BRATTLEBORO — The Boys & Girls Club on Flat Street prides itself on being a safe place for young people, be it through its COVID-19 health procedures, annual facility assessments, or mandatory staff background checks.
The municipal Transportation Center three doors down - where vandals left the club van undrivable this month while it was parked in a $1,000-a-year space - is another story.
“We can attest to ongoing public alcohol and drug use and sales, intoxication, littering, and loitering,” club officials wrote the Selectboard in the most recent of a yearlong series of communications spurred by club members who feel increasingly uncomfortable walking by the parking garage and bus stop.
Signs at the Transportation Center prohibit the above activities as well as “public urination and defecation.” Yet all have continued unabated, even after the town recently spent $52,500 to replace its trashed emergency telephone and the elevator that rusted after being used too often as a restroom.
And so the club is facing a new challenge: How to call for a solution without alarming members and families, antagonizing local leaders who've yet to respond, or alienating other social service leaders facing overwhelming caseloads of people without permanent housing or with mental health or substance use disorders.
“This should be a very vibrant youth corridor,” Michelle Simpson, the club's executive director, said of an area that includes the New England Youth Theatre and River Gallery School of Art. “If the Transportation Center is keeping children from accessing opportunities here, that has to be addressed.”
Long history of problems
Brattleboro opened its $9.6 million downtown parking garage on Flat Street in 2003, at which point the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency touted the five-level, 300-car facility - built on a brownfield - as a success story.
But the news has been all downhill from there.
Simpson was board chair of the Downtown Brattleboro Alliance five years ago when the business district reported a rise in panhandling and drug dealing, sparking a series of public forums about how to offer compassion for both people on the streets and victims of related crime.
“The division here can be huge - from 'we should legalize drugs' to 'if you catch someone they need to go to jail,'” then-Brattleboro Police Chief Michael Fitzgerald said at the time. “Unfortunately, many people believe if they make a statement they're going to be branded one way or the other, so they aren't saying anything at all.”
Complaints about crime moved from downtown to outlying motels during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic but returned downtown this past year. The club wrote a letter to local leaders last fall and repeated its concerns at Selectboard meetings in June, July, and September.
“We want our plea heard again,” club Operations Director Renee Woliver said at one session. “Our members report they are offered drugs when walking by the Transportation Center, and we have received feedback from families that they are uncomfortable sending their children to the club.”
But little had changed this past Indigenous Peoples' Day weekend, when someone stole the club van's catalytic converter from the garage, leaving the vehicle out of commission until administrators come up with a $2,400 replacement.
“After it is repaired, we have to park it in the Transportation Center and hope that it doesn't happen again,” Woliver told the Selectboard at its most recent meeting.
The club is working with the Brattleboro Police Department, which is budgeted for 27 officers but has only 18 - just two-thirds its full complement - because of a nationwide staffing shortage.
Facing 900 calls a month, police aren't able to regularly patrol the Transportation Center area, they say, because they're prioritizing crimes against people over those against property.
“A lot of our calls have been about people who want to harm others or harm themselves,” current Police Chief Norma Hardy said at a recent meeting.
Municipal leaders have considered adding a police substation at the Transportation Center, although they acknowledge that idea isn't helped by low staff numbers and high construction costs.
Several merchants attended Tuesday's Selectboard meeting to report drug dealing and related crimes not only at the parking garage but also throughout town. In response, local leaders said they were studying a $70,000 plan to install surveillance cameras, although they've yet to approve anything.
“I believe we should have cameras,” Hardy said, “but I don't want everybody to feel that will be the answer. Cameras are good, but you have to have them with other deterrents.”
A VTDigger reporter witnessed that firsthand when, standing on a public street in front of a public building this past week, attempted to photograph a public sign listing all prohibited activities.
A man holding an open beer can and a joint, seeing the reporter focus on the sign, moved into the camera frame to demand all photography stop “or else.”
When asked what “or else” meant, the man stepped inches in front of the departing reporter's face and replied, “You'll see.”