BRATTLEBORO—Jacob Alan Roberts works with a laptop propped on his knees in a mostly empty office. Sounds of traffic trundling along Main Street echo through the large windows that give views of People’s Bank and shops on Elliot Street.
“I have to hit the ground running,” says Roberts, setting the computer on a nearby bookcase. His companions occupying Building a Better Brattleboro’s new office, above Burrows Specialized Sports, 105 Main St., include a second chair and standing coat rack.
Roberts is BaBB’s downtown coordinator, a new 18-hour-a-week position replacing the previous full-time executive director position.
In his early days doing community development work in cities Syracuse and Ithaca, N.Y., Roberts said he often sat across from people in similar positions to the downtown coordinator.
“One of these days I’d like to be in their seat,” Roberts recalls thinking.
He takes the job during a time of transition for BaBB. Over the past year, the organization has struggled with engagement, and has been busy mending fences with its membership and town selectboard.
BaBB, the designated downtown organization for Brattleboro focused on supporting and promoting the downtown, is shifting its office from the Robert H. Gibson River Garden a few doors away. The building was financially unsustainable for BaBB. The organization sold the River Garden this month to the Strolling of the Heifers.
Roberts, who served for a few months on the BaBB board of directors, does not anticipate any transitional bumps from board member to paid employee.
According to Roberts, he informed the board of his interest in the coordinator position when he joined the board a little over six months ago.
Roberts said he recused himself from the hiring process.
Roberts said it is tricky to comment right now on the organization’s new direction. He has stood around the proverbial water cooler with downtown business owners and has heard the mixed reviews.
Comments have ranged from not liking BaBB to not knowing anything about it to wanting to become involved, he said.
Roberts plans to conduct a listening campaign of local business owners and people who frequent downtown in the coming months to learn more what people want from their downtown.
“I have to gather a lot more information before I say, ‘Here’s the vision for downtown Brattleboro,’” he said.
The board has a retreat planned for Jan. 2014, he said. Board members want to dig deeply into where they stand as individuals and as a team.
He expects the process, combined with the upcoming Vermont Downtown Action Team’s report on Brattleboro, due in the new year, to provide BaBB’s new road map.
BaBB’s identity is also framed by the state’s Main Street program, which Roberts feels provides state support and structure.
Brattleboro hangs its hat on being a collective of “fierce individuals,” said Roberts.
In his view, BaBB is not only about marketing and events, he said. It’s an organization that helps build a sense of community for the “disparate individuals that call the downtown home.”
A self-described urbanite, Roberts said he has seen cities transform from mostly empty streets to a new vitality. He points to his time in Syracuse, N.Y.: In the early 1990s, the city had barely any street life. When Roberts left in 2005, there were “construction cranes in the sky” as the city went through a revitalization.
While BaBB reinvents itself, Roberts holds his own dreams for downtown.
A proponent of car-free downtowns, he said he would like a section of downtown given to pedestrian-use only.
Roberts also looks forward to getting BaBB a seat at the table when the town Planning Services department revises the town plan.
That document represents where the “rubber hits the road” on issues such as traffic flow, rooftop gardens, and sidewalk widths.
He relishes the challenge of how the town can best access the Connecticut River for recreation, despite the railroad tracks and the reality that nearly all of the river belongs to New Hampshire.
Installing more public art, creating more festivals, and encouraging organizations to “think outside the box” to create a more active and vibrant downtown environment are, to Roberts, laudable and achievable goals. He’s a big proponent of street life.
Holidays a time to shine
The upcoming holidays will keep Roberts jumping: During Gallery Walk on Dec. 6, the town will host a tree lighting at Pliny Park and welcome Santa Claus.
Roberts hopes to keep the downtown active during December with lights, singers, musicians, and other street performers. He’s discussing with a local farm the prospect of offering hayrides.
Encouraging people to spend some of their holiday budget downtown to support local businesses is also on his list.
Those dollars ripple through the community, he said.
Roberts, along with his partner, Jessica Weston, owned and operated Equilibrium on Elm Street for approximately a year. The couple closed the venue in hopes of opening in a bigger building on Flat Street. They stopped short of submitting a purchase agreement.
Equilibrium and exploring moving to Flat Street remain big wins for Roberts, he said. Those experiences helped him meet a variety of people and learn his way around the community.
After two years living in Brattleboro, Roberts says he’s still learning the lay of the land.
The Selectboard appointed Roberts to the new skatepark site selection committee last week. He believes the town would benefit from a skatepark.
Many people treat the abundance of youth hanging around downtown as “a scourge,” he said.
Other communities would love kids in their downtowns. Brattleboro should encourage their youth to be downtown, he said.
If Brattleboro wants more young people to offset its aging population, it needs to create an environment that welcomes its own youth, Roberts said.
“They are our children,” Roberts said. “They’ve chosen to be here. Let’s accommodate them.”
Home and abroad
Roberts grew up in Springfield, Mass. A year studying abroad in Spain opened his eyes to the vibrancy of cities that maintained their public gathering spaces and that had local businesses on each block like a “butcher, baker, and candlestick maker.”
Downtown Brattleboro is a “true, legitimate” downtown, said Roberts. It can offer people so much.
In a press release from BaBB, Roberts wrote that more housing in the downtown is necessary for area to thrive.
Brattleboro has a high cost of living given the median income, Roberts said.
During the interview, he said that if a wider ranges of housing types and rent levels existed then more people would move downtown.
Roberts acknowledged that Brattleboro serves as a gateway to the state for people driving Interstate 91. Welcoming more visitors would serve the town’s economy well.
He adds, however, that the town must always accommodate the people living here. Organizations such as BaBB must “roll out the red carpet for them first and foremost.”
Roberts said he looks at historic photographs of cities with their cobblestone streets, residents “dressed to the nines,” and public transportation, and wishes to bring some of the past into the present.
“If we could get back there we’d be making progress,” he said.
Roberts said his door is always open and will make the time to meet with anyone, BaBB member or community member, to discuss the downtown.
BaBB and the downtown are only as strong as those who participate, he said.
“Awesome; let’s make it happen,” said Roberts.