Our opinion: Public investment needs due diligence

Last week, Reformer readers learned that Thomas Moffitt, the co-founder and former president of Commonwealth Dairy, is among the principals of Culture Made Vermont LLC's $32.5 million proposal for a value-added dairy product plant in the vacant L3 KEO building in the Exit One Industrial Park. The facility is expected to create 46 jobs over the next two years

Moffit's involvement seems to be a positive harbinger for taxpayers. Since the town intends to fund $840,000 in sewer connections for the venture, and since the town is backing a $1 million grant application on behalf of the initiative, there's some measure of reassurance in knowing an experienced hand with a record of past success in the dairy industry, and familiarity with our community, is involved.

"We would be supportive even if it were strangers who were putting together a project to bring nearly $30 million of private investment and dozens of high quality jobs to Brattleboro, but we are especially enthusiastic about this project because it is being led by Tom Moffit," Brattleboro Town Manager Peter Elwell told the Reformer.

But there's a lot that's still not known about the project. We're still lacking some basic information, such as what product they plan to make, who's investing, and the nature of their business plan.

We do know, through Assistant Town Manager Patrick Moreland, that $28.5 million of the $32.5 million project cost "will come from private investment capital here in Brattleboro."

Does anyone know anyone — individuals or corporations — with that kind of money?

Kate O'Connor, the chairwoman of the Brattleboro Select Board, told the Reformer last week that the board will not be committing money to the project until the principals are identified. We are glad to hear that and take her at her word.

And we do understand the possible reasons why the principals are keeping their cards close to the vest. Government conducts its affairs in public, because transparency and public investment demands accountability. Businesses, however, often face direct competitors who aren't above stealing ideas, or rushing a product to market so they can beat their rivals to the punch. Any number of variables from Acquisition to Zoning can unravel the best-laid plans. So there are 28,500,000 reasons for investors in Culture Made Vermont to be careful.

But there's no getting around this: The public is a co-investor in this project. Brattleboro will be fronting the $840,000 for sewer upgrades, with the expectation of recouping the cost from Culture Made Vermont through user fees. That is not $28.5 million, but nor is it an insignificant sum.

So "who's behind Culture Made Vermont" is more than a fun parlor game. It's an important piece of due diligence for taxpayers.

You wouldn't buy a car without giving it a test drive and looking under the hood. Lenders will not let you borrow money to buy a house or a condo without conducting a home inspection. And the taxpayers should not plunk down $840,000 on a sewer connection at 343 John Seitz Dr. until they know some important details.

We look forward to learning more.


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