BELLOWS FALLS -- Personnel from Chroma Technology attended a joint meeting of the municipal government's boards last week to explain to the public the company's desire to move from its location off Exit 6 to the portion of Bellows Falls many hope to turn into a business incubator.
Paul Millman, Rick Holloway, Newell Lessell and Jill James were four of the few dozen people in the Rockingham Town Hall Lower Theatre for the third item on the agenda of the Rockingham Selectboard's and Bellows Falls Village Board of Trustees' meeting on Tuesday, July 1. They and Rockingham Development Director Francis "Dutch" Walsh went over various concepts Chroma has considered for its potential new spot on The Island, but all stressed that the plan is still in beginning stages.
Millman, the company's president and CEO, said Chroma is a worldwide leader in the manufacturing of optic filters and those in charge of the Bellows Falls location want to move to The Island to have more space and be in a spot where employees can walk to work.
"We like being here and we like where were, actually. It's beautiful out there, but it's tight. Some years ago, there was a study organized to look at the Island as an economic driver. It struck us that it could be in town, people could walk to the facility in town and we could have the kind of facility that we now need," he said Tuesday, adding that Chroma has a long history of keeping in mind both its need and the welfare of its community.
According to a memo from Walsh, the discussion between Chroma and the town has recently become more serious and more focused.
"We are now at the point in this process to analyze the site and surrounding area in order to develop the scope of this project. Concurrently, I have begun the process of assembling a financing team for the purpose of developing the financing for this project," he wrote.
Walsh said The Island in the village used to be the center of industrial activity and is now a known brownfield site. He said it also is a site containing structures that are incompatible with the rest of Rockingham. He said the Bellows Falls Area Development Corporation (BFADC) completed a Phase II Environmental Assessment on one of the properties and discovered nearly $400,000 of hazardous waste clean-up. The BFADC, according to Walsh, is committed to cleaning the property in order to stimulate economic development.
Millman said Chroma's current location is too small for its purposes and the company wants to be a part of Rockingham's resurgence as a strong industry town that offers quality jobs. The crowd applauded the Chroma personnel once the presentation was completed.
Municipal Manager Willis D. "Chip" Stearns II told both boards he is incredibly excited about the possibility of Chroma moving to The Island. He also said he sent letters to all property owners on The Island as soon as Tuesday's joint meeting was arranged to give everyone as much notice as possible. The Island is home to RReal Warm, a solar furnace manufacturer, and Southeastern Vermont Community Action's textile recycling facility and there seemed to be some concern Tuesday about what will happen to neighboring buildings if Chroma moves in.
Duncan Johnson, who said he purchased The Oh Zone at 6 Island St. in August 2013, said the project sounds exciting but expressed concern about how Chroma would fit on The Island in relation to the establishments already there.
"We're not going to chase you way," Millman said. "We don't want to see any businesses in town put out of business. It's a little premature to talk about who will be displaced."
Drew Pelletiere, who said he co-owns Local Foods Café with his wife, stood up and said he loves and supports that Chroma has zero environmental impact.
During municipal discussion, Bellows Falls Trustee Charlie Hunter applauded Walsh and Stearns and said the community is truly blessed to have Chroma. He asked how many workers Chroma has and Millman said he believes the figure sits around 106. Hunter said Chroma's presence downtown would enhance the village's industrial feel.
"One of the reasons I moved to Bellows falls is the look of the place. A great part of BF's history is the papermaking (industry)," he said, adding that he wants the village's proud heritage to be honored. "It would be a good goal."
Selectboard member Susan Hammond said New Hampshire's interest in rehabilitating the Vilas Bridge may get peaked as a result of this project. Bellows Falls residents have grown frustrated over what they see as broken promises from their eastern neighbors about maintenance of the bridge, 93 percent of which is owned by New Hampshire. The Vilas was closed to vehicular traffic in 2009, and residents are frustrated that plans to repair or replace it have been deferred. At the time it was closed, a reported average of 4,600 vehicles crossed the structure every day and village residents say businesses are suffering because the traffic from Walpole, N.H., has been severed.
Hammond also said the Chroma project in an important one for this region of the country.
Stearns said this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Bellows Falls and it is rare to find a successful company like Chroma that is concerned about giving back to the community as much as it is about its own bottom line.
"This is what gets written in those development journals about, 'This can happen to you,'" he said. "This ripples and ripples and continue to ripple."
Chroma personnel said the building operates from 5 a.m. to 11 p.m. and there is no noise generated. The average size of the optic filters it manufactures is 25 millimeters in diameter, Holloway said. He also mentioned there are a maximum of one of two trucks driving to the facility every day. Members of the personnel present said Chroma may even hire more employees if the facility moves to The Island.
Local business owner and Bellows Falls Downtown Development Alliance President Pat Fowler said she thinks the project sounds like a great idea and the downtown area could use more foot and vehicular traffic.
Domenic Poli can be reached at email@example.com, or 802-254-2311, ext. 277. You can follow him on Twitter @dpoli_reformer.