BARRE — Mayor Lucas Herring’s plan to create a downtown teen center in a vacant city-owned building isn’t yet ready for prime time, but it’s getting close.
Herring provided city councilors with a brief preview of his still-evolving plan Tuesday night, but stressed a more detailed proposal involving the iconic Wheelock Building will be coming soon.
Though much of the work has been done since councilors embraced the concept in September, Herring said some key questions remain unanswered and he wasn’t ready to make a formal request.
That will soon change and Herring told councilors he could be asking for a decision from them as early as next month.
“I’m not looking for a decision before January,” Herring said, vowing councilors will be provided dozens of documents related to the proposal well in advance.
Herring said he wasn’t ready to share those documents because they were still being refined and could change depending on the outcome of a meeting next Thursday with representatives of the Barre Partnership.
Herring noted the Partnership is currently without an executive director and it is unclear whether the downtown organization is interested in co-locating with a teen center in the historic building that was the decades-long home of the Barre Area Senior Center and more recently housed an antiques shop.
“There might be a partnership with the (Barre) Partnership and there might not be,” said Herring, who initially suggested the Partnership could operate a visitor’s center in the front of the building with the teen center occupying the rear of the structure.
The proposed alliance would provide some onsite oversight for a mix of paid personnel and volunteers that could otherwise be handled remotely by Recreation Director Stephanie Quaranta.
Herring told councilors there has been headway on the staffing front. He said city officials recently toured the building with a representative of the Vermont Youth Development Corps and obtained what he characterized as “pre-approval” for two part-time positions to staff the proposed center.
Those positions would come at a local cost and Herring said the city’s 50 percent match — $5,000 per position — would be an annual expense.
Herring said Quaranta serving as an off-site supervisor wasn’t optimal, but would be acceptable to the Vermont Youth Development Corps. The space, he said, was more than adequate. It is significantly larger than Montpelier’s teen center and isn’t in need of extensive renovations.
Pressed by Councilor Sue Higby for a ballpark first-year budget, Herring promised that information would be forthcoming as soon as he had firmer figures.
Councilors provided little in the way of feedback, in part, some suggested, because the discussion was premature.
“I think conceptually you’d be hard-pressed to find anybody at this table who doesn’t think that we ought to provide more resources for the kids and teens of Barre,” Councilor Brandon Batham said, stressing that shouldn’t be interpreted as an endorsement.
Batham said the “financial burden” would be a consideration and he wasn’t convinced the Wheelock Building was the “right location” for a teen center.
“In concept I think it’s a great idea, but the devil is in the details,” he said.
Higby agreed, suggesting the council must consider the “opportunity cost” associated with foregoing revenue that could be generated by renting the downtown building. That revenue, she said, might be used to help pay for deferred maintenance on a number of other city-owned buildings.
Herring received authorization from the council to apply for a grant from the Vermont Community Foundation in September. He said Wednesday the $30,000 application was submitted last month and he is waiting to hear whether it will be approved.
In other business Tuesday night, councilors agreed to hire CHA Design/Construction Solutions to redesign the municipal swimming pool as part of a voter-approved upgrade to that recreational facility. The South Burlington firm has offered to do the work for $99,045.
MONTPELIER — A six-month report card on the current and future prospects for economic growth in the Capital City will be presented to the City Council at its meeting Dec. 19.
The report will be presented by Laura Gebhart, executive director of the Montpelier Development Corporation, who started work in May. She replaced Joe Evans, the MDC’s first leader, who stepped down unexpectedly in January after only nine months on the job, reportedly for family reasons.
Gebhart was previously the economic development manager for her native Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, and previously was the county’s economic development coordinator from November 2015 to December 2017.
The MDC was established last year to coordinate the comprehensive Economic Strategic Development Plan approved by the city in 2016 to boost job growth, attract new business, encourage new housing development and increase enrollment in city schools. The plan calls for potential annual returns of $5.6 million in new economic activity and $550,000 in new taxes for the city. The City Council allocated $100,000 a year to fund the work of the MDC and the executive director’s position.
Projects supported by the MDC include the Taylor Street transit center and housing complex, the Caledonia Spirits distillery on Barre Street, the French Block affordable housing project on Main Street, the new Timber Frame Homes headquarters on Elm Street and the proposed Hampton Inn & Suites hotel and garage complex off State Street.
“Since coming onboard, one of the biggest things was reestablishing the MDC, since it is still a fairly new organization,” Gebhart said. “So, a good part of my time has been getting out, meeting people and establishing relationships, which is pretty essential part of any sort of economic development.
“Since May, it’s been over 200 meetings with partners, businesses and various stakeholders and really establishing those relationships, and getting an understanding of what’s going on in Montpelier, what’s going in the region and what’s going on in Vermont. In addition to that, it’s been a matter of understanding what are the major projects and activities and where can the MDC add value,” she added.
Gebhart arrived during the start of a proposal by the Bashara family to build an 81-room Hampton Inn & Suites hotel and garage complex behind the Capitol Plaza Hotel. The Basharas asked the city to partner on the garage. The city agreed, but increased the size of the garage from 230 to 348 spaces. The Development Review Board is expected to issue a written decision on a permit for the garage within the next few days. The Basharas already have a permit to build the hotel. As soon as the permit for the garage is issued, work on both projects is expected to begin immediately.
“The parking garage was one project that we jumped in on and really worked to communicate with stakeholders and provide information for the public when it came up for a vote (in the November election, when residents approved a $10.5 million bond for the project),” Gebhart said.
Gebhart also noted that when she arrived, the city was in the process of applying to establish a Tax Increment Financing District in the downtown to help pay for infrastructure costs of new developments.
“That was all underway when I came on board, and I’ve been providing information, assistance and information to make a more robust application to the state,” Gebhart said.
Gebhart said she’s also been working with regional and state partners on a variety of economic initiatives.
“Anything we do locally should really be in tandem with what’s happening at the state and regional level,” she said. “So, there’s the Agency of Commerce and Community Development and they have their comprehensive economic development strategy.
“I’ve been familiarizing myself and Montpelier with that and how to structure some of our goals, again, working in tandem with that. At the regional level, we have our Central Vermont Economic Development Corporation. Again, they’re partners and so we want to work in tandem with their goals,” she added.
One local economic promotion she cited was the FreshTracks Road Pitch at the Vermont Granite Museum, a forum for entrepreneurs to pitch business prospects to capital investors in Vermont.
“We were helpful getting that event off the ground this year in Barre, getting entrepreneurs to pitch and doing some outreach and communication there and building nice relationships with regional groups,” Gebhart said.
Gebhart said her report to the City Council will be both a look back and forward at economic prospects for the city and region.
“The main component of the report to the city council will be a look back at the last seven months and what’s been going and reestablishing the foundation of the MDC,” Gebhart said. “The next 12 months will be about how do we take this organization to the next level of being much more effective and how we work with businesses and add value to projects.
“One of the major focuses we will have is a business retention and expansion program, with a more systematic approach to reaching out to businesses, understanding their needs. It’s about maintaining those relationships because ultimately, they’re the folks that are going to invest the most in the community,” she added.
Gebhart said she could not discuss specific new proposals for development in the city but said there were prospects for growth.
“The other piece is being able to inform city policy and programs, so we work closely with the city manager’s office and the planning and community development department. They’re looking at tax stabilization policies, as well as some of the revolving loan funds, such as the business revolving loan fund, to make them more effective to meet the needs of business,” she said.
“A close reading in a modern context may reveal something we had not previously noticed — something unpleasant, offensive or exclusionary. And as marginalized groups increasingly gain access to the cultural conversation, their voices should rightfully be heard.”
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