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BaBB seeks proposals for River Garden

Downtown group wants to free itself of Main Street building

BRATTLEBORO—Building a Better Brattleboro announced last Friday that it will accept proposals from parties wishing to take over the Robert H. Gibson River Garden starting March 18.

The announcement departs from BaBB’s original plan to hold a series of public meetings to collect feedback before issuing a request for proposals. Instead, said Executive Director Andrea Livermore, the board of directors decided to move directly to collecting RFPs.

“BaBB appreciates and values the community’s interest in the future of the River Garden. We believe the most effective way to accurately and fairly respond to all of the suggestions and opinions we’ve received regarding the River Garden is to provide an informational package on our website and give everyone an opportunity to submit proposals regarding the building’s future,” said Donna Simons, BaBB board president in a press release.

BaBB is charged with helping support a vital downtown through economic development, enhancing the physical image of downtown, and marketing the downtown to residents and visitors.

According to Livermore, BaBB’s ultimate goal is to divest itself of the building. The board decided holding the public meetings would not help reach that goal in a timely manner.

BaBB has struggled to sustain the River Garden, Livermore said. But the organization is worn out and wants others to advance proposals.

The decision to let go of the River Garden piqued some community members’ ire. Originally intended by BaBB to be a space to incubate new businesses and hold community events, the River Garden represents a public community space for some community members.

Robert Oeser, president of the board of Friends of Brooks Memorial Library, wrote in an email about preserving the River Garden as a public space.

“My informal conversations lead me to believe that amending Article 21 on the Representative Town Meeting Warning to condition the downtown improvement district special assessment on continued operation of the River Garden and oversight by a committee of Town Meeting of any transfer of ownership to ensure provision for public space is still reasonable irrespective of the press release announcing the future call for proposals,” he wrote.

BaBB receives funding through a special tax assessment levied on downtown property owners that must be approved at town meeting.

“We’re not against what it’s been,” said Livermore. “We just can’t make it work.”

The small business and space rentals planned to pay the building’s bills didn’t bring in enough revenue, said Livermore. Instead, BaBB has shouldered the costs.

BaBB has managed the building on Main Street going on 14 years. BaBB has not provided for the building’s overhead in its fiscal year 2014 budget.

According to Livermore, the River Garden has operated at a deficit for at least five years resulting in a drain of BaBB’s resources. Since 2008, BaBB has tried to plug the fiscal leaks with $30,564 of its own money into sustaining the River Garden — which was intended to pay its own way.

Instructions for proposal submissions and an information package about the building will be available at noon on Monday, March 18, at www.brattleboro.com. Interested parties can also request printed copies by contacting the BaBB office at babb@sover.net or 802-257-4886 on or after that date.

Proposals are due in the BaBB office at 157 Main St., or at P.O. Box 961, Brattleboro, VT, 05302 no later than April 30 at 4 p.m.

BaBB is willing to meet with interested parties upon request, during the period when proposals are being developed, said Livermore.

BaBB anticipates reviewing proposals May 1 through 15. Finalists will be asked to deliver a brief presentation to a selection committee during the period May 16 through May 30. BaBB will unveil the selected proposal the week of June 3.

Livermore said she’s not sure how much public participation in the process will be involved. BaBB might ask citizens to join the review committee, she said.

The mission of BaBB focuses on Brattleboro having a successful and prosperous downtown, said Livermore. The organization is well placed to choose a successful proposal for the River Garden’s next phase. If the best proposal involves keeping the River Garden public, BaBB will choose that proposal.

“It’s about the success of the downtown,” said Livermore.

Livermore said the board anticipates selling the River Garden for as much as it will take to cover the organization’s financial obligations such as repaying grants.

The final price tag is unknown. As public funds paid for the building’s acquisition and development, Livermore does not know whether BaBB will have to repay any of these monies.

If required to repay some grants, the price could run as high as $350,000, but more definite numbers will be available at a later date.

According to Livermore, BaBB received about $725,000 in federal and state monies when it first took on the River Garden in 1999. BaBB also has a $134,000 loan obligation to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. BaBB received a $40,000 grant, also from the USDA, that it will have to repay should the River Garden be sold to a for-profit business.

BaBB wants the River Garden “to serve the downtown’s vitality the best it can,” said Livermore. She added that BaBB has pledged to support the next person to run the River Garden.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #193 (Wednesday, March 6, 2013).

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