Peter Putnam stands on a lift with Dustin Cooper and Mark Billetdeaux of GPI Construc­tion, as the trio afixes the new River Garden sign, last month. (Bob
Peter Putnam stands on a lift with Dustin Cooper and Mark Billetdeaux of GPI Construc­tion, as the trio afixes the new River Garden sign, last month. (Bob Audette/Reformer)
Friday December 21, 2012

BRATTLEBORO -- Building a Better Brattleboro's long running experiment to maintain a publicly-owned building in the downtown might be coming to an end.

BABB, an independent non-profit organization that supports and promotes downtown businesses, is looking for other ways of funding the Robert H. Gibson River Garden, a public space in the center of town that the group has owned since 1999.

BABB officials told the Brattleboro Selectboard Tuesday that the building was putting too much of a financial burden on the group, and they said that maintaining the property was preventing the organization from doing the work it needed to do to help business owners in town.

"Running the River Garden is overshadowing everything we do," said BABB board president Donna Simons, co-owner of A Candle in the Night. "It is soaking up all of our money and there is nothing left to put into other projects."

Simons, and the rest of the BABB representatives, were unclear on what their plans might be.

But in submitting the group's annual budget request to the board Tuesday, they did not include River Garden expenses, and they said they hope to be out from under ownership of the property before July 1.

The group loses between $12,000 and $15,000 every year keeping the River Garden open to the public, BABB Treasurer Bill Crowley said.


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Crowley said BABB understands the value of having a clean, warm, public space in the middle of downtown, but it has been a challenge to make the numbers work.

BABB is supposed to support downtown business, so it is hard to rent out River Garden space to vendors who might compete with the very businesses that support BABB, he said, and BABB has to look for alternate ways of funding the River Garden.

"It is the first thing people see when they come into town and I think everyone thinks there is a significant benefit of having the River Garden," Crowley said. "It benefits the whole town but the expenses are not covered by the income that it brings in. We decided to present a budget that separates the River Garden from whatever else we are doing, for now. We don't know what it might look like in the future."

The future of the River Garden is going to be further complicated by the fact that state money was involved in its purchase.

The Legislature approved $150,000 to help the deal go through when BABB bought the property from Rite Aid.

Windham County Sen. Jeanette White, D-Putney, says she has asked legislative counsel to look over the River Garden funding and so far three different attorneys have given her three different opinions.

Now, White says, it is unclear if BABB would be expected to pay the money back if the building is sold, and there might also be complications that would kick in depending if the property was sold to a non-profit group or to a for-profit business.

Depending on what the attorneys end up deciding, the Legislature might have to weigh in on how BABB will have to deal with the sale.

"It is a little unclear how the money would be treated if the River Garden is sold," said White. "Right now there are different opinions. Building a Better Brattleboro doesn't want the building, and the town doesn't want the building, and I know the state doesn't want the building, so we'll have to see how this all plays out."

BABB Executive Director Andrea Livermore said the group was on the verge of selling the building in 2006, when the public outcry grew loud enough to convince BABB to hold on to it and try to make it work

A few years ago the organization set itself a deadline of 2012 to figure out a way of funding the River Garden.

Now, with the economy continuing to limp along, and no viable option in place to bring in income, she said it is time to figure out a plan, which could include selling the property.

She said BABB will probably have a meeting this winter to bring the public in to see if there is a way to keep the doors open.

"It has been a drain to keep it open, and we can't keep putting money into it," said Livermore. "The board is taking this very seriously. We can't keep it open at the expense of our other downtown programs. It's killing the organization. We've given it our all, but it's just not sustainable. Everybody says they love the space, but no one has figured out how to pay for it."

Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at 802-254-2311, ext. 279, or hwtisman@reformer.com.