction project was going to affect downtown merchants.
But in the long term, Livermore believes that Brattleboro needs “a mixed socio-economic scene, with feet on the street every day. Tourism is just the icing on the cake.”
Even before the Brooks House fire, Livermore said that the downtown area has lost many employers over the years, with workers who ate and shopped on Main Street every day.
“To have a functioning downtown, you need to have a mixed downtown where you have people on Main Street seven days a week,” she said.
“This town needs to decide what it wants to be, and put an effort into it,” Livermore said. “If you create a vibrant place where people live and work downtown, the tourists will follow.”