BERLIN — Owners of central Vermont’s largest shopping complex have pitched a rent-free proposal that would literally put Berlin in the Berlin Mall and the town in its conditionally approved “new town center.”
Though chances are remote Town Clerk Rosemary Morse or Police Chief James Pontbriand will be setting up shop in currently vacant retail space two doors down from Planet Fitness any time soon, both were floated as possibilities by Select Board members reacting in real time to an unconventional offer Monday night.
The offer would give the town rent-free use of a 2,625-square-foot storefront between Planet Fitness and Walmart for two years. During that time local officials can weigh the longer term investment needed to create a municipal presence in the area that was conditionally elevated to “new town center” status by the Vermont Downtown Board in April.
Among the many conditions of the Downtown Board’s approval of Berlin’s “new town center” is a requirement that the town provide a progress report on conceptual plans to construct a “municipal facility” in a designated area that, barring adjustment, includes most, but not all, of the mall’s 65-acre property.
The offer discussed Monday night — one board members were told has been the subject of behind-the-scenes conversations between town administrators and representatives of mall owner Heidenberg Properties LLC — is viewed as a small step in that direction.
It is one that would make the town the mall’s newest tenant and the only cost for the first two years would be for utilities.
Selectman John Quinn III was initially skeptical, but quickly warmed to the idea when he was assured the offer is rooted in Heidenberg Properties’ carefully considered pivot from a primarily retail property to one that includes a mix of uses from retail and restaurants to housing and offices.
Though the rent-free offer couldn’t last forever, the mall’s consultant, Michael Rushman, said his client was more than willing to take the space off the market to continue to foster the relationship that led to the town’s successful “new town center” application.
“The mall owners are very receptive and supportive of the notion of the town having a long-term presence at the new town center,” Rushman said, describing the arrangement he outlined as a down payment on a broader conversation.
“I see this as sort of opening up a discussion, and I think you’ll find us bending over backwards to be flexible in trying to help you meet both interim and long-term needs,” he said.
It was Quinn who suggested the clerk’s office might be a candidate to occupy the space because it generates more foot traffic and openly wondered whether it could accommodate the town’s police department.
Either would be possible, but neither is likely given the temporary nature of the arrangement and the cost associated with constructing a vault for a new clerk’s office, or creating a secure space for police.
Town Administrator Vince Conti said preliminary conversations have flagged the Berlin Historical Society, which occupies a room in the municipal office building on Shed Road as the more likely candidate for relocation to a space that could include a larger room for public meetings.
Rushman said he agreed, noting the historical society would have room to create visible displays and the storefront the mall is offering had its own rear entrance, several designated parking spaces behind the mall and a virtually unlimited supply out front. The storefront is accessible after hours through the mall’s main entrance and has use of public restrooms.
Rushman said Heidenberg properties would entertain a lease extension at a mutually agreeable cost, potentially expanding within the mall, or negotiating an option that would give the town the right to purchase property for a future municipal office building.
Rushman said the Downtown Board is going to be interested in progress on that front when it reviews the “new town center” in two years and four years.
“It’s not an absolute commitment on the part of the town, but it’s one of the things the state will evaluate when they decide whether or not to continue the designation,” he said.
Board members said they were supportive and appreciative of the concept and authorized Conti to work with Rushman to come back to them with a refined proposal.
“I don’t see a downside from the town’s perspective,” Board Chair Justin Lawrence said.