We were excited to hear about the idea for a $30 million investment project that promises to further enhance Brattleboro's already vibrant arts scene, provide more access to the waterfront, and create additional housing for the downtown area.
The project calls for the demolition of the Barrows Block and the Arch Street building, and replacing it with state-of-the-art gallery space for the Brattleboro Museum and Arts Center. The new 55,000-square-foot building to be constructed at the foot of Main Street will contain gallery space and classrooms, mixed-rate apartments and condo units overlooking the Connecticut River, a cafe with outdoor seating, a rooftop sculpture garden, terraces, a footbridge, and a kayak launch.
The sum of all these parts is a more attractive and vibrant downtown for locals and visitors alike.
BMAC officials believe that when the project is complete, it will more than double annual attendance at the museum, from 16,000 to 35,000. The increased foot traffic for the museum, plus more people living in the downtown area, is sure to draw more business to the retailers there.
"We have a saying that retail doesn't work in downtowns," said Bob Stevens, of Stevens and Associates and M&S Development. "If you want retail, if you want an attractive downtown, you need to bring people down here for other reasons.
"This will have an economic ripple effect through the rest of downtown," Stevens told the Reformer.
Stephanie Bonin, executive director of the Downtown Brattleboro Association, echoed that sentiment: "People who travel to Brattleboro to visit the new BMAC will eat in local restaurants, stay in nearby hotels, visit Brattleboro's amazing galleries and breweries, and shop in its stores. Their dollars will in turn translate into increased spending capacity for local residents and workers and, ultimately, more jobs."
Stevens, one of the key figures in the successful restoration and revitalization of the Brooks House, is helping to spearhead this new project with Danny Lichtenfeld, director of the BMAC. The two have been working on the idea since 2013. Clearly they've taken the time to really think this through to make sure it's a feasible, profitable and worthwhile venture for everyone involved. And given Stevens' track record with the Brooks House, his involvement in this project should instill a great deal of confidence.
That's why it surprised us to see so much negative reaction on social media (the following quotes are copied verbatim).
"Its just another thing the town and state doesn't need," wrote one poster on our Facebook page.
"Brattleboro doesnt need this," wrote another. "Adds to an already conjested downtown traffic hell and parking? bad enough with traffic now. This town always wanting to build up something fancy yet our rents are sky high .ridiculous."
And another wrote, "C mon museum ?? More homeless people come to panhandle. Why can't the town take care of what it suppose to."
To be clear, private investors and public officials have different roles and responsibilities. It's not the town's job to tell private investors how to spend their money, and it's not the investors' job to solve the town's traffic problems or social issues. But if these two forces are working in tandem on their respective areas of expertise, many of these issues could be addressed simultaneously. The town is working on other fronts to deal with homelessness and panhandling, while New Hampshire's plan to build a new Brattleboro to Hinsdale, N.H. bridge further down the road should alleviate the congestion at "Malfunction Junction," and there is potential for more parking space near the expanded museum. Finally, increasing the supply of apartments will help lower rents across the board, for it's the lack of supply that often drives up rental rates.
Despite the negativity, most people seem to be in favor of the project — just not the preliminary design of the building itself.
"That's one uninspired and ugly building," commented one Facebook poster.
"This is totally uninspired and has no reference to either Brattleboro or 'Art,'" wrote another.
That is something that can be addressed when the project leaders go before the Brattleboro Development Review Board for site plan approval. Lichtenfeld has already responded to many Facebook posts to explain that the artistic rendering currently being circulated is just a preliminary proposal, and the developers would be very open to suggestions from the community. Given that the key players — Stevens (and his partner in M&S, Craig Miskovitch) and Lichtenfeld — are not carpetbaggers but rather have very strong ties to the area, we have every confidence that they will give every consideration to what is best for the community as a whole.