Businesses say town can do more to combat panhandling

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Editor's Note: This is the second of a three-part series. Here's Part 1.

BRATTLEBORO — Dealing with homelessness, panhandling and illegal behavior in downtown Brattleboro is taking a toll on local businesses, and some business owners wish the town could do more.

Ken Flutie, the owner of the Blue Moose Italian Bistro on Main Street, sees the issue at a much more local level, though.

"The problem isn't the panhandling/homelessness, unfortunately it is everywhere," Flutie wrote in an email to the Reformer. "The problem is how the town of Brattleboro handles it, and views it. I believe someone on the Select Board once said, '... dealing with the situation with compassion and dignity.' That's a cop-out for basically we will do nothing and make no decisions. The pressure for change must be put on the Select Board."

Stephanie Bonin, the executive director of the Downtown Business Alliance and co-owner with her husband, Keith Arnold, of Duo Restaurant on Main Street, said people need to remember that Brattleboro isn't alone in dealing with these issues, that municipalities around the country are struggling to keep their downtowns safe and prosperous. Nonetheless, she thinks there can be more done on a local level to unify the efforts to make headway against the problem.

"I don't think there is a big master solution that we're all working toward," said Bonin. "A lot of us wish that we had that here as the goal and here's how we can move together toward that goal."

"It would be really helpful for the community to have a town representative step forward and say this is what we are doing, we are aware, we understand and here are our challenges and here's what we're trying to do," agreed Gemma Champoli, the special projects coordinator for Experienced Goods and Brattleboro Area Hospice. "I've met with [Town Manager] Peter [Elwell] a number of times and I know where the town stands, but it would really help the community to know why isn't the town doing this or that. It's not that people aren't looking at it ... but they're looking at it from a stand of people's civil rights."

"We hear from business owners just as we hear from residents," acknowledged Elwell. "We talk about what's happening, talk about what we're doing about it, hear their ideas of things we could do more of. Sometimes the things people would like us to do more of are things that go beyond those Constitutional boundaries."

Sabine Rhyne, the general manager of the Brattleboro Food Co-op, said the Downtown Business Alliance and the business community itself have tried to take some leadership role in some areas. "But we're all in the business of running a business. I want the town to do more. I understand they are in a tough pickle, but we have to get creative about figuring out ways to address the problem that are within people's civil liberties and are within all of the structures that we hold dear. I think we can do that."

Town responds to criticism

Elwell admitted he and others in town government could do a better job informing folks about the actions being taken to address the situation. "People who think there is no leadership on the issue are people that we haven't reached with enough information. We can and should find ways to make sure that the community is well informed about the things we are doing. We have a team of people providing a lot of leadership, but that's a different question than are we communicating that adequately to the community."

Select Board Chairwoman Brandi Starr told the Reformer in an email that to characterize compassionate responses as a "cop out" is an "egregious thing to say."

The Select Board, as with law enforcement, is bound by Constitutional rights, wrote Starr, that guarantee protections to all humans in the United States. Law breaking, however, will not be tolerated, she wrote.

"We work tirelessly to come down hard on drug dealers, using coordination efforts between state, federal, and other agencies," wrote Starr, who is also an outreach case manager at Groundworks Collaborative. "This coordination is long, time-consuming, hard and frankly sometimes thankless work, and there's always the risk that the judicial system will make a different choice than law enforcement did in the very end."

Starr noted that these conversations have been ongoing for quite a long time.

"If people cannot see by this time that we are doing everything within our power and we absolutely will not sacrifice the dignity and compassion component, then I really have no further words," she wrote.

She said she was also "fatigued" by the words "panhandling" and "homeless."

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She would like to see more attention paid to what organizations are doing in the region and how the insurance industry is not responding adequately to the opioid crisis.

"What's going on with housing first models and why is Vermont so slow to implement them when they've been highly successful on the West Coast?" she asked in her email. "Those are the kind of conversations I want to hear. Conversations about how you can change policy. Conversations about how you can advocate at levels that actually make a difference. I am very exhausted of constantly having the conversation about the humans on the street instead of the systems and the policies that are broken and breaking more and more every day making this problem an ever-exacerbated issue."

"Anyone who claims the Select Board is 'doing nothing and making no decisions' is not paying attention to our meetings," wrote Select Board Vice Chairman Tim Wessel, in an email to the Reformer. "Speaking only for myself, I am growing weary of anyone who complains about how Brattleboro is 'doing nothing' in the same breath in which they admit, 'unfortunately it is everywhere.' From our taxpayer support of caring for basic public needs, to our support for [Windham County Consortium on Substance Use], Project CARE, and Groundworks, to an aggressive approach to arresting drug dealers, I believe Brattleboro is on the forefront of positive community policing, and balancing the quality of life of residents with the very real protections of the United States constitution."

Wessel challenged folks who think the board isn't doing enough "to come forward with new ideas, not vague rhetoric, and we'll discuss those ideas. Are other municipalities handling things differently? Tell us about it, we'll look at it. I will also continue to encourage people of all political persuasions to step up and run for Select Board. Don't like the way your town is being run? Show up and change it. It's called democracy, and it's how we do things around here."

Police Chief Michael "Gunny" Fitzgerald said he is listening and has heard the concerns of business owners and community members who are worried about downtown. He said one way he has responded is by making sure there is an officer assigned to downtown from 10 in the morning to 6 at night whose sole purpose is to not be called away to other calls in town.

"We can be more visible in the areas that are the greatest concern and hopefully reduce that perception of fear," said Fitzgerald.

Jon Potter, the executive director of Latchis Arts and Latchis Corporation, said he has noticed an increased police presence in downtown Brattleboro, but acknowledged the police can't be everywhere all the time.

"The presence of law enforcement is a good thing," said Potter. "It reassures people and portrays the sense that people care about this and resources are being allocated. Perhaps the Select Board and the police chief can draw a positive lesson from this and allocate more resources for things like that. I don't know what else they can do."

'A received, witnessed trauma'

Potter said that while the hotel seems to be faring well, with return visitations staying steady, ticket receipts at the theater are down. It might just be a change in the way people consume media, said Potter, but it might be something else.

"When you hear about people saying they don't go downtown or don't go downtown at night anymore, we would certainly be one of the many businesses affected by those people who made that decision," said Potter.

He said while he is keeping an eye on the bottom line, what is most concerning for him is the impact of the situation in downtown on his employees.

"Someone on our staff witnesses fairly regularly what looks like a drug deal going down because of our proximity to the Whetstone Pathway and the Transportation Center," said Potter. "There is a received, witnessed trauma from this. It's a real consequence of what's happening. Addressing it is going to have to be part of the solution."

And it's not just an employee's discomfort of being witness to a crime that he has to deal with. He said the Latchis has two dozen people on staff with a wide range of views that are representative of the community they live in.

"We have people here who are way over on the compassionate side with very heartfelt concerns and we have other people who are very much law and order and view this as a law enforcement issue and is a rather simple issue to fix with a clean sweep approach," said Potter. "I have to manage a staff with that diverse set of views."

Despite how the issue affects his crew and how they interact, said Potter, they are in the business to be "energetic and upbeat."

"Because we deal with visitors we need to be ambassadors for Brattleboro," said Potter. "It has taken some work."

Bob Audette can be contacted at 802-254-2311, ext. 151, or raudette@reformer.com.


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