Tuesday July 23, 2013

BRATTLEBORO -- Strolling of the Heifers has been chosen to take over ownership of the Robert H. Gibson River Garden.

Building a Better Brattleboro, the downtown organization that owns the publicly used space at 153 Main St., announced earlier this year that it would be divesting itself from the River Garden because it was too expensive to maintain.

BABB opened up a public request for proposal process to gather ideas from other groups or individuals who would be willing to take over the River Garden. BABB received three proposals and the board spent almost two months going through the plans, meeting with the applicants and debating the future of the River Garden.

BABB declined to identify the other two applicants.

At a press conference Monday, BABB board president Donna Simons announced that Strolling of the Heifers would be assuming ownership of the property in the coming months. Simons said details about the deal are still being worked out.

BABB used a number of different funding sources when it purchased the building in 1999 and Simons said, specifically, an existing USDA loan that was used for the mortgage has to be repaid and USDA will have to approve the transfer of ownership before the deal goes through.

Simons said it took BABB so long to make a decision because each of three proposals were strong. She said the BABB board met twice to talk about, and vote on, the proposals. In the end, Simons said, Strolling of the Heifers was chosen because of the organization's commitment to keeping the River Garden open to the public.

"It was a very difficult process," Simons said. "When we were looking at the RFPs our No. 1 rating was to keep it open to the public. It was a close vote but in the end we made the decision because we wanted to keep it as a public space and we wanted to maintain access from Main Street to the river.

Building a Better Brattleboro President Donna Simons, left, gives Strolling of the Heifers founder and executive director Orly Munzing a congratulatory hug
Building a Better Brattleboro President Donna Simons, left, gives Strolling of the Heifers founder and executive director Orly Munzing a congratulatory hug after announcing that Strolling of the Heifers will take over the Robert H. Gibson River Garden from Building a Better Brattleboro. (Kayla Rice/Reformer)
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Strolling of the Heifers started in 2002 as a parade celebrating local agriculture and the organization has since grown to include a three day sustainability conference, a weekend full of events during the first week in June and grant and education programs that take place throughout the year.

Strolling of the Heifers Executive Director Orly Munzing said the group was excited to take this next step in establishing a year-round presence on Main Street. Munzing said she was still coming up with ideas to help make the project sustainable and profitable. She said the River Garden would continue to be opened to the public and she also said she was excited about continuing to have the Brattleboro Winter's Farmers' Market use the Main Street building. Munzing said she hopes to be able to install an air conditioning system and is looking into bringing in a commercial kitchen for preparing food and hosting events.

She said she wants to work closely with BABB, which now has its office in the River Garden. And ultimately, Munzing said, she wants to use the River Garden to continue to promote local food, to bring attention to farming and farming issues, and to encourage and support work that leads to a stronger and more sustainable agricultural system in Vermont and New England.

"We see ourselves as shepherding this community space. We want to bring the farm to Main Street," Munzing said. "I see this as a community project and we hope the community is going to help us with it as well."

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