January 17, 2008
By ANDY KIRKALDY
VERGENNES — Vergennes officials and citizens are working to bring life back to the Vergennes Partnership, the public-private organization that played a key role in the downtown revitalization of the late 1990s and early 2000s and helped bring new life to the heart of the city and its riverfront.
In the past year the partnership has essentially disbanded after membership and funding declined in recent years. City Manager Renny Perry said new leadership never emerged to replace the few who were asked to carry so much of the load in the past they burned out.
“A lot of the people … are willing to be involved, but not just as actively involved,” Perry said. “We need to find a group of people who are willing to pick up the ball.”
Perry and Mayor Michael Daniels are concerned about the organization’s future because a downtown-oversight group is a condition of Vergennes’ recognition as a Vermont Designated Downtown by the Vermont Department of Housing and Community Affairs.
Without that official designation key sources of funds for the city and its property owners could be placed off-limits.
“It is a much-needed organization,” Daniels said. “We just need to bring it back.”
That designation allows the city to apply for grants from a pot of federal money and its downtown businesses and property owners to apply for tax credits.
Daniels and Perry said a healthy downtown reflects well on all of the city, and that the benefits have been substantial. Owners of a dozen downtown properties — including the Basin, Ryan and Stone blocks — have earned tax credits ranging from $14,500 to $60,000 for improvements or complete renovations.
The city has earned Designated Downtown grants for five projects, four in tandem with Main Street property owners to rebuild sidewalks underneath new handicap access platforms, and a fifth for pedestrian and parking improvements at the intersection of Main and South Water streets.
“Main Street would not look the way it does … without Vergennes being a designated downtown in that program,” Perry said.
Longtime former partnership president Bill Benton has agreed to serve on a steering committee that will work on reviving the organization. He believes Vergennes has been the biggest Designated Downtown program winner in Vermont.
“On a pure dollar basis we’ve gotten more money than any other town in the state,” Benton said. “It has done a lot of good here.”
The steering committee — Benton, real estate broker Lynn Donnelly, Vergennes Opera House Director Jackson Evans, Alderman Randy Ouellette and Green Street resident Stacy Raphael — will meet as soon as next week to talk about its next move.
Perry is collecting letters from the partnership’s heyday to see what can be re-used to promote the cause.
“We’re going to see if some version of those materials can crank up the fund-raising effort, and can be used to determine what strategy to use,” he said.
One question the committee will look at will be whether there should be closer cooperation, or even a merger, between existing organizations with overlapping goals and functions, including the Vergennes Area Chamber of Commerce, a group of downtown merchants who work together on collective promotions, and the opera house.
“If they kind of consolidated their efforts, all of the groups might be stronger,” Perry said.
Another, possibly related question, Perry said, will be whether the partnership should be staffed. If the groups worked together, volunteers might be able to handle much of the work, or as has been suggested maybe groups could pay the opera house staff to handle some of their labor.
The new group of people will probably have to settle for less dramatic results. There are still more projects to be done — at least two more handicap platforms on Main Street and ongoing work to the “southern gateway” area near the Otter Creek falls — but Perry said the task now is the less glamorous one of maintenance.
“A lot of the revitalization stuff … we’ve accomplished,” he said. “When you get to the point where the mission isn’t so tangible, the interest level changes.”
But the partnership mission is still out there, as defined in the city’s most recent successful application for its downtown designation: promoting Vergennes’ historic and cultural resources, small-town character and livability; publicizing the city through media and a Web site; establishing new and promoting existing special events; maintaining close contacts with city government and other civic organizations; and fostering economic development.
Meanwhile, the city is willing to do more than cheerlead. Daniels said he understands the pressures on the city’s tax rate, but plans to recommend to aldermen they support the partnership financially, possibly through the city’s water tower fund. That is fed by rent paid by cellular phone companies for hanging broadcasting equipment on the city water tower, and would not affect the tax rate.
“I really haven’t made up my mind where we need to come up with the money from,” Daniels said.
Perry said he believes other aldermen also understand the importance of downtown designation, and he emphasized the committee would also be glad to get help from anyone willing to work for the greater good of Vergennes.
“Anybody who has an interest in the community and wants to be part of the partnership, part of the effort, we would welcome them wholeheartedly,” Perry said. “We certainly need the organization, or some form of it, continuing.”