Exploring the River Garden's future

Thursday March 28, 2013

The board of Building a Better Brattleboro is proceeding with a request-for-proposals process for the River Garden without holding meetings for public input. "It's time for Brattleboro to cut its losses and move on," writes the Reformer editorial board with respect to the River Garden, urging the town to "figure out a way to add the River Garden back to its grand list and move on."

The attitude at BaBB as well as at the Reformer seems to be that there will be no new ideas, so public meetings would just be a waste of time. This is unfortunate and short-sighted. The building is a public building. It has been open to the public daily for years and it hosts public events regularly. It is one of Brattleboro's public spaces, and the public deserves to be consulted before it is turned over to the highest bidder.

Rather than a new idea, I would like to suggest a process for getting back to an old idea, the original one for the River Garden. Here it is: What if the Brattleboro Development Credit Corporation (BDCC) took over responsibility for the space, and turned it into a retail incubator -- a place to nurture startups that sell food, merchandise and services to the public?

I'm envisioning:

-- Startup food vendors. Think of them as indoor food trucks. Perhaps with a central, shared kitchen area.

-- Startup retail vendors. Think of them as pop-up stores, something in between sidewalk peddlers and a full-fledged retail store.

-- Some space left as a food court/gathering space, serving also as performance incubator space for startup performers: musicians, poets, actors etc.

-- A modular design that allows easy swapping and and out of tenants

-- A flexible leasing approach: month-to-month or quarter-to-quarter rather than annual.

-- A built-in marketing plan (perhaps also handled by a startup marketing entity)

All three suggested categories of startups (retail food, retail stuff, retail entertainment) currently lack intermediate incubator space of the kind that non-retail startups can find at BDCC's Cottonmill and other buildings it operates. Nothing else in Brattleboro offers this. The tenants would benefit from lower startup expense and risk, contact and collaboration with other startups, and (most importantly) from a fine location.

Doing this fits BDCC's mission and fills in a gap in the kinds of enterprises BDCC currently supports with incubator space. And BDCC has all the necessary resources and experience to do it.

Popular opinion will continue to support the idea of the River Garden as a public space. But the place will only pay for itself with a good portion of the space occupied by paying tenants, just like any other downtown real estate. The best solution will be one that preserves a degree of public space, while collecting regular rent on some portion. Ideally, that rent would be derived from uses that might also be considered a public good. This proposal satisfies those considerations.

Potentially, this could be structured so as to avoid the legal issues surrounding any transfer of the property, since (a) the function of providing a public good is maintained, and (b) a transfer might not even be necessary if BDCC is simply brought in as the manager of the space.

Yes, this idea was tried in 2001 and fizzled as tenants left and were not replaced. But "we tried that once and it didn't work" is not a reason to give up. There is far more entrepreneurial, startup activity in Brattleboro now than there was in 2001, and fledgling retailers and food vendors would jump at the chance to be in this kind of space.

So, you might say, why doesn't BDCC just throw this proposal into the mix as a response to the RFP being issued? The answer is that it can't -- BDCC's policy is not to enter a bidding process of this kind for real estate. Quite properly, it does not wish to compete against private developers. Essentially, it was the developer of last resort for the properties it owns and operates.

Could a private developer take this idea and run with it? Perhaps, but not likely. Private developers want to maximize the return on their investment, and providing public amenities or incubator space will not accomplish that. Most private proposals will chop the building up into a mix of market-rate office and retail space.

Before things go too far in that direction, I urge a discussion among BaBB, BDCC, the Chamber of Commerce, and the Town of Brattleboro to explore this and any other options that preserve the River Garden as a public resource while putting it on a sound financial basis.

Martin Langeveld writes from Vernon.


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