Maintaining the Robert H. Gibson River Garden as a public space was, at one time, a good idea. But over the years, the difficulties of keeping the building open to the public have become readily apparent.
It has been used for laudable purposes, such as the Winter Farmers’ Market, art exhibits, music performances, meetings, class reunions, weddings, dances, film screenings, community dinners, book discussions, as part of the Strolling of the Heifers, political events and as a relief center for fire victims.
But at the same time it has failed at being a hub where the community could coalesce and become something bigger than its parts. Instead of making downtown sweeter, it has become a bitter reminder of failure.
The River Garden was once a Rite Aid, and the original plan for its restoration called for a pedestrian walkway and shops leading from the intersection of Main and High Streets to the Connecticut River. The structure was to feature a glass-walled facade on Main Street, skylights, and sweeping river views from a terrace. However, even at that time, the uses for the building were under debate.
"The purpose in buying the old, ugly Rite Aid was to create something better, and open up Main Street to the river," said BaBB’s board president in 2001. "We have done that. We did not set out to build a community resource."
More than $700,000 in grants and renewal funds were secured from local, state and
It opened to the public for a sneak peak during Gallery Walk in January 2001 and had its official opening later in March and it was heralded with much ballyhoo and pageantry. But just seven months later the then-executive director of BaBB said "We’re not making ends meet just yet. Currently we’re not breaking even."
Even worse, said the executive director, "Even if we’re fully rented, we don’t meet the cost of running and maintaining it. We were supposed to be fully paid off and not paying mortgage payments."
In late 2003, there were no longer any tenants helping to pay the bills, and a new executive director came on board at BaBB with one of his major missions to get the River Garden’s finances in order.
Even then there were doubts if the River Garden could remain a public space. By mid-2004, BaBB began to consider selling or transferring the space to another nonprofit or public entity that would vow to preserve all or part of the building as community space.
"It has been challenging to provide a sustainable stream of income for the space," said the new executive director. "The conflict has been the demand for a public space downtown versus the financial realities of a private investment. It is essential that the space remains open to the public. But BaBB cannot continue to be solely responsible for the River Garden."
Because of a community outcry, the board of BaBB tabled its plans to put the space up for sale, but not for long.
Even after approving in 2005 a downtown tax district to help fund BaBB’s operations, BaBB’s executive director reiterated all options were still on the table. "We’ve not precluded any options with regard to the River Garden," he said in 2006.
Also that year, BaBB held a community forum to discuss what to do with the building. One of the options was to find a community group to partner with BaBB to help preserve the space.
But the president of the board at the time wasn’t too hopeful. "It’s not apparent to us there’s a group that’s willing to take this on," adding "This is not something that can continue to go on forever."
Despite the community’s avowed interest in supporting it as a public space, no organization stepped forward and a few months later BaBB announced it was going to put the building on the market. Nonetheless, BaBB was open to suggestions from the community to prevent the sale, but they had to be real solutions, said the executive director.
"We’d like to see a plan. Something that’s concrete. Something that will not result in failure," adding "The argument that the community values it needs to be supported by the community using it."
In late 2006, the Windham Development Group, which bought and renovated the historic Windham Hotel in Bellows Falls, was chosen by BaBB as the future owners of the River Garden. WDC proposed to convert some space to retail, but promised to keep some space as public space.
The announcement was greeted by an outcry from people who said the selection process was unfair and biased.
"The River Garden is really our River Garden, and when I say our, I mean the community," said one community member.
One of the sticking points of the deal was the fact the town would have to return $150,000 to the state if the building was converted from public to private use. That stipulation has since been dismissed by the state.
The sale to WDC fell through and over the years not much has changed. The River Garden has been a sinkhole of funds where money has disappeared and never been seen again.
Recently, the board of BaBB once again announced its intention to cut its losses and said it was accepting requests for proposals for its future. At the same time, BaBB’s budget was approved but with no line item for the River Garden’s maintenance or operation.
Again, people were outraged.
A group of Town Meeting Representatives, which is calling itself the Committee for the River Garden, has stated it plans to put the funding back into the BaBB budget for at least a year to give the town time to come up with a "sustainable plan" for keeping the building as a public space.
We are looking forward to the discussion during Representative Town Meeting on March 23, but we urge Town Meeting Representatives to refrain from increasing the financial burden on the already over-taxed property owners in Brattleboro.
For the past 12 years the River Garden has failed to live up to its expectations, for whatever reason. Perhaps there is plenty of blame to be assigned, but perhaps it was just a bad idea from the beginning.
With the redevelopment of the Brooks House just getting under way across the street from the River Garden, it would behoove the town to figure out a way to add the River Garden back to its grand list.
It’s time for Brattleboro to cut its losses and move on.