BRATTLEBORO — Two well-known figures are agreeing to disagree when it comes to the closure of the Harmony Lot tunnel.
"We are disappointed," said Selectboard Chairman David Gartenstein. "Many people are disappointed with the result. I don't know if there's going to be community support to construct a park and have town contributions to that."
"You are disappointed," said engineer and Brooks House co-owner Bob Stevens, who claims a college that is a tenant at the Brooks House insisted the tunnel stay open but then changed its mind. "Many people also believe that it's in the town's interest to have it closed."
Selectboard member John Allen said he was in favor of the closure while Gartenstein clarified "we" meant a substantial group of people during a final public hearing on Nov. 3 regarding an $800,000 Vermont Community Development Program Slum and Blight Grant. The funding was for the redevelopment of the Brooks House building that was destroyed by a fire in 2011.
The debate over the tunnel began after Stevens mentioned his group was still in the planning stages of a park. He said they were still attempting to figure out how to fund and construct it.
"At the time that we supported this funding, there had been a commitment, I believe, by the Brooks House developers to leave the tunnel open from High Street into the Harmony Lot," said Gartenstein, noting there are many people who want to ensure the facilitation of flow and circulation of traffic downtown as well as the support of local businesses. "I know that you (Stevens) disagree with that."
According to Gartenstein, developers received approval from the Development Review Board for the tunnel's closure with plans different from those presented in the grant application. The board later requested a quote for the town to rent the tunnel but has not yet received a response.
"I disagree," said Steven. "Your recollection of that event four years ago is entirely contrary to our discussions with the town. The town had a lease to use that property for many years. The town explicitly said they did not want to renew that lease. To come back now and say there was an agreement in place, that is not the case."
Stevens said a proposal was requested to lease the tunnel to open it for traffic, but he was not sure his group was going to respond to it. With permits in place to use the property the way they want to use it, he said he was not sure "that was something we want to open back up."
"The record clearly shows we traded property with the town to straighten out a boundary line agreement as well as not sort of renewing a lease for parking, maintenance and access to that tunnel," he added.
The importance of the building to Brattleboro was noted by Gartenstein, who joined the Selectboard a month after the fire and said they were glad to see it back in business.
"We faced a real risk of substantial blight downtown had the building not been rebuilt. And along with the tropical storm (Irene) that hit about five months later, it hit the town real hard," he said. "It was a tough road bringing us back to the point where infrastructure was rebuilt and that building was rehabilitated. The rehabilitation of that building was a real priority of the town as a whole because of its prominent location."
Mesabi, LLC, had bought the property in July 2, 2013 and the Selectboard approved of the grant application in November of that year. The company received funds from the grant in January, 2014.
The Brooks House now has 23 apartments, a commercial office, retail and restaurants with students attending classes at the Community College of Vermont and Vermont Technical College, also housed there. The spot is believed to have increased visibility for the community college, as school officials reported seeing an approximately 5 percent uptick in enrollment. Two retail spots and several apartments are still available.
"Things are going well. Construction is complete," Stevens said earlier in the hearing, after thanking the town for its assistance with a grant. "We've been operating for a year and so it's really learning how to run a large building in terms of its costs. And occupancy is really going well, too. We have a few apartments that have become available that have rolled over."
Kim Ellison, Brattleboro's grants and loan manager, said part of the grant process involves sending in final numbers and holding a final hearing. Stevens called the grant program "probably one of the most significant tools the town can use to help."