BRATTLEBORO -- Brattleboro has a lot going for it, but there are a number of challenges to address.
This was the general message delivered Wednesday morning by the Downtown Action Team, a group of development and planning experts who spent Monday and Tuesday walking around downtown and meeting with local officials, merchants and property owners.
The work of the Downtown Action Team is supported with money from the U.S. Housing and Urban Development. The group was put together to help towns and cities that were affected by Tropical Storm Irene.
At the presentation Wednesday, Project Manager Tripp Muldrow said Brattleboro’s downtown was vibrant and creative, especially during a slow economic period. He said development, like the recent opening of the new Brattleboro Food Co-op building and the just-started rehabilitation of the Brooks House show that there is support for downtown. He also pointed out that annual events such as Strolling of the Heifers and the Brattleboro Literary Festival bring in visitors who might likely return for additional visits.
"The door has opened now for additional development to happen and additional retail to thrive in the downtown area," he said. "But it means that you have to have a concerted effort and organized effort to do that."
At the same time, Muldrow talked about many of the same issues other economic development studies have pointed out.
Brattleboro’s average age is about 45, higher than Vermont’s state average of 41 and much higher than the U.S. average of 36.8. Population in the region is expected to decline by about 5 percent and that decline was estimated even before Entergy announced it would be closing Vermont Yankee. The median household income is $40,793 lower than the state median.
And Brattleboro has a serious housing problem. Across the U.S. the median home price is 2.6 times the median income. In Brattleboro it is 4.9 times the median income. That was an obstacle, Muldrow said, to young entrepreneurs choosing to move to the area because they need to sacrifice income to live here.
Still, Muldrow said he and the team were impressed with what was happening in town. Local spending has increased between 2010 and 2013, and he said the market was ripe for more development. And Muldrow said Brattleboro was in the top 10 percent of the more than 200 communities he has worked with in relation to the visitors from out of state the town receives.
"It is a real testimony to the kind of downtown Brattleboro is that you have the breadth of visits you have," Muldrow said.
Brattleboro is lucky to have visitors from out of state, he said, and also have strong support from in-state residents. A recent survey found that 42 percent of the visitors to downtown were from Brattleboro.
"It is imperative and critically important that this downtown continue to serve the local population base, which indeed it does," said Muldrow said. "There are locals who go downtown and they comprise the most significant component of that."
Muldrow and his team offered some low impact, and affordable, projects related to lighting, cleaning brick buildings, street art and pedestrian traffic that could potentially keep Brattleboro’s upward trend moving, in light of the town’s challenging demographic, housing and income data.
It’s going to be critically important that you bring your best thinking together on this," Muldrow said. "Downtown is going to play a pivotal role in this undertaking. We’re seeing downtowns re-emerge as the centers of creativity and the centers of entrepreneurship and the centers of small business and the centers of activity. You’ve already got this in spades. Now the questions is, ‘How do you continue to build it?’"