New life breathed into Vergennes Partnership

VERGENNES — After hearing a Tuesday plea from Vergennes Partnership board members, who said their group has new energy, structure and ideas, the Vergennes City Council agreed to double city support for the partnership to $15,000.
Council members had already devoted $7,500 in their recently adopted general fund budget to the organization that is charged with promoting the economic health and appearance of downtown Vergennes. At their Tuesday meeting they voted unanimously to give another $7,500 from the city’s Water Tower Fund.
The Water Tower Fund, used to support infrastructure projects and economic development in Vergennes, is fed by cellphone companies who pay to hang broadcast equipment on the city’s former water tower, next to Vergennes City Hall. The fund nets about $100,000 a year.
Vergennes Partnership board members, including its president, Alderman Renny Perry, said the funding would be used to hire a part-time coordinator for the organization, which has lacked a person in that position for more than a year.
Aldermen also agreed, at least tentatively, to allow the partnership’s new hire to work out of city hall, probably in the now-vacant office space most recently occupied by Police Chief George Merkel.
Perry and longtime Friends of the Vergennes Opera House President Gerianne Smart, whom the partnership asked to research how other successful Vermont downtown organizations operated, made the case to the council for more support at a meeting also attended by many other partnership board members.
“We’re here to introduce the new Vergennes Partnership,” Perry said. “We’ve come a long way in the past year.”
Perry told the council that the organization went from having “basically zero” in the bank a year ago to a current bank balance of about $10,000 after raising $13,000, and had:
•  Written new bylaws based on Smart’s research.
•  Created and populated four active new committees based on a proven national model. They include organization, marketing/PR, economic development, and downtown design.
•  Established the Vergennes Arts Walk.
•  Updated its website and created a better social media presence.
•  Planted flowers in boxes along the Otter Creek bridge.
•  Painted and given a facelift to the information booth on the city green.
•  Started a membership newsletter.
Smart said she had learned that having an active board and a paid coordinator were critical components for success, and that the partnership board had proven itself in the past year.
“We actually have an amazing group of people sitting behind me,” Smart said.
The board also must be able to handle raising money, thus allowing the coordinator to deal with projects to benefit Vergennes, she said.
Aldermen in the past have been reluctant to support the organization unless it proves its ability in that arena, and now, Smart said, board members “have demonstrated their ability to raise funds.”
And, she said, the coordinator must be able to work closely with city officials. For example when calls come in to them looking for help finding office or commercial space, those calls can be referred down the hall if the partnership has a city hall home.
“This is how a partnership-style organization can fill in the gaps,” Smart said.
The council and City Manager Mel Hawley said they would revisit at an upcoming meeting how to create access to Merkel’s former office. Their first thought was to access that office through the room off the lobby that they will be leasing to the opera house.
Aldermen did have some questions about what Alderwoman Lynn Donnelly called the “chain of command.” They asked Perry and Smart to whom the partnership coordinator would answer if the city were supplying the lion’s share of partnership funding.
Perry said the coordinator would be a contractor who would report to the partnership board, which not only would be mindful of the funding source, but would also share the same goals as city officials.
“We would be foolish not to listen to the city,” he said, adding, “We’re here for the city. We have the same mission.”
In discussing the office space, Hawley also reminded the council that the partnership plays a crucial role in the city retaining an official designation for its downtown that allows it and downtown property owners to apply for grants. Over the past 15 years, for example, all of the new Main Street handicap access platforms have been built with support from that grant program.
“To be able to receive that designation, we have to have an organization,” Hawley said. “So there is an inherent connection with the organization.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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