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City rail depot may move at last

VERGENNES — The long-planned move of the roughly 160-year-old former Vergennes railroad station to the Ferrisburgh commuter lot erected by the Agency of Transportation (VTrans) may finally happen this fall.
According to recent VTrans emails, some provided by City Manager Mel Hawley, VTrans and Department of Buildings and General Services (BGS) officials are putting finishing touches on plans on which contractors could submit bids.
The work — at a partially grant-funded cost that now just crests $1.3 million — will include moving the deteriorating wood-frame building, which sits hidden from sight off North Main Street in Vergennes, onto a new foundation about a quarter-mile north, and then renovating it into a visitor center.
A Tuesday email from VTrans Operations Project Manager Brad McAvoy showed how close a proposal that first surfaced at least 11 years ago may now be to becoming a reality.
“We are in the process of revising the contract front end documents to conform to BGS state and federal requirements,” McAvoy wrote. “Once this is done we can start printing the plans and get ready for advertisement which usually lasts two weeks. I would expect bids to open (in the) first or second week of September.”
VTrans commuter lot project manager Wayne Davis, who conceived the plan and has shepherded it for more than a decade, agreed in an email last week the move should be imminent.
“State buildings (officials) along with some VTrans buildings personnel are focused on bring this project to completion and advertised (for bids) in the near future,” Davis said.
Rep. Diane Lanpher, D-Vergennes, a Vermont House Transportation Committee member, is also cautiously optimistic for plans she called beautiful in an email.
“A valuable historic structure will soon move not only feet down the road, but will be moving across centuries in time,” Lanpher said, “from 1850 to what I hope will be … a showcase for how we can combine the past with the future.”
Still, Lanpher said she is aware of the project’s history of delays, which have related to working out the complicated ownership arrangement of the larger parcel, out of which was carved the commuter lot (the Vermont Land and Addison County Community trusts, conservation interests, the town of Ferrisburgh and the VTrans all had claims on some of the tract) and, of course, funding issues.
“This project has experienced, over time, several points where the move has been close and has never been able to get to the final day, therefore I have been very careful about overstating news as I watch the project develop,” Lanpher said. “I am trying hard to not jinx this very close opportunity to see it (the depot) moved and made useful again.”
The Addison County Chamber of Commerce plans to play a role in a renovated depot by operating a visitor center there, although chamber president Andy Mayer said because of the years of delays that details have yet to be chiseled in stone.
“Because of the project not being absolutely certain … we’re still working on fine-tuning a plan, but it is our intent to have a staffed visitor center there,” Mayer said.
Mayer agreed with Lanpher that the depot’s new home — on the railroad tracks just yards off Route 7 at its junction with 22A, on the main route for many who enter Vermont from New York, and at the city of Vergennes’ northern gateway — will prove to be an ideal way station for tourists.
“We do see great potential in operating a visitor center there … It’s really the portal to the lake and beyond,” Mayer said. “We’re excited about it.”
To make the concept feasible, he said the chamber would probably need some volunteer staffing and some complementary uses for part of the depot’s ground floor and its second floor. Mayer said co-tenants could, for example, be businesses that would not compete with existing Vergennes and Ferrisburgh firms, or extensions of those firms.
“People that would want to benefit from the visitor traffic would be perfect,” he said.
Lanpher said more than half the cost, $700,000, is in the 2012 Vermont transportation budget. The remainder comes from an “enhancement” grant, federal funds channeled through the VTrans, that the VTrans awarded to Vergennes a number of years ago.
That grant was originally for $400,000, but the VTrans has increased it over the years to about $656,000, of which about $160,000 has been spent on installation of power and extension of Vergennes-Panton water to the site.
“The Enhancement Program is re-allocating any unspent enhancement funds to this project,” wrote Davis in an email to Hawley.
Lanpher said she is confident in the adequacy of the funding with the addition of the budgeted amount in the current fiscal year.
“Having come to this project a year or so ago with great excitement, I became aware of the gap in funds. The city of Vergennes had an Enhancement Grant for years, which would cover the move and other aspects of the project, but did not come close to the needed funds to see the project all the way through,” she said. “There was no clear funding path to an opening day. This is no longer the case.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at andyk@addisonindependent.com.

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