Thursday May 9, 2013

BRATTLEBORO -- For years, New England Youth Theater administrators have been developing plans to clean up and redevelop two properties behind their Flat Street headquarters.

There have been changing partners and a few setbacks. But on Wednesday, those efforts received a boost when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency awarded $400,000 in cleanup grants to the theater.

It's only part of the funding necessary to complete those projects, but it was nonetheless a big day for the Brattleboro organization.

"We're really excited to get these funds," said Bo Foard, the theater's board president. "And we're really excited to get this going."

The grants were announced by Vermont's congressional delegation -- Democratic U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, Independent U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders and Democratic U.S. Rep. Peter Welch. The money comes from EPA "brownfield" programs.

Also included in the announcement was another $400,000 in EPA grants for Windham Regional Commission, where administrators will use the money to continue their successful brownfield-cleanup program.

Brownfields are properties -- often former industrial sites -- that may contain contaminants that impede redevelopment.

"Vermont communities have hundreds of former industrial sites that remain unused because of development obstacles such as pollution," the lawmakers said in a joint statement. "These grants help these communities turn lemons into lemonade, turning underused industrial wastelands into community assets where people can work, live and play."

That's what youth-theater administrators have in mind for an Elm Street building.

The former Tri-State Automotive property at 64 Elm has been the subject of multiple redevelopment proposals. But contamination found within the 13,000-square-foot brick building has been a major impediment.

Officials on Wednesday announced two $200,000 brownfield grants for the theater to use at two sites -- Elm Street and 100 Flat St.

Foard said that money will be put toward demolishing both a "livery" building behind the theater and the Tri-State Automotive building. All told, the theater needs $1.5 million for the demolition and cleanup projects.

"This is just the first piece of funding we need," Foard said. "We're pursuing other sources."

Foard also said theater administrators are developing new, still-undisclosed plans for the properties.

"We have partnered with different nonprofits in town to help us develop that site," he said. "We're currently of the mindset that New England Youth Theater is going to take this on ourselves."

He added that "we are in the midst of our own development project there."

Foard thanked Bari Shamas, former president of the youth theater board, for her role in guiding the project and procuring the federal funds. He also thanked the congressional delegation, Susan McMahon of Windham Regional Commission and Joe Ferrari of EPA New England.

"We're feeling really optimistic about this project," Foard said. "We hope to move forward within a year."

Windham Regional Commission has extensive experience in dealing with brownfields, having received more than $3 million in funding when Wednesday's announcement is factored in, said McMahon, the commission's associate director.

The commission received two $200,000 grants from the EPA. McMahon said that money will go toward a mix of existing and future assessment and cleanup projects.

"Our regional plan highlights the importance of redeveloping downtowns and villages," McMahon said. "And there was industry in a lot of downtowns and villages. We wanted to make it easier to redevelop these sites."

The latest grants, she added, "are meant to continue our program."

That program -- with more information available at windhamregional.org/brownfields -- can help both public and private entities. A few examples of local brownfield redevelopment include Brattleboro Transportation Center, Waypoint Visitors Center in Bellows Falls and Commonwealth Dairy in Brattleboro.

"We've been successful in this region," McMahon said.

Other Vermont recipients of EPA grants on Wednesday were the city of Burlington, Northwest Regional Planning Commission in St. Albans, Southern Windsor County Regional Planning Commission and the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation.

Mike Faher can be reached at mfaher@reformer.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.