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After years of losses, BaBB plans to sell River Garden

BRATTLEBORO—Donna Simons said she can’t walk down the street without someone suggesting how to “save” the Robert H. River Garden.

People ask, “Have you guys tried this?” said Simons, president of the board of directors of Building a Better Brattleboro (BaBB), which owns and operates the building.

Her answer, so far, has been, “Yes.”

Simons said BaBB’s board of directors hopes by the start of the new fiscal year on July 1 to divest the organization of the River Garden, a space that has served as an information center for visitors, provided public restrooms, and as a rentable space for events, birthdays, or other community happenings like the Winter Farmers’ Market.

BaBB announced at a December Selectboard meeting that the downtown organization’s fiscal year 2014 budget did not account for the River Garden.

Simons stressed that owning the River Garden is separate from BaBB’s downtown revitalization program. The organization’s decision about letting go of the River Garden is also separate from the town’s reapplication to the state for the downtown improvement program and BaBB’s fiscal year budget and work plan approved by members on Jan. 7.

The organization helped revitalize the former Rite Aid at the intersection of Main and High Streets into a community space in 2006.

According to BaBB’s website, the River Garden “was under contract for impending private sale when the community spoke up and asked that BaBB retain ownership of the facility and work to maintain this space as a community resource.” BaBB kept the building.

The River Garden, however, has run a deficit for multiple years, said Andrea Livermore, BaBB’s executive director. In the past five years alone, rentals for the space have not offset building costs like maintenance, insurance, and wages for someone to help manage and maintain the building. The deficit has averaged over $10,000 each year.

“Everyone loves the River Garden,” said Livermore.

Paying for the building has proved another story.

Many days, said Livermore, the River Garden stands as a vacant and underutilized building.

What will happen to the building is uncertain, she said. The building may not end up sold to a private owner. The board could change its decision, an angel could step forward and offer to fund the building as it is, or the town could decide to take over the space.

“We do know [the River Garden has] diluted our ability to give the downtown the product it needs from a downtown organization,” said Simons.

Nothing can happen with the building, however, until the Selectboard and then Town Meeting Members approve BaBB’s fiscal 2014 budget and work plan, said Simons.

Whatever its next incarnation, “We will make sure it’s a public process,” said Simons.

Simons expects public informational meetings to start in early February.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #185 (Wednesday, January 9, 2013).

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