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Welch: Downtown businesses worth fighting for

Congressman visits Brattleboro, offers support in fight against online retailers

BRATTLEBORO—As he visited downtown businesses on a frigid Tuesday, U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., heard the importance of “leveling the playing field” for brick-and-mortar businesses.

After hearing from some two dozen community members at a noontime “Congress in Your Community” public forum at the Robert H. Gibson River Garden, Welch made the rounds on Main Street on Jan. 21, escorted by Kate O’Connor, Selectboard vice-chair, who was on duty in her role as Brattleboro Area Chamber of Commerce executive director.

Welch said the visit brought home for him the importance of the Main Street Fairness Act, a sales-tax bill working through the U.S. House of Representatives.

Introduced in 2011, the act would require online retailers to collect sales taxes on purchases regardless of where the company is headquartered.

In Welch’s opinion, this measure would “level the playing field” for small businesses trying to compete with online retail giants like Amazon.

Burrows Specialized Sports owner Robert “Woody” Woodworth told Welch that the Internet poses a bigger threat to his sales than New Hampshire’s lack of a sales tax.

“We’ve become a showroom,” said Woodworth, who has owned Burrows for 22 years. The store opened first opened in 1935.

Woodworth said he has seen more visitors to the store, but sales are decreasing. That’s because customers visit, check out the inventory, decide what they want, and then purchase the product online, he said.

“Of course, I’m opposed to adding a 1-percent local option tax,” said Woodworth when Welch asked about the tax that the town is considering asking town meeting members to approve.

After viewing the $150,000 of renovations at the Latchis Theatre, Welch noted that Congress needs to remember that federal dollars are crucial to local communities.

Welch said large projects like the Latchis and the ongoing Brooks House renovation require imminent capital, which is often difficult to acquire. Federal grants and other monies can provide the jumpstart needed to keep communities vital, he said.

Congress has cut a lot of funding from its budget for grants and social programs, said Welch, who described such reductions as “shortsighted.”

According to Gail Nunziata, managing director of Latchis Arts, funding for the theater’s renovations came from a combination of federal, state, and private sources, as well as individual donors.

Welch briefly toured the Brattleboro Food Co-op’s new building and discussed mandatory GMO (genetically modified organisms) labeling with General Manager Alex Gyori.

“People want labeling,” said Welch.

Gyori said the demand for GMO labeling has grown.

On many issues, like the often contentious Vermont Yankee debate, the Co-op does not take sides, said Gyori. Food quality, however, is something the co-op is fighting for.

The co-op supports the right of states to require mandatory labeling of food that contains genetically modified ingredients, said Gyori. Some large companies like Monsanto have tried to circumvent states’ rights by going to the national level and lobbying for voluntary labeling.

Last week, the Co-op helped fund a trip to Montpelier for a GMO labeling rally, said Gyori.

Welch described downtown Brattleboro as “solid” and said witnessing the progress of projects like the Brooks House rebuilding and the Latchis renovations amazes him.

He said it is “reassuring.” that Brattleboro is always willing to fight to maintain its downtown.

The downtown tour was the last of Welch’s stops. Earlier in the day, he visited Sovernet’s main office in Bellows Falls and then stopped by the Brattleboro Fire Department’s Central Station.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #238 (Wednesday, January 22, 2014). This story appeared on page A1.

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