Keith Whitcomb, Reporter
The Bennington Banner
A town that doesn't invest in itself shouldn't expect anyone else to, was one of the main points made by leaders from the City of St. Albans Monday to their counterparts in Bennington.
St. Albans City Manager Dominic Cloud told those gathered at the Bennington Museum that as of 2008, St. Albans City had already experienced decades of decline. The downtown had a 60 percent vacancy rate, crime was on the rise, the police department was a shambles, and the grand list — The value of the taxable property in town — was going down. Tax rates were rising even as the town failed to keep up roads and sidewalks, and there was no plan for capital improvements.
"We were a sinking ship," he said, standing before members of the Bennington Economic Development Partners, town government, local business owners, the Bennington Area Chamber of Commerce, and representatives from the Southwestern Vermont Health Care.
Members of the economic partners group had visited St. Albans some months ago to hear from Cloud and Marty Manahan, the town's director of operations, and former mayor, about St. Albans' revival.
Cloud said he was brought in as town manager and what he found was a town that wanted change and action to be taken. The strategy he and others developed hinged on many things, but a core principle was that private investment would follow public investment. The town put together a team, got everyone on the city council on the same page, and formed a relationship with the St. Albans Messenger, the local newspaper there.
The first step the city took was to restructure the fire department, an politically unpopular move that Manahan said involved someone threatening to burn his house down.
The fire department's budget had $1.2 million in it, most of it going towards personnel who were first responders, not firefighters. With less fires in recent years, much of that money was being wasted.
Once the restructuring was done a great deal of money was saved that was then used to bolster the flagging police department.
The police department, Cloud said, had serious problems, so much so that the Vermont State Police Drug Task Force refused to work with it.
The measure didn't fly with voters the first time, Cloud said.
"We came back a year later and it passed. Ultimately, though, it produced public confidence that this was a team from the council to the staff, that was willing to take on some hard challenges and hang in there until they were accomplished," Cloud said.
He said this was the first "domino" the town toppled that led to its current, much improved, state. "And everybody told us we were crazy," Cloud said. "Consultants that we brought in, said, 'Yeah, this is perfectly fine from a safety factor. You dont' have a safety problem, you have a political problem.' And that's where it became critically important for the city council to become unified and cultivate other political and media partners to help us sell that story."
They used that political momentum to revitalize the St. Albans House, a prominent building near the city's heart that had fallen into severe disrepair.
Cloud said the town ultimately took on the role of a real estate developer, seeking out grants, giving low interest loans, and in some cases buying parcels of land, to facilitate larger developments.
In the case of the St. Albans House, the start-up costs were too high for developers that had an interest so the city invested $150,000. "We went all in," Cloud said. "Effectively, we emptied the bank account to make this project happen."
A facade grant for $50,000 was used, while the $100,000 was in the form of a loan. State and federal tax credits came into play, raising the buildings value from $75,000 to $900,000.
Today the first two floors are leased to business while the top two are apartments, rented by young professionals and "empty nesters."
"That was the first time we realized what us putting skin in the game and what putting real money in play could do," said Cloud. "We did it somewhat out of desperation."
Cloud said the city struck a balance between acting on its own, making minor deals and purchases, while bringing large ticket items to voters.
"We didn't ask the public if we could out $150,000 in," said Cloud. "The council, there's a place for that, certainly, but the council believes in, and has had a lot of success with representative government. They're elected to make some decisions."
Transparency in government is the gold standard, he said, but with real estate deals it's difficult. He talked about a hardware store the town helped expand rather than see it leave the city. That discussion had to be held in executive session, as the owner of the building might have made the project difficult.
Cloud said the town also put $3 million into improving its streetscape, again following the philosophy that if there is no public investments, there will be no private ones. This involved improving parking, re-doing the placement of trees and streetlights, adjusting trash cans, and making the downtown a better place to walk around.
The city also played a large role in Mylan Technologies Inc. expand, and is in the process of getting a hotel to set up shop, this after the town invested in a parking garage with the help of a tax increment financing program.
Cloud said the real estate market in the city of St. Albans is still fragile, and there is more to be done.
Over the years, the city has worked to pump $45 million in public and private investments into the city. This has caused taxes to go up a total of 1.75 percent. Cloud said besides public investments, the keys are to pay attention to minor details, such as trash cans, develop a political consensus amongst voters and town council, and understand that risks, political, financial, and personal, will have to be taken.
"It's all possible," said Bennington Town Manager Stuart Hurd, in an interview after the presentation.
Hurd said that for the past few years, Bennington has been taking some of these steps, focusing efforts on bringing business back to downtown. "It's not going to be easy, and we may not take the same approach they did because the properties we're looking at are much bigger, and much more expensive."
Bennington Economic and Community Development Director, Michael Harrington, said he and some others had seen this presentation a few months ago, but having it before the larger group brought them all up to speed. Essentially, it lets Bennington see what is possible, generates new ideas on ways to go about things, and furthers a good relationship with the City of St. Albans so its experience can be drawn on.