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$376,000 grant to help city build stairway to riverfront

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By ANDY KIRKALDY

VERGENNES — By way of a co-applicant, the Lake Champlain Byway Council, the city of Vergennes recently received a $376,300 grant to finish a key element that was originally the centerpiece of a project estimated at $203,000 in 2002 — a stairway down to Otter Creek from Main Street.

The federal National Scenic Byways grant was funneled to the city by the Vermont Agency of Transportation (AOT). It will fund, along with a $42,500 local match, a $425,000 concrete stairway, including a viewing platform and railings, that will run from the east end of the Main Street bridge down to the Otter Creek basin.

The stairway will start downward at about the midway point of a large brick building known as the Benton Mill. It will provide canoe portage as well as a link with existing trails in the basin that stretch to the city docks and have been created largely by the Youth Conservation Corps. 

Eventually, another trail under construction — the so-called “Rail Trail” — will also link those paths and the docks with Kayhart Crossing, the rail station that will be moved there and the AOT commuter lot recently built there.

The improvements will not have a direct cost to city taxpayers. Aldermen in March approved the recommendation of former city manager Renny Perry to use a fund set aside for improving recreation in the basin area to provide the $42,500 local match for the project.

That fund was created in the 1990s. When Green Mountain Power applied for a new federal license to use Otter Creek to generate power in Vergennes, federal law required the firm to compensate the host community. Part of that compensation was to start a $166,000 fund to support recreation in the area, and new city manager Mel Hawley confirmed plenty remains in it to support the project.

Hawley said news of the grant arrived just as he took over officially as manager on Nov. 20 — almost his first act was to open the envelope with the award. 

“That’s a nice first day,” Hawley said. “Kudos go to Renny Perry and the folks at regional planning (Addison County Regional Planning Commission) that put that together.”

Back in 2002, another Vergennes manager, Randy Friday, first won a byways grant for the city’s southern gateway. It was for $156,500 with a $46,500 match from the GMP fund, and was intended to pay for the stairway, signs, extensive landscaping, a pedestrian crossing from Settlers Park to the stairway, parking in Settlers Park, and portable toilets on the west bank.

All those came to pass except the stairway, which proved to be far more expensive than initially estimated. In 2007, Perry and aldermen tried for a $600,000 grant for the originally designed metal stairway, but it was too costly. The total of all the National Scenic Byways Program Grants awarded to Vermont on Nov. 20 was $800,000.

Perry then talked to contractors about different options, and a less expensive concrete design was agreed upon late last year for what he told aldermen in March was the crucial “final piece” of the larger Byways project.

Exactly when the work will be done and how the grant will be administered — by the city or the byway council — remains to be determined. Hawley said he would meet with regional planning commission director Adam Lougee and others on Dec. 17 to discuss details and get ready for the next steps, including preparing requests for bids.

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