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Brattleboro seeks to rebuild downtown’s future

Downtown Action Team holds meetings in Brattleboro, will build action plan

BRATTLEBORO—If Brattleboro and its neighbors — Bellows Falls, Keene, N.H., and Northampton, Mass. — were people, what kind of people would they be?

Although fun in nature, the question dug into people’s sense of Brattleboro’s identity and into how the town fits within its “surrounding family.”

Members of the state-assembled Vermont Downtown Action Team (V-DAT) posed this question, and others, to community members during an evening information-gathering session at the Latchis Theatre on Monday.

The team of architects, planners, and business consultants also met with property owners, merchants, and other downtown players earlier that day to gather their perspectives.

The team must balance two dynamics: turning fresh eyes on the downtown, and staying true to what is authentically Brattleboro, said Tripp Muldrow, an urban planner with Arnett Muldrow & Associates of Greenville, S.C.

V-DAT’s plan will ideally hold a mirror to the town rather than assemble a list of “shoulds,” he added.

Identifying project funding will also be important, said Muldrow, who related a cautionary conversation he had with an official of a town hit by Hurricane Katrina.

The official told him not to bother presenting projects without also identifying who would take action and providing a timeline and funding.

This town had gone through the “charrette-tor,” the official told Muldrow, an endless process of visioning and brainstorming without the attending details to make any of the ideas happen.

Monday marked Muldrow’s ninth visit to Brattleboro, one of his favorite towns, he said. He has consulted in Vermont about six years.

Who is Brattleboro?

Muldrow challenged the audience to anthropomorphize Brattleboro. What kind of person would that person be?

The audience members called out answers: Rambunctious boy. Drag queen. Starving artist. Fiercely independent. Loves local food. Older and not as open-minded as he thinks. Opinionated. Confused about his identity. Never satisfied. Generous. Cliquish. Has an early bedtime. Poor. Loves something passionately, then loses steam. Friendly. Not receptive to change.

Participants, in turn, described Bellows Falls as a hardworking scrappy man, a little rough around the edges, who drives a four-wheeler, looks shabby but has good bones, proud of his heritage, resourceful, has a drug problem, feels defensive about Brattleboro but very street smart.

The audience characterized Keene as a guy who loves to shop, keeps to himself, is different from the rest of New Hampshire and knows it, has a modest income yet works for a large company, likes making money, enjoys Mexican food, and has started to appreciate collaborating on projects.

Audience members had a little trouble deciding the gender of Northampton, but finally settled on a woman who is proud of her womanhood.

Also, they saw Northampton as a foodie, a very talented and highly educated individual, worldly, one who loves independent films and music, fit, healthy, has a slightly split personality between her “Hamp” side and her “Noho” side. She’s politically active, an iconoclast, stays up late, and is in touch with her other nearby family members, the audience members concluded.

Muldrow posed three other questions to the community members.

“If you were going to capture the essence of Brattleboro on a postcard, what image would be featured?” he asked.

Audience members highlighted multiple landmarks, including the “Carter’s Little Liver Pills” mural on Elliot Street; the Main Street clock and people filling the streets; the confluence of the Whetstone Brook, the Connecticut River, and downtown; snow-covered hilly streets; the Latchis Hotel, Brooks House, and Brooks Memorial Library; and the Estey Organ Factory buildings.

When an audience member called out “the Harmony Parking Lot,” the audience laughed. Muldrow said sometimes it’s the “stormy” parts of a town that are also iconic.

Question number two: “If you had a magic wand that enabled you to make one change that would have maximum impact on downtown Brattleboro, what would you choose to change?”

A few of the answers: Turn Harmony Parking Lot into a park, create a truck bypass, build an esplanade along the Connecticut River to increase pedestrian space and new commercial space, convert dead box stores into community centers, get rid of all the parking meters, develop the empty Home Depot on Putney Road into an expo center, lower the sales tax, and create 1,500 good-paying jobs.

Muldrow also asked the audience what dos and don’ts the V-DAT team should follow.

Audience members responded with more dos than don’ts.

Many answers focused on keeping the team’s process transparent, inclusive, and resistant to creating more divisions within the community.

Other audience members asked the team to consider the town’s long-term sustainability and to inform the community how the team’s action plan connects to the myriad of other economic development efforts, like the initiatives of the Southeastern Vermont Economic Development Strategy (SeVEDS) group.

“We know isn’t a sprint, it’s a marathon,” said Leanne Tingay, a state coordinator with the Vermont Downtown Program.

Kate O’Connor, Selectboard member and vice president of the board of directors of Building a Better Brattleboro (BaBB), the designated downtown organization, stressed to the team that BaBB wants “do-able” suggestions with funding attached.

Eight communities selected

The state has chosen eight communities, including Brattleboro and Wilmington, affected by the 2011 spring floods or from Tropical Storm Irene, to receive consulting services from the team of experts gathered from around the country.

V-DAT will present their findings and action plan on stabilizing the downtown and stimulating economic growth on Sept. 11 at the Latchis.

As the designated downtown program, BaBB is coordinating V-DAT’s visit and implementing the team’s funding.

Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery funds from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development is funding the team’s work. The overall aim of the grant to increase these towns’ resiliency.

Vermont learned in 2011 that it’s not a matter of if another natural disaster hits, but when, said Tingay.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #220 (Wednesday, September 11, 2013).

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