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Brattleboro Looks To Develop Arts Sector As Way To Boost Downtown Vitality

A person looks at artwork hanging on a wall
Howard Weiss-Tisman
Taryn Colonnese, of Brattleboro, looks at a piece of artwork from the show "Tree Talk" at The Brattleboro Museum and Art Center.

The Brattleboro Museum and Art Center has an ambitious plan to try to raise $30 million for an expansion. The museum is partnering with developers who want to include 24 high-end apartments on the top floors of the new building.

All of this comes as online shopping continues to dig into local sales and challenge what a vibrant economy looks like.

Donna Simons has been selling rugs and furniture out of her store in Brattleboro for 46 years. After all that time, she and her husband are ready to retire, and A Candle In The Night is shutting down after the holidays.

After more than four decades of running a Main Street shop, Simons has pretty much seen it all. She’s felt how the national economy can affect local sales, she’s competed with big box stores and discount outlets, and over the past few years she’s watched the steady creep of internet sales cut into local business.

“People do not understand how hard the work is to try to maintain a vibrant downtown,” Simons said one recent Saturday afternoon while taking a break from helping shoppers.

Retail sales have been declining in Brattleboro, according to data from the Vermont Tax Department.

On mobile? Click here to view graph of retail sales.

When Simons announced she'd be closing earlier this year, a few other downtown shops and restaurants also closed.

According to Simons, the model for serving a town like Brattleboro has to change.

"You have to look at the reality of brick-and-mortar retail at this point," Simons said. "It is hard to maintain the overhead of brick-and-mortar and compete with online."

The exterior of A Candle In The Night store, with a store closing sign hanging up.
Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR
A Candle In The Night is closing after serving the Brattleboro area for 46 years.

On the other end of Main Street, Brattleboro Museum and Art Center director Danny Lichtenfeld said a downtown can’t survive in the 21st century on retail alone.

"I believe that art offerings and cultural offering are a really important part of that mix," Lichtenfeld said.

The Brattleboro museum is currently located in a 100-year-old former train station, and Lichtenfeld said the historic building doesn’t allow the museum to show some art due to its temperature and humidity controls.

The museum is tucked away a little, right off of Main Street. Last month Lichtenfeld unveiled plans for a new museum, right on Main Street, with 24-high end apartments on the top floors of the gleaming five-story structure.

There are plans for a roof-top sculpture garden overlooking the Connecticut River, as well as a new café.
Lichtenfeld hopes a new museum can turn Brattleboro into more of an arts destination — and, in turn, bring more customers into the restaurants and shops downtown.

"And I’m not saying that a downtown, a vibrant downtown, should be upper-story apartments and all museums and art galleries on the lower floors. I'm not saying that at all," Lichtenfeld said. "But I think it provides a basis for shared experience. And then hopefully there are other things that then make a visit to downtown appealing for those people as well, like restaurants and shopping and whatever else."

An artist's rendering of a development project with apartments.
Credit Brattleboro Museum and Art Center
An artist's rendering of a proposed $30 million development project which supporters hope will bring 24 high-end apartments to downtown Brattleboro.

On a recent Saturday afternoon Jordan Wolfe was walking around Brattleboro. He was visiting the town for the first time with his wife (it was the couple’s wedding anniversary).

Wolfe said he comes from a similar town in New York state that’s trying to reinvent itself as the economy shifts away from manufacturing and agriculture.

He said there’s some unease back home too about what a downtown should look like, and how retail can survive the internet and competition from big chains.

"It's a fine line between locals and, you know, weekenders, city folk, the money that comes in," Wolfe said. "And it's nice if you can maintain a nice balance between the two. You know, still maintain some of that authenticity, but also offering more culture and shopping and that type of stuff for that tourist economy. And it seems like you guys are doing a pretty good job here."

"A prospective developer, a prospective employer wants to know that their people will be happy and successful in the region." — Adam Grinold, Brattleboro Development Credit Corporation

As director of the Brattleboro Development Credit Corporation, it’s Adam Grinold's job to work with developers who are thinking of setting up shop in southern Vermont. Grinold said a healthy downtown is an important asset when you're trying to encourage a business owner to either remain here or move in.

"A prospective developer, a prospective employer wants to know that their people will be happy and successful in the region," Grinold said. "So, what's really important is that each community finds its own way to continue to revitalize itself. If you’re not growing, you're stagnant or shrinking."

The Brattleboro Museum said similar projects around New England have increased the number of visitors to the newly expanded galleries at those institutions.

Lichtenfeld said he plans to hold public forums through next year to continue gathering input into the design of the new building. The museum hopes to break ground some time in 2021.

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Howard Weiss-Tisman is Vermont Public’s southern Vermont reporter, but sometimes the story takes him to other parts of the state.
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