BRATTLEBORO—Files and spreadsheets surround Andrea Livermore’s feet as she works in her office at the front of the Robert H. Gibson River Garden.
Although the executive director of Building a Better Brattleboro (BaBB) is still compiling data, early numbers show the downtown organization has poured $30,564 since 2008 into the intended-to-be self-sustaining River Garden.
“We’ve done everything about as bare bones as we responsibly can do it,” she said.
BaBB, the organization charged as the voice of downtown property owners, sparked contentious conversations at the community level when it announced plans to cut ties with the River Garden.
In an iBrattleboro post entitled “The River Garden Belongs to Us,” resident John Wilmerding wrote, “Apparently over $700,000 in public funds assisted with the purchase of its land, plus the design and construction of the edifice itself.”
“This means that this structure belongs to the people, and that BaBB or whoever happens to be administering its needs — OUR needs — there at the time, in fact DON’T have the right to sell it unless it is sold to an organization that will commit to running it in the public interest,” Wilmerding continued.
BaBB does not hold with this interpretation at this point.
Regarded as a public space by many community members, BaBB has lost money covering the building’s expenses.
Calculating the bottom lines for both BaBB and the River Garden for fiscal years 2008 through to 2012, Livermore has found that each year both entities ended with deficits.
The difference for her, however, is seeing that, had BaBB not used its own money to cover the River Garden, the downtown organization would have ended the five fiscal years with surpluses.
“We had reserves and we don’t [anymore],” she said of the once cash-rich organization.
Instead, BaBB has eaten through more than $20,000 in collateral and is dipping into a line of credit, Livermore admitted.
The River Garden has run an average deficit of $16,000 to $17,000 for five years, said Livermore.
Maintenance, janitorial services, and repairs eat up a significant chunk of the River Garden’s revenue, she said.
Between fiscal year 2009 and 2012, the maintenance, repair, and janitorial costs have ranged from $10,000 to more than $18,000.
“And you can’t not do those things,” said Livermore. “It’s one of the responsibilities and line items involved in caring for a space used by the public.”
The two part-time staff who trade duties at the River Garden cover such duties as handling reservations, opening and locking the building daily, clearing broken bottles, asking drunk patrons to leave, cleaning the toilets, and cleaning away vomit.
“A lot of [the duties] are not fun and they’re not pretty,” Livermore said.
Add to that fixed costs such as utilities that have climbed as high as $11,600 a year and the downtown space has a heavy bottom line.
BaBB charges organizations and members of the public for holding events there. The fees start at $100 for three hours — and are on top of the $300 average private event insurance required under BaBB’s insurance provider. Costs can prove prohibitive, said Livermore.
BaBB has tried to sustain the building with other revenue, said Livermore. With the help of the local Rotary, the organization installed storage units in the River Garden’s basement. The storage units raise approximately $7,000 annually for the building.
BaBB also pays rent to the River Garden: $500 a month. The organization maintains separate BaBB and River Garden ledgers.
Most downtown programs such as BaBB have donated office space, said Livermore. But BaBB pays rent to the River Garden as another attempt to keep the building financially viable.
Still, the organization runs the River Garden close to the bone with no built-in contingency or capital improvement funds.
BaBB can’t afford that, Livermore said.
BaBB attempted to sell the River Garden in 2007, said Livermore, who took the executive director position that year.
The organization had gotten as far as issuing requests for proposals and selecting a company interested converting the space into — as it was rumored — a residential building, said Livermore.
According to Livermore, the community protested the move. Livermore worked with the company to consider turning the building into a mixed-use space with retail or public space on street level allowing public access to the river. Amid public protest, the redevelopment fell through.
The board of directors responded by deciding to give the building until the end of 2012 to break even.
At the end of fiscal year 2011, BaBB thought the River Garden was walking the path toward that goal, said Livermore.
That fiscal year, the River Garden garnered $38,000 in revenue between event and storage fees. Once the receipts were totaled, however, the River Garden still faced a deficit of $11,650. The board of directors marked the negative balance as a positive development.
“It was the lowest negative we’ve had,” said Livermore.
But in fiscal year 2012, “the bottom fell out,” she said.
After the sewer line broke and other maintenance issues surfaced, the River Garden ended the year $16,046 in the red.
The River Garden sits at the site of a former Rite Aid, abandoned at the time of purchase by BaBB. The organization bought the lot with a view toward redeveloping the site, visible to visitors entering town from Route 9 West, as a beautification project, remembers Livermore.
The River Garden was designed to fill the same niche as Thornes Marketplace in Northampton, Mass., or as a miniature version of Quincy Market in Boston.
However, when early businesses in the River Garden closed, including a coffee shop and an organic juice bar, there was no Plan B, Livermore said.
Livermore said she, the town, and the board of directors are investigating claims that BaBB will have to reimburse the state $150,000 for a mortgage.
If that is the case, she said, then that amount will likely be tacked on to the River Garden’s sale price.