BRATTLEBORO — Following another spate of downtown burglaries, the Brattleboro Select Board has directed its new town manager to work with local businesses to address crime and develop solutions.
During its regular meeting on Jan. 24, the Select Board heard from Kate Trzaskos, executive director of the Downtown Brattleboro Alliance, and Greg Lesch, executive director of the Brattleboro Area Chamber of Commerce, who conveyed their members’ concerns to the board.
“As I walked down Main Street today, there are about 10 to 12 empty store fronts and about a half dozen businesses that have been on Main Street for 30, 35, 40-plus years,” said Trzaskos, referring to it as “natural turnover.”
However, she said, she and the members of the DBA are concerned about crime in Brattleboro and how it might affect a decision to bring a new business to downtown.
“It takes a lot to run a small business,” said Trzaskos.
They might work up to seven days a week while competing with online sales and tax-free shopping in New Hampshire, she said.
“But these folks are dedicated and they show up and they celebrate every single sale and they value the relationship that they have with their customers,” said Trzaskos. “There is harm that’s happening to them. We can sit with both of these things ... that there are vulnerable populations in our community and that our business owners feel vulnerable as well.”
Trzaskos said business owners have expressed their concerns to the Select Board in the past and would like to see more transparency and proactive communication about what is happening to deter crime in downtown.
“We would like to know what those deterrents are and how we’re holding people accountable for their actions,” she said, asking if there had been any conclusion reached about installing security cameras in and around downtown.
“We all want this town to thrive,” she said. “Brattleboro without a thriving downtown is going to have a real negative impact on everyone who lives here.”
“The other part of this, aside from the financial burden that these merchants who are broken into,” said Lesch, “is the emotional component. When you see your neighboring businesses broken into ... it plays on your emotions and you begin to be paranoid. Am I next?”
Local businesses are also worried about the safety of their customers and their employees, said Lesch.
“I’ve talked to a lot of merchants about this, and they’re scared. They don’t know what’s going to happen,” he said. “We really have to put our brains together and come up with some substantive solutions that are really going to help lessen the effects of this and get Brattleboro back to more normal business.”
Jonas Murray, who recently moved his and his wife’s business, Malisun, from downtown to the Vermont Marketplace on Canal Street, is the president of the Brattleboro Area Chamber of Commerce.
He said concerns about downtown crime have been raised repeatedly over many years.
“I think its’s clear the damage has been done,” said Murray, who said up until his move, he and his family had been downtown since 1989, first with a food pushcart and then with Sarkis Market.
“I’m out of downtown and honestly, I’ve not been more concerned for its future,” he said. “It’s really concerning.”
“This is not new,” said Board member Jessica Gelter. “It has ebbed and flowed.”
Gelter said she understands both the perspectives of the business owners, but she also emphasized that the community shouldn’t confuse poverty with crime.
“I just want to be real clear that what we’re talking about is crime that is documented and real, and that’s what I’d like to focus on,” she said.
“I’m frustrated, too,” said board member Tim Wessel. “I live downtown and I’ve been through this.”
As a member of the Select Board, he said, “It’s a little frustrating because we don’t have levers we can switch to really make a huge difference.”
Wessel said what folks can do is continue to support the Brattleboro Police Department and its efforts to recruit officers.
“I want to encourage everybody to work with next Select Board to also help push for change at the state level,” said Wessel, who is finishing up his last term on the board. “A lot of this is driven by deficiencies in the Vermont judicial system. We have too much of a revolving door [and] our jails are pretty full. Throwing more people in jail perhaps is not the answer either. So it’s a complex problem that I wish we had a more clear and easier button to push from the Select Board level.”
Board Chairman Ian Goodnow said with a new town manager, John Potter, in Brattleboro there’s an opportunity “for a reset” to think anew about the challenges facing downtown.
“I would like to set up some sort of a standing meeting so that we could share both what the town is working on and also get ideas from businesses about what we could be doing better,” said Potter, who took over as town manager on Jan. 1.
“These things are happening,” said Goodnow, “but we can do better to communicate those and maybe there are new things that we could be working on.”
Potter said he would get to work right away on establishing the committee and encouraged those who would like to get involved to contact his office at 802-251-8151.