Glimmers of hope in Brattleboro for downtown economic development

In the battle over the future of the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant in Vermont, one valid question is what will happen to the local economy if the plant shuts down.

The good news is that there are a lot of creative, intelligent people who are not waiting around for the answer to that question.

In just the last couple of weeks, Brattleboro has seen a flurry of progress on several fronts. If everything falls into place, a lot of construction activity will ramp up around town this fall.

Brattleboro Memorial Hospital is embarking on a $7 million renovation and expansion of its emergency department. The current emergency room, built in 1982, now handles approximately 13,000 visits a year, or more than double what the room was designed for.

The project will give the hospital a long-overdue upgrade of its emergency area, the last major piece of the ongoing expansion of the hospital.

This upgrade affirms that BMH - one of the town's major employers - is here to stay and will do what is necessary to provide medical care to area residents.

Another long-overdue piece of Brattleboro's downtown development, the Union Station project, has finally begun after more than two decades of delays.

By the summer, Brattleboro will have its first piece of public riverfront property - a one-acre park near the Hinsdale bridge. Still to come are renovations to the historic 1909 train station and additional parking for what's become one of the busiest Amtrak stops in Vermont.

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And finally, nearly a year after a devastating fire, the Brooks House is poised for its rebirth.

The huge task of rebuilding this downtown landmark has been handed to Bob Stevens and Craig Miskovich, who hope to raise the $14 million it's going to take through a combination of state and federal grants, private investors, tax credits, and other funding sources.

Having Stevens, the principal of the Brattleboro design firm Stevens & Associates, as one of the people in charge of the project should provide a great deal of confidence to investors.

He was involved in the rebuilding of the Wilder Block and the Putney General Store, two historic structures both destroyed by fire, and in the conversion of the old Daly Shoe Building, a vacant Brattleboro factory, into affordable housing and office space. His track record on projects big and small around town is impeccable.

Getting the Brooks House, the largest commercial space in downtown Brattleboro, back in business, will significantly boost the local economy.

We will see the return of businesses to the now-vacant storefronts and the return of residents to badly-needed apartment space.

And the building is also a possible site for a downtown campus of the Community College of Vermont and Vermont Technical College.

Other sites are under consideration for the campus, but it is a definite sign of how much faith that Gov. Peter Shumlin has in the idea that he has made it a priority for the administration. No matter where the CCV/Vermont Tech campus lands, putting this institution into downtown Brattleboro will provide a huge economic boost.

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Taken together, these projects, and others that are ongoing, such as the new Brattleboro Food Co-op building, are all signs that Brattleboro is moving forward.

Certainly, economic uncertainty remains - uncertainty that goes beyond how much longer we will see VY in operation.

But after 2011, and all the traumas of that difficult, challenging year, it's a comfort to be optimistic and hopeful about the economic future of Brattleboro and, by extension, Windham County.

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