The River Garden, on Main Street in Brattleboro.(Zachary P. Stephens/Reformer file photo)
The River Garden, on Main Street in Brattleboro. (Zachary P. Stephens/Reformer file photo)
Tuesday February 5, 2013

BRATTLEBORO -- As Building a Better Brattleboro decides what it wants to do with the Robert H. Gibson River Garden, the Selectboard is trying to figure out its role in determining the fate of the popular downtown property.

A handful of Brattleboro residents showed up to the special Selectboard meeting last week to ask the board questions about public money that was used in the acquisition and development of the River Garden. They also asked the board to host meetings to gather public support for keeping the River Garden open.

And while the Selectboard did not commit itself to getting involved in the future of the privately- held real estate, there was some support among the Selectboard members to get more involved.

Selectboard members David Gartenstein and Dora Bouboulis both appeared open to at least having a public discussion about the River Garden.

Building a Better Brattleboro owns the River Garden, but the downtown business organization announced earlier this year that it could no longer afford to keep the River Garden open, and would be selling the property.

Bouboulis wanted the Selectboard to add an article to the Town Meeting warning to give Town Meeting representatives a chance to talk about the River Garden.

And while her motion was defeated 1-4, some of the board members agreed that there could be a place for the board to at least facilitate the conversation over the future of the River Garden.

"I think there is a huge public good in the building, and for allowing a public discussion," Bouboulis said. "It is downtown. It is public."

Bouboulis said the town already has been playing a part in keeping the River Garden open by approving the BABB budget every year.

And Gartenstein said the board had a responsibility for giving the public a forum for debating the issue.

"There is significant public interest in the question of whether the River Garden will remain open given that the owner and operator is the designated organization for the Downtown Improvement District," Gartenstein said. "I anticipate that the issue may well come before the board in the coming year."

Selectboard Chairman Dick DeGray said he strongly rejected the idea that the town had any role to play in directing a private property owner on what should be done with a piece of real estate.

"This is way out of our jurisdiction," DeGray said. "We would be treading on dangerous ground if we do something like this."

Bouboulis and DeGray will both be off the board next year and Gartenstein, and Selectboard member Ken Schneck, will have three new board members to help decide if the town will play a role in keeping the River Garden open.

Schneck said he was big supporter of the River Garden and said as a Marlboro College professor, has led classes in the space.

But at the same time, Schneck said, neither the board nor the town should try to convince BABB to retain ownership of the River Garden and keep it open.

"They don't want it and we can't force them to deal with it," Schneck said. "We can talk more after they bail."

Building a Better Brattleboro has promised to hold its own public meetings about the River Garden but BABB Executive Director Andrea Livermore said the organization has not yet scheduled the public information sessions.

BABB has been working on its proposed 2014 budget, which the Selectboard finally approved.

Livermore said she expects the BABB Board of Directors to address the River Garden question soon.

At the Selectboard meeting last week Brattleboro resident Jane Southworth asked the board to schedule its own public meetings to talk about the River Garden.

"The future of the River Garden is of looming importance," Southworth said. "It is a very important part of downtown. It serves a very important function."

Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at 802-254-2311, ext. 279, or hwtisman@reformer.com. You can follow him on Twitter@HowardReformer.