River Garden's murky waters

Saturday December 29, 2012

BRATTLEBORO -- One of the big questions concerning the Robert H. Gibson River Garden has been answered, but the future of downtown Brattleboro's public space remains cloudy.

Building a Better Brattleboro, the downtown organization which owns the property, says it wants to sell the building because it can no longer afford to maintain it.

When BABB purchased the former Rite Aid building on Main St. in 1999 it used $150,000 in state money to complete the deal and the BABB Board of Directors was unsure if the money would have to be paid back if the property was sold.

Sen. Jeanette White, D-Putney, asked Legislative Counsel to look at the original earmark which the Legislature included in the 1999 Capital Budget, and according to White, BABB has no responsibility to repay the money, whether it is sold to a nonprofit, or a for-profit, organization.

White said the attorneys agree that the money was given to the town, even though the town never owned the property.

And since the town did not, and does not, own the River Garden, the state will not ask for its money back.

"The $150,000 came from the state and so there was a question what would happen with that money if it was sold," White said. "It seems like there is a restriction on the town, but the town does not own the building. The stipulation seems to have been irrelevant form the beginning. No one seems to know why it was written that way, but that's the way it was written."

Now it will be up to the BABB membership to decide the fate of the River Garden.

BABB has scheduled two special meetings at the River Garden on Jan. 3, at 8 a.m. at the River Garden, and then a second meeting, on Jan. 7 at 8 a.m., to talk about its 2014 work plan.

BABB has not included any money in its work plan to pay for the River Garden next year, and if the membership, and then the BABB board, and then the Selectboard, approve the work plan, it will begin the process of turning the property over to a new party.

But who that is, and how that transaction happens, remain open questions.

BABB Board President Donna Simons said there will be a series of public information sessions held this winter to gather public input on the pending sale.

Simon said the BABB board has been concentrating on its 2014 work plan, and has not even begun to talk about the sale, though she said the group can not afford to maintain it another year and the property will most likely change hands in the near future.

"I don't know where we will go with this," Simons said. "What we know is that we want the public involved with this from day one, and we will be working with the public to decide what is best for the River Garden. We want this to be an open, public discussion."

Brattleboro Selectboard Chairman Dick DeGray said the town was interested to see what the Montpelier lawyers would think about the $150,000, because if the town had any obligation to pay back the money the Selectboard would want to play a role in its sale.

DeGray said he has not yet heard any official word from the town's attorney, but if the money is going to be forgiven, DeGray said the board will most likely be just as happy to let BABB deal with the sale.

"That sounds like good news for the organization," DeGray said. "The town has no interest in purchasing a building and as long as the town has no responsibility to pay the money back we wish them luck in finding a buyer."

There are many other questions concerning BABB and the River Garden.

Brattleboro needs to reapply for its Downtown Improvement District designation this year, and a survey has gone out to the downtown district property owners to see if there is support.

The DID is a state designation that allows the town to collect a 1 percent tax on property values.

That money goes toward paying BABB's budget.

The town could not reapply for the DID, or BABB's designation as the district's representative organization can be revoked.

BABB would still have to figure out what to do with the River Garden.

BABB has been losing between $10,000 and $20,000 every year on the River Garden, depending on how the space is rented.

Simons said they have tried a variety of plans through the years to make ends meet, but the public space always has an impact on the budget, and they can simply not afford to maintain the space as it is.

Simons says that as a business owner, and as a fan of the downtown, she wants the River Garden to be available, but if it stays open, it is going to have to be behind an organization other than Building a Better Brattleboro.

"We know that we can't afford to keep it open. We are losing money every year," Simons said. "We've tried everything we possibly can. It's great that we don't have to pay back the $150,000 but we still have this dilemma about what we should do about the River Garden."

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


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