Brattleboro has a lot to brag about. There’s the vibrant arts scene, an eclectic mix of restaurants and shops to attract locals and tourists alike.
There’s the town’s compassionate side, exemplified by how it expands services for our struggling neighbors or, for example, welcomes refugees and helps set them up with a new life after fleeing their war-torn country. And there is an active citizenry and a plethora of community and business organizations all working to make these things happen and improve our way of life here.
Unfortunately, Brattleboro also has a darker side, one that has negatively affected the very citizens, businesses and organizations that make the town so welcoming to others.
Like many towns and cities across the country, we have people here who struggle with substance use, which is made worse by the pandemic and is also generating a noticeable uptick in crime as people feed their addictions. For months now, local residents and businesses have been raising the alarm about increasing cases of vandalism and burglary. The incidents are spread out all over town — from Canal Street on the south side to Putney Road in the north, and the downtown area in between, from food trucks to auto dealerships to retail shops.
Evan James Ltd. has enjoyed a virtually crime-free existence throughout its 35 years in business, until earlier this year when the downtown jewelry store was vandalized and burglarized. The business shut its doors for a month to make repairs and fortify its storefront.
“We lost thousands of dollars when we were closed and thousands of dollars of merchandise, then $10,000 on enhanced security,” James told the Reformer.
The incident “just shows you how the town has changed,” he said.
That’s an observation we hear more often these days, that Brattleboro just isn’t the town it used to be. People don’t feel safe. One particularly troubling spot is the Transportation Center and the surrounding area on Flat Street, which have become a hub of vagrant and/or criminal activity.
Earlier this month, the Boys and Girls Club of Brattleboro was hit with $2,400 in damages after a catalytic converter in the club’s van was stolen while parked in the Transportation Center. The club’s director came to the Select Board last Tuesday, not for the first time, to urge immediate action to resolve the ongoing problems at the Transportation Center. She’s not the only one. There have been repeated calls from residents and businesses alike for a better security system in the parking garage and more police presence downtown.
As more time goes by, and as the criminal activity continues, seemingly unabated, it’s easy to see how the aggravation can build. It can almost seem like the town officials and the local police are oblivious to the problem, uncaring to those affected, and not moving quickly enough with solutions. However, we have seen the police chief walking the downtown beat herself to talk with local businesses about their concerns, and town officials have been discussing various ideas to enhance safety in the parking garage.
In the end, municipal reaction often comes down to cost, time and resources. A new camera system adequate to the task of monitoring the entire Transportation Center would cost about $70,000 to install. The interim town manager has suggested the project be placed on the Select Board’s next meeting agenda. A police substation for the downtown area would be even more costly, requiring significant renovation to a spot eyed within the parking garage. Meanwhile, the town already has enhanced the lighting within the garage, and added some new police officers to its ranks, so we can look forward to seeing more uniforms patrolling the town.
To stem the flow of drugs into our community — always commingled with violence and guns — it will take more than current measures can deliver. It will take all of us, from parents to teachers, from police to business owners, to renters and homeowners. It will take all of us, when we see something, to say something.
“Saying something” doesn’t require a robbery in progress or a suspicious vehicle. Maybe it means mentioning a real-life anecdote from your past to an at-risk young person in your life, or listening to your own intuition more when out and about in town, or lending an ear to the seniors you know, helping them to stay more safe and not be victimized. Sometimes, it might mean offering your hand, personally, to someone who is clearly down.
A bustling beacon of arts and commerce in Southern Vermont, Brattleboro has come a long way and does have a lot to crow about. But what we hear regularly from merchants like Evan James and others is troubling. It will take continued community vigilance and proactive measures, above and beyond policing, to make sure when the world hears “Brattleboro,” it’s for all the right reasons. What are you prepared to do, to make it so?