BRATTLEBORO—The Selectboard said “yes” on Nov. 20 to entering into contract negotiations with Fulcrum Arts to launch a business in the historic and dilapidated Archery Building, the town-owned structure at 26 Depot St.
The approval came after lengthy discussion, led by Vice-chair David Gartenstein, about whether the business matched the town’s vision for the property.
The board approved contract negotiations with glassblower Randi Solin and ceramic artist Natalie Blake, the team behind Fulcrum Arts’ proposal for a gallery, workshop space, and working studio. The board has not approved the project.
During a public hearing held prior to the regular Selectboard meeting, Blake explained the partners’ proposal for the abandoned Archery Building, which hails from Brattleboro’s history as part of a thriving railroad-based economy.
Blake said she felt that Fulcrum Arts would serve residents and visitors attending longer workshops she and Solin would offer, adding that the space also could serve as a hub, or ripple effect, for visitors to discover a wealth of local artists.
Blake and Solin have twice attempted to move their studio from the Cotton Mill in Brattleboro, but lost out on both locations.
“We love the Cotton Mill,” said Blake. “But the retail location doesn’t really work.”
Those attempts have made Fulcrum Arts proficient in vetting, funding, and developing old buildings, Blake assured the board.
Limited parking spaces shared by the Amtrak train station and the Whetstone Station Restaurant and Brewery posed reason for concern, however, and could deter the project, Blake said.
Blake also stressed her and Solin’s business interests in moving the project expeditiously.
“ASAP!,” she said about the timeline. “We have been waiting, and waiting, and waiting, and we have all our ducks in a row.”
According to a Sept. 26 article in The Commons, proposals for the Archery Building were vetted by an ad-hoc committee including representatives from the Town Arts and Union Station committees, the Brattleboro Development Credit Corp., the Recreation and Parks Department, and the Planning Commission, among others.
The committee recommended proposals to the Selectboard after grading the projects based on financial sustainability, integration with the Town Plan, and whether the request for proposals (RFP) conformed with the town’s criteria.
Fulcrum Arts was one of two groups to submit an RFP to the town.
The other was Brattleboro Clayworks, which envisioned a center for ceramics and three-dimensional art, possibly serving as a Vermont State Craft Center. That effort, tentatively called ArtsWorks, would move Clayworks’ studio from Putney Road to the Archery Building and work with River Gallery School and other arts organizations to create a group gallery and school.
However, in a Nov. 20 letter, the 12 members of Brattleboro Clayworks announced their withdrawal from the RFP process, citing a concern over their financial resources.
Members also said they felt that Blake and Solin were “in a good position to assume responsibility for the building, and we are sensitive to the fact that they have been thwarted several times in their quest to secure a better space.”
Absent Brattleboro Clayworks, the board had only Fulcrum Arts to consider for the Archery Building.
During the following regularly scheduled Selectboard meeting, Gartenstein said that Fulcrum Arts had a good proposal, but that he was “a little concerned with the [lack of] vision for this property.”
He also expressed disappointment that his preferred choice, Clayworks, had pulled out.
In the end, Gartenstein said he was prepared to vote in favor of the Fulcrum Arts proposal, but felt “perplexed” at the board’s actions and how it envisioned the Archery Building integrating with the town.
Sondag said the board had never specified a preferred use for the Archery Building. The board had expressed a desire to maintain the building’s historic integrity, and ensure that the project be open to the public in some form. The RFPs appeared before the Selectboard more than once.
Selectboard Clerk Dora Bouboulis said one proposal did not equate to a public process or conversation. She said she had concerns about a business setting up shop in a public space.
Projects intended for a building paid for with public money also should face public criticism, Bouboulis added.
Townspeople have waited for years to weigh in on the Archery Building, she said.
“[It’s like we’re] turning our backs on the public, and it’s not a good thing for the town,” she said.
Bouboulis said that she didn’t like the town hammering out details with Fulcrum Arts in contract negotiations, as these typically take place behind closed doors.
Selectboard Chair Dick DeGray and board member Christopher Chapman supported Fulcrum Arts’ proposal.
The Archery Building has been a metaphorical “albatross around the town’s neck” in a promising area. The town should feel grateful someone was prepared to rehabilitate the building, said Chapman.
In DeGray’s opinion, the town followed a good process with opportunities for comment.
He said “eight or nine” people reviewed the Archery Building. Only one proposal made it to the finish line, and that was fine.
“I don’t think that’s fair to the people who went through the process,” said DeGray about the board starting a new process.
Sondag told the board that the town has owned the building since 2006, and it has yet to be funded or occupied. The board’s options: refuse Fulcrum Arts’ proposal, start over, or advocate for money in the capital plan and rehabilitate the building itself.
“I get frustrated when I hear someone say I was never for this,” she said.
The board had the responsibility to state the vision for a property, but should also be clear about whether it would fund that vision.