By Alan Keays, VTDigger
A long-delayed project aimed at bringing people, business and activities to a now-empty downtown alley got a big boost Thursday, April 6, when a city panel gave organizers more money than they were seeking.
Rutland Mayor David Allaire said the project has “floundered” for a variety of reasons and now it needs to move forward.
“The time has come where we need to get a firm number and make a commitment to get it built,” he said. “The longer this goes on, the more it’s going to end up costing and the less we’re going to get out of it in the long run.”
The mayor added, “There’s an enormous amount of potential economic benefit to the city and I think not doing this is a disservice to the taxpayers.”
The Board of Aldermen’s Community and Economic Development Committee then voted 4-0 to recommended tapping into the city’s Zamias fund for $200,000 to help cover a budget shortfall in the project.
Panel members voting in favor of the measure were Alderman Christopher Ettori, the committee’s chair, as well as fellow members of the Board of Aldermen, Ed Larson, Lisa Ryan and Melinda Humphrey, who all serve on the committee.
Organizers of the project had initially requested $150,000 from the fund. However, after concerns were raised about what would be left out without the additional money, including gates to secure the site and lighting, the panel agreed to add another $50,000.
The recommendation to use $200,000 from the Zamias Fund for the project will be presented to the full Board of Aldermen at its next meeting later this month.
The Zamias Fund was established years ago from impact fees the owners of the Diamond Run Mall in Rutland Town pay to the city to offset anticipated negative effects of the shopping center on downtown business.
The alley has been relatively dormant for about two decades, after serving as a downtown gathering space in the 1980s and early 1990s. In its heyday, the venue hosted concert series and even the the annual Winter in August event, a city celebration to toast the important role of the ski industry to the local economy.
However, over time it had fallen into disrepair; the red bricks that covered the ground became uneven and weeds shot through them. A large fountain that once featured cascading water went years without even a drip.
An effort centered around a “creative economy movement” led to the idea of bringing the alley back to life, eventually leading to the concept of the Center Street Marketplace.
Many prominent downtown buildings, including the Paramount Theater, the former Strand Theater, the Bardwell House, and the Service Building, all have their back to the alley.
By rehabbing the alley into a park and marketplace, organizers say, it would create a space downtown to host events and activities, and hopefully spur economic development by promoting additional uses for buildings adjacent to the site.
Developer Mark Foley, who owns the former Strand Theater building, which abuts the site, told the committee Thursday he already has plans in the works for the lower back of the building to take advantage of the marketplace.
Those plans, he said, include creating a restaurant space that would look out at the marketplace, as well as provide outdoor seating in the warmer months. He would also seek two commercial enterprises for other spaces in the building’s lower level.
He estimated his potential investment in that building at more than $1 million to do the needed work to accommodate a restaurant and two other businesses.
“We have had some interest in the Rutland area by restaurateurs talking about the space,” Foley said. “Clearly, it’s something that we believe can be supported. We believe so much in this space that we want to make these commitments.”
Lyle Jepson, dean of entrepreneurial studies at Castleton University, said the school has already invested a great deal in downtown, including establishing art galleries as well as apartments for students in the city’s central central business district.
Jepson, whose office is downtown, said he expected with the marketplace project moving forward Castleton University would increase its presence even more downtown, likely with additional student housing and programming.
“I won’t let the cat out of the bag … but there will be more students living in apartments downtown in apartments that aren’t there yet,” added Jepson, who is also executive director of the Rutland Economic Development Corp. “That plan is already in place.”
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., secured $974,000 in federal funding for the Center Street Marketplace project in 2010. Since that time, difficulties due to securing easements and changing project management, the initiative has languished.
However, engineering and design work has been done, the remains of the fountain removed and the red brick pavers have been cleared away from the grounds, all in preparation for construction.
Then when it was put out to bid twice in the past year, the price tag firms quoted to do the work soared over the existing budget. In August 2016, there was only one bid of $1.4 million, and in December 2016, the lowest of two bids was about $1.2 million.
That’s when the effort was made to try to scale back the project to help move it forward, with the goal of construction starting later this summer. Landscaping and other “finishing touches” would be added in spring 2018.
At the meeting Thursday, the panel heard that the concrete that had been planned to cover the grounds will be replaced by a grassy surface, saving almost $500,000.
A budget for the revamped project presented by Brennan Duffy, executive director the Rutland Redevelopment Authority, showed that minus the money spent on engineering, design and other expenses, $609,000 remained in federal funds for construction.
The mayor, from a contingency account, and the RRA pledged to put up $50,000 each for the project, bringing the total available construction funds to $709,000. A request for another $50,000 is pending with the Rutland City Rotary.
Duffy said organizers of the project still fell short, prompting the request Thursday night for $150,000 from the city’s Zamias Fund.
Currently, that fund has about $273,000 in it, and while a schedule calls for receiving another $100,000 over each of the next for years, payments from the mall’s owners for various reasons, mostly having to do with tenancy, have fallen short of that mark in recent times.
Adding in the original request of $150,000 from the Zamias Fund as well as the possible $50,000 in funding from Rutland City Rotary would boost the money available for construction to $909,000.
The latest “base” construction estimate for the project is $825,000, and setting aside 10 percent, or $82,500, in contingency funds brings the budget to $907,500.
But that figure does not include $51,200 in projected costs to provide gates to secure the site or $38,000 estimated to be needed to complete the lighting component of the project.
Duffy said the plan was to include the gates and added funds for lighting as part of second, later phase of the project.
The project involves streetscape improvements, including new brickwork, benches and landscaping that will open up the alley for public use.
Committee members Thursday night expressed concern about building the marketplace and leaving out the gates and lighting, even for a short period of time. Currently, the site is not gated.
City Treasurer Wendy Wilton suggested that the committee should take $250,000, rather than $150,000, from the Zamias Fund and complete the project all at once, not in phases.
“I think we know if it weren’t a secure space, you’d find some problems down there, you’d find vagrancy, you’d find some people misusing the space,” she said.
Wilton added that based on the numbers, the total cost of the project, including the gates and lighting, is actually a little less than $1 million.
Ettori, committee chairman, agreed that getting the project done all at once makes sense.“I would like to be able to do the project the best that we can,” he said, “not half-ass it.”
The committee eventually settled on taking up to $200,000 from the Zamias fund, leaving the other $50,000 in the account that would still be there in case it’s eventually needed.
Any unspent money from the project’s contingency account would go back into the Zamias fund, the committee stipulated.
Photo by Melinda Noel
A proposed project calls for revamping the current Center Street Alley in downtown Rutland into a park and marketplace. The cost of the project is near $1 million.