Building a Better Brattleboro seeks renewal of collaboration with town under state Downtown program

BRATTLEBORO — The town's downtown program is up for its mandatory five-year renewal.

The Selectboard will decide at its Jan. 15 meeting whether to continue with the program after considering the work plan and budget for Building a Better Brattleboro, the designated downtown organization, which is undergoing what board president and founding member Donna Simons has called “necessary self-reflection.”

The Selectboard can also decide to change the organizational model for delivering the downtown program, swapping BaBB for another organization that meets the state program requirements.

The town has received credit from the state and other economic development specialists for what has been described as a vibrant commercial district.

The state - which granted the town a Downtown Improvement District status (DID) in 1999 - runs the Vermont Downtown Program, built around the Main Street Four Point Approach, an economic development model from the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

The four-point approach aims to support revitalizing a downtown through improving its economic climate, enhancing its physical appearance by addressing all design elements, and promoting it through marketing.

The state requires that towns designate a downtown organization - in the town's case, the nonprofit Building a Better Brattleboro (BaBB) - to coordinate activities and advocate for the businesses and property owners within the downtown.

Participating in the state's downtown program opens the community to tax credits and transportation grants that can go toward capital improvements like sidewalks.

The state also requires a town's downtown program have a sustainable funding source. Brattleboro uses a special tax assessment on properties within the DID - all the properties roughly between the Marlboro College Graduate and Technology Center to the Windham District Court - to fund its program.

According to Town Clerk Annette Cappy, there are 104 properties in the DID with 88 property owners.

The town ordinances require those within the DID to take an advisory vote. Cappy's office sent out the advisory ballot in December. Of the 104 ballots sent out - one for each property in the DID - 49 envelopes have come back. She will open the ballots Jan. 8.

The town also sent out a survey in December asking for feedback from property owners and businesses.

Assistant Town Manager Patrick Moreland assembled the survey using guidelines from the town ordinances and expectations spelled out in the state's downtown program.

The Selectboard will make the final call on whether the town continues participating in the downtown program.

BaBB board president and founding member Donna Simons said she hopes the Selectboard sticks with BaBB as the designated downtown organization.

Simons, a retail veteran with over 30 years invested at her store, A Candle in the Night, said she has seen a lot of downtown organizational models. BaBB, in her opinion, has been the most successful.

Simons hopes that the town gives BaBB the opportunity to prove that it's the best organization suited to downtown revitalization.

Getting ready for 2014

Building a Better Brattleboro also passed the organization's work plan and budget for fiscal year 2014. The budget contained a couple of surprises, namely a reduction in hours for the organization's executive director.

BaBB's volunteer board of directors decided to reduce Executive Director Andrea Livermore's hours and salary from 32 hours a week to 18 hours a week.

“It was a financial decision,” said Simons.

The budget also added $5,000, for a total of $6,000, in funds to compensate a flower and cleanliness staff member charged with caring for the downtown's flowers in the beautification program and keeping the downtown clean through the spring and fall months.

Through the changes to the executive director salary and not including the expenses of the River Garden (see related story), the board put forward a fiscal year 2014 budget that was $44,832.60 less than the previous year's.

The total 2014 budget, in effect from July 1, 2013 to June 30, 2014, was $97,972.40.

According to Simons, the board wanted to give the membership and downtown businesses what they said they wanted in a work plan. Fulfilling these expectations couldn't happen without finding more money elsewhere in the budget.

“We tried to tailor the work plan to something that could be accomplished in less time,” said Simons, who added that this plan will work if BaBB is run as it “should be,” with volunteer committees and board.

The reality the membership must operate within, said Simons, is that either people give the time and effort necessary to complete events and advocacy or they will receive the bare minimum: flower pots.

When asked if the cut in hours was a reflection on Livermore's performance, Simons answered, “No. No. No, is the only answer I will give you.”

Livermore said she's looking forward to working with the board and town to see how to best incorporate the upcoming work plan.

The fiscal year 2014 work plan, compiled by board vice-president Kate O'Connor, reflects a “desire to revamp our organization to better serve the downtown district.”

At the Dec. 18 Selectboard meeting, the board had called BaBB out for not following its own protocols for collecting input from the membership and for holding public meetings.

According to board members, BaBB's work plan also reflects the board's need to better communicate with BaBB membership and town government.

It expects to accomplish this objective by reviewing its bylaws, meeting with the Selectboard quarterly, dividing the district into smaller “neighborhoods,” becoming more visible, and constructing better communication lines among the business district, town government, and its organizational leadership.

According to the work plan, the board developed a plan consistent with the national Main Street model. The model has four components: organization, economic restructuring, design, and promotion.

“But more importantly [the plan] meets the needs of the downtown district by bringing people - locals and visitors - to downtown through events; making the downtown district more attractive through a beautification program that focuses on keeping the streets clean and bright with flowers and holiday lights; and providing resources and support to help property owners and merchants market their space and their goods.”

The work plan listed goals for BaBB's four committees.

The Design Committee will enhance the downtown's physical appearance through the addition of color in the form of seasonal flowers, holiday lights during December, and working with the town Energy Committee to upgrade the downtown lighting.

The committee also plans to create a feasibility study of a Façade Improvement Matching Grant Program to help give storefronts facelifts.

The Economic Restructuring Committee functions to improve the economic climate for downtown businesses. For 2014, the committee will help property owners fill their spaces through creating an online listing for property owners.

The plan also listed the goal of developing an online business recruitment and promotional page.

In addition to providing organizational oversight, the Organization Committee aims to develop partnerships needed to accomplish BaBB's work.

In fiscal 2014, the committee listed better serving the membership through engaging members, seeking input, advocating for members, and forging a partnership with town government.

The fourth committee, Promotions, functions as the downtown district's marketing arm.

The committee's goals include continuing to promote the use of free advertising strategies like Facebook and other electronic communications for the businesses in the DID.

The committee also pledges to contact the state to discuss directional signage on Interstate 91 directing drivers to downtown.

The Promotions Committee will also coordinate three events to “get feet on the street” and, presumably, through businesses' doors: the second annual Take a Chance and Dance dance festival, the Brattleboro Literary Festival, of which BaBB is the fiscal agent, and a December Fest.

Simons said that the fewer administrative hours in the budget and work plan also reflect “some opinions” expressed by Selectboard members that that's what they wanted to see in the plan.

“I hope they're pleased,” she said.

The budget goes to the Selectboard and then to Representative Town Meeting for final approval.

Simons said she'd love to hear from volunteers. Her personal goal is to attract more young people to BaBB.

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