2013 brings changes to Brattleboro


BRATTLEBORO -- The year 2013 was one of change for the town of Brattleboro.

As the town bids adieu to 2013, and welcomes in 2014, it does so with a new interim town manager and Selectboard chairman, as well as new directors in three of the top business development organizations in town.

The change Brattleboro experienced in 2013 extends to real estate where two of the most high profile properties on Main Street changed hands, the $14.1 million renovation to the police and fire stations started, while development projects along Putney Road, as well as major housing projects, either kicked off this year or neared completion.

And 2013 was also a year of anniversaries, as the town's newspaper, fourth of July celebration, and tragic loss of a soldier all marked milestones.

Sondag resigns

The story of the year in Brattleboro was the surprise resignation of former Town Manager Barbara Sondag.

Sondag shocked the Selectboard, and the town, when she announced at the June 18 Selectboard meeting that she would be stepping down at the end of July to move back to her home state of Missouri to take on a job as city administrator in Olivette, Mo.

Sondag worked for the town for 10 years, and was town manager since 2007.

She was credited with turning around the town's finances, shepherding the town through Tropical Storm Irene and the Brooks House fire, as well as with moving major projects forward such as the $32 million waste water treatment plant upgrade, and the $14.1 million police and fire station renovation.

The board's attempt to replace Sondag became a story in itself as the board conducted a nationwide search, formed a citizens' committee to help interview candidates, and then brought in two potential town managers to visit town.

Ultimately the board was not able to come to terms with either of the two top candidates and Brattleboro enters 2014 with an interim town manager.

Patrick Moreland, the former assistant town manager, has been interim town manager since Sondag left.

He did not apply for the position during the first round but said he was reconsidering that decision and has indicated that he may apply when the Selectboard opens the hiring process back up.

More change at the top

Along with Sondag's surprise announcement there were changes in leadership for organizations and boards all across Brattleboro.

David Gartenstein was named the new chairman of the Selectboard after former Chairman Dick DeGray declined to run in 2013 after serving eight years. John Allen, David Schoales and Kate O'Connor were all newly elected to the Selectboard in March, and three months later Ken Schneck resigned from the board. Donna Macomber was appointed to replace Schneck, leaving Gartenstein with four new members on the five-member board.

Brattleboro Development Credit Corporation Executive Director Jeff Lewis stepped down in 2013 and was replaced by Patricia Moulton Powden. Jerry Goldberg, executive director of the Brattleboro Area Chamber of Commerce, resigned and Selectboard Vice Chairwoman Kate O'Connor was hired to replace him. And at Building a Better Brattleboro Andrea Livermore left and Jacob Roberts replaced her.

Lewis, Goldberg and Livermore leave with more than two decades of combined experience in downtown development, presenting new challenges and opportunity as the town welcomes in the new year.

Another big name that said "good-bye" to civic life this year was Tim O'Connor who did not run for Town Meeting Moderator after 22 years.

Brooks House and River Garden change hands

One of the biggest stories of the year was the completion of deals to turn over ownership of the Robert H. Gibson River Garden and the Brooks House, two of the most important pieces of real estate in downtown Brattleboro.

The Brooks House has been vacant, and quiet, since a five alarm fire in April 2011 severely damaged the historic Main Street building.

A year later the former owner, Jonathan Chase, said he would not try to raise the money to rebuild the Brooks House and a group of five investors worked for a year-and-a-half to come up with the financing for the $24 million project.

In July the deal finally went through and workers were inside within a matter of days, knocking down walls and rebuilding the structure.

Community College of Vermont and Vermont Technical College both plan to move in to the Main Street building to open new campuses and the new owners hope to complete the re-development by the end of 2014.

Across the street Strolling of the Heifers was chosen to take over ownership of the River Garden.

The former owner, Building a Better Brattleboro, announced in 2012 that it would be selling the property and opening up a public process to chose the new owner.

Three business plans were submitted and the Strolling of the Heifers was chosen in July, with the sustainable agriculture organization completing the deal in November.

Strolling of the Heifers has moved its office to the River Garden and hopes to build a commercial kitchen and host educational events at its new Main Street home, while continuing to keep it open for public use.

Building for the future

Development was a common theme that resonated throughout Brattleboro in 2013.

Brattleboro Housing Authority introduced its concept for Red Clover Commons, a $13 million, 55-unit affordable housing project proposed for land off of Canal Street.

The project will help replace some of the apartments at Melrose Terrace which are in danger of future flooding.

Work also started this year at Black Mountain Estates, a 35-unit for profit senior housing development in north Brattleboro.

And after Town Meeting Representatives approved the plan in 2012, work started this year on the $14.1 million renovations to the police station and two fire stations in town.

Toilet paper was cut to mark the symbolic completion of the $32 million waste water treatment plant upgrades, though the town continues to battle with the contractors over final completion, and the town may be taking the firm to court to recover losses due to the delay.

Commonwealth Dairy completed its $12 million expansion of its yogurt facility, less than two years after it opened the new plant. While along Putney Road Auto Mall, Aspen Dental, Aldi's Grocery and Ramunto's Pizza poured millions of dollars into their buildings. A major $60 million project was also kicked off to build a new Interstate 91 bridge over the West River. And after years of work, and an almost $1 million investment, the town formally opened up the new West River Park to eager softball and soccer players in the spring.

Solar power, a skatepark and marijuana

Other major stories in 2013 include the proposal to build a 2 megawatt solar array off of Technology Drive along Interstate 91.

The developers, Winstanley Enterprises, introduced the project in July, and while the Public Service Board has not yet approved the project, if it goes through it would eventually be one of the largest commercial solar projects in the state.

The town's more than decade-long attempt to build a skatepark had as many twists and turns this year as, well, a skatepark.

In March the Selectboard and School Board approved the designs for an 11,000 square-foot park at the Crowell Lot, then in July the Skatepark Committee began talking about reducing the size due to challenges in raising the money for the project.

In September the committee then voted unanimously to table the Crowell Lot plan, for now, and re-open the site selection process.

In November the Selectboard appointed a Skatepark Site Selection Committee to find the best place in town for a new skatepark.

Their recommendation is expected in May 2014.

On Dec. 6 Eugene Narrett was struck and killed by a hit and run driver near Western Avenue.

Narrett is the fourth pedestrian in two years to die in town, rekindling the discussion about the safety of Brattleboro's streets and about what more can be done to protect pedestrians and bicyclists.

Brattleboro was chosen as the site of Vermont's fourth marijuana dispensary and the dispensary owner found a site on Putney Road which he hopes to open early in the new year.

In April the Brattleboro Retreat formally opened its $5.3 million unit for Vermont State Hospital patients.

A torrential downpour on Sept. 11 damaged Elm Street and the town was left to pay more than $920,000 to fix the road.

The town started its curbside compost program this year, becoming one of the first municipalities in New England to offer the service.

In 2013 The Brattleboro Reformer marked 100 years as a daily paper, the town's July 4th parade celebrated its 40th march and on Aug. 6 the 10 year anniversary of Kyle Gilbert's death in Iraq while serving in the U.S. Army was remembered.

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


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