(Host) Tropical Storm Irene displaced more than 1,500 workers from the state offices in Waterbury. Town officials want the Shumlin administration to commit that the state workforce will return. But the state refuses. Instead, it’s actively soliciting proposals from other cities and towns. As VPR’s Kirk Carapezza reports, the City of Barre wants some of the workers to move to its downtown to boost the local economy.
(Carapezza) Right now, Barre is getting a $16 million facelift to its downtown – repaving sidewalks, cleaning up parks and restoring street lamps. That work is slated to wrap up next year.
Mayor Thom Lauzon says before then, it’s critical that the city attracts more workers downtown.
(Lauzon) "Five hundred people working and shopping there every single day. Normally in Vermont you don’t have the opportunity to dump 500 workers in one fell swoop. So, in that regard, this is just a wonderful opportunity for the City of Barre."
(Carapezza) Lauzon sees the prospect of hosting at least some state workers displaced by Irene as a real ‘game changer’ for the old industrial center – something that, he says, Barre is now uniquely prepared to capitalize on.
(Lauzon) "I don’t think there are any downtowns in central Vermont that have lots ready for development like we do."
(Carapezza) At a City Council meeting last week, Lauzon proposed developing an empty lot in the heart of downtown, the site of an old drug store, as new office space.
He hopes to fill other vacant buildings, too, and the city is now developing a proposal and talking with the Shumlin administration.
Besides Barre, the state is also looking at plans from other communities and private companies.
(Cassidy) "We’re just putting everything out on the table because this is a generational decision that has to be made."
(Carapezza) That’s Larry Cassidy. He’s advising the Shumlin administration on relocating office spaces.
Waterbury officials are worried that a gain for another community, such as Barre, would be their loss. Downtown merchants rely on the state work force as a built-in customer base.
But Cassidy says Waterbury doesn’t necessarily need to be a loser even if jobs move.
(Cassidy) "There are so many options that are going around and the state is looking at a number of different things. There could be private-public partnerships in Waterbury."
(Carapezza) Some of the state complex could be reoccupied by the state. And other buildings might be sold or leased to private companies.
For now, Barre is the only community to make its intention public, saying an infusion of just 250 workers could significantly accelerate its revitalization.
For VPR News, I’m Kirk Carapezza.