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Brattleboro: A potential for greatness

State economic consulting team announces its analysis, recommendations

BRATTLEBORO—Brattleboro’s downtown is a diamond waiting to sparkle.

The downtown, said a team of architects, planners, and business consultants, has a lot going for it, such as an engaged community and a beautiful environment.

But it also faces challenges in the form of low wages and an aging workforce.

Members of the Vermont Downtown Action Team (V-DAT) presented their initial findings on Brattleboro’s downtown economy to community members in the Latchis Theatre on Sept. 11.

More work remains, such as updating Brattleboro’s 2010 market analysis. V-DAT will return to the area in October.

Meanwhile, the snapshot the team presented Wednesday was well received. They noted that the town benefits from commerce from its local community and visiting communities. It is still a dining destination.

But the town apparently “leaks money” to neighbors such as Keene, N.H.

According to the team’s findings, one in four visitors to downtown Brattleboro lives outside Brattleboro.

Should this population evaporate, so would downtown retailers, said urban planner Tripp Muldrow, of Arnett Muldrow & Associates of Greenville, S.C.

“Brattleboro has a dynamic downtown that does not have the luxury to market to just one audience,” said Muldrow.

The presentation followed three days of meetings with the public, business owners, property owners, and town officials.

The state charged V-DAT with aiding eight downtowns with economic strategies and increasing their resilience in the wake of the spring floods and Tropical Storm Irene.

A Community Development Block Disaster Relief Grant funds the team’s work.

“How do we take care of ourselves?” said Leanne Tingay, Vermont downtown program coordinator. “How do we come back stronger?”

In Muldrow’s experience, downtowns thrive when they are centers of creativity, entrepreneurship, small business, and activity.

Brattleboro has all these aspects, he said. The focus now is to expand on them.

The downtown has innocuous, yet very important, projects in place that feed the town’s vitality, such as the pots of flowers on Main Street or the Gratitude Chalk Board that, on that day, was located on Flat Street, said Muldrow.

Another positive note, the team reported: regional and local efforts to strengthen the economy here.

The team viewed their suggestions for downtown as “a combination of simple improvements and long-term initiatives.”

One short-term suggestion was cleaning up the vegetation around town — for example, along the walkway between the Brattleboro Food Co-op and along Whetstone Brook, and the fence overlooking the Harmony Parking Lot.

The team said clearing away old growth would open the town’s natural views of the hills, the Connecticut and West rivers, Whetstone Brook, and buildings.

Opening the views also decreases crime, they said.

Using lighting creatively — using different colored lights, lights that show off the texture of stones, highlighting the Whetstone Brook, under bridges — can also change people’s experience of the downtown.

Team members said the buildings in downtown stood in good shape. They suggested sprucing up the structures by giving the buildings baths with soft detergents, repointing mortar joints, and even updating paint schemes.

Longer-term suggestions included connecting the Fort Hill Branch Trail in New Hampshire to the West River Trail to draw visitors downtown.

They suggested turning the Preston Parking Lot on Flat Street, next to the Latchis complex, into a green space. Or, should the town prefer to keep it parking most of the time, it could be adapted for hosting community events.

Team members also said the Preston Lot would serve as a better skatepark site than the Crowell Lot, because it’s close to downtown and is well integrated with other community spaces.

V-DAT’s before and after photos of the sites elicited wows from among the audience.

The team also identified potential funding sources: tax credits, the Vermont Community Development Program, the Vermont Small Scale Renewable Energy Incentive Program, and the Downtown Transportation Fund.

Challenges loom

Muldrow conducted a market analysis through a ZIP code survey for downtown in 2010. The survey recorded 1,912 visits, 443 unique American ZIP codes from 41 states. Visitors also hailed from four Canadian provinces, seven other countries, and two “top-secret military installations.”

Of visitors to Brattleboro’s downtown from among neighboring towns, residents of Marlboro ranked as most frequent. “Go hug someone from Marlboro,” Muldrow said to laughter.

Businesses that were strong three years ago — sporting goods, dining, and home goods — remain strong.

Visitor and sales figures for downtown Brattleboro demonstrate for Muldrow that the compact downtown has the potential for additional retail operations.

Expanding the businesses in downtown will require an organized and concerted effort, he said.

But what most people knew as the region’s challenges also remain challenges.

Windham County’s workforce earns among the lowest wages in Vermont and neighboring Massachusetts and New Hampshire counties.

The region’s population is also aging. As employees retire, employers will face difficulties refreshing their workforce.

According to Muldrow, Windham County’s median age is 45; the U.S. median age is 36.8.

Meanwhile, no one knows how closing the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant in 2014 will affect the region, said Muldrow. He added that many of the day’s estimates were conservative and did not include VY.

Muldrow called the cost of housing in Brattleboro “a red flag.”

Entrepreneurs and young people will see housing as an expensive challenge, he said.

To live within five minutes of downtown, residents must fork over about 28 percent of their income, said Muldrow. Those who live 20 minutes from downtown pay 24 percent of their income.

In the rest of the country, people pay about 12 percent of their income for comparable housing, he said.

The median annual income for workers in Brattleboro is about $12,629 less than the state’s median income of $53,422, said Muldrow.

One in three households earns less than $25,000 a year, he added. About 40 percent of households bring home more than $50,000.

People sacrifice their income to live here, Muldrow summarized.

Despite the challenges, Muldrow feels optimistic about Brattleboro’s future.

Of the Brooks House renovation, Muldrow said, “It’s a testament to this community’s resilience and strength.”

Other communities would have let such a building fall to the wayside, Muldrow continued. The Brooks House is “a bellwether.”

“If you can pull that thing off, you can repeat it,” he said.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #221 (Wednesday, September 18, 2013).

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