Key city nonprofit on rebound with new home, new hire
VERGENNES — In late 2014, the 15-year-old organization that is charged with overseeing the well-being of downtown Vergennes had to lay off its only employee, a part-time executive director, because it was out of money.
Now, the Vergennes Partnership can look back at a year in which it has recently hired a new part-time marketing and development coordinator, won budget support from the Vergennes City Council after its own successful fundraising campaign, effectively reorganized its board and committee structure, and reached an agreement with city officials to move into Vergennes City Hall office space.
During that year, the nonprofit public-private partnership has also continued to organize events that many circle on their calendars — the Holiday Stroll, Pumpkins in the Park (the latter in tandem with the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Vergennes), and the monthly Arts Walk (founded in 2014 in cooperation with local gallery owners).
Partnership President and city Alderman Renny Perry said much remains to be done to ensure that the organization’s future remains on solid footing, but he appreciates its progress.
“In a year or so, we’ve come a long way from where we were,” Perry said. “And right now I think we have a pretty good array of board members with skill sets we can use. So I feel really optimistic.”
The organization is critical for the city. Vergennes is one of two-dozen Vermont Designated Downtowns, a status that city officials applied for and earned during the downtown revitalization movement of the late 1990s.
To earn and retain that designation, a community must have an organization to oversee its downtown’s health. The partnership was created to fill that role. And the designation comes with a key benefit — eligibility for grants not only to the city to improve its infrastructure, but also for downtown businesses and building owners to upgrade their properties.
For example, all of the many Main Street handicap access platforms in front of buildings like the Basin, Stone and Ryan blocks have been funded in part with such grants, as have related city sidewalk improvements.
Perry estimated that in the last five years alone the city, businesses and property owners have earned more than $500,000 in Designated Downtown grants.
“The only reason Vergennes can get that money is because the partnership exists,” Perry said.
In June, aldermen agreed to give the partnership $15,000 of support, enough to, in September, hire Vergennes native and University of Vermont graduate Amy Bodette Barr as its new marketing and development coordinator.
Barr, 49, is a veteran of nonprofit fundraising who worked in Connecticut and New York before returning to Vermont with her husband in 1995. They first lived in Chittenden County, where they raised their children and she started her own business, Red Barn Fundraising, which helps organizations such as school groups reach financial goals by selling Vermont products.
Two years ago, Barr and her husband, Bruce, also a Vergennes-area native, moved back to the Little City, something she said they would not have considered if not for the successful revitalization effort that has turned Vergennes into a community that she is proud to call home.
“If it had not been for the significant changes since we left in the ’80s, we never would have moved back here,” Barr said. “I was excited to come back to a small community that also had something to offer in shopping and dining in town. We loved the idea of being able to have a walk-able city.”
Perry said having people such as the Barrs choosing Vergennes is one of the partnership’s goals.
“That’s part of what we really want to do with the Vergennes Partnership, is to make it so that people look at Vergennes and say, ‘Wow that’s a great place to go and have dinner, shop,’ or, ‘I want to move my family here because it’s a nice place to live,’” he said.
Barr, who works 15 hours a week, assists the partnership’s half-dozen committees, creates promotional materials, helps organize events and fundraising efforts, does organizational and management work, attends meetings, reports to the city council and to Designated Downtown officials, coordinates partnership efforts with City Manager Mel Hawley, and writes grants.
Perry said her work will not replace that of the partnership’s 12 board members and the other dozen partnership members who serve on the committees that were formed in the spring based on a national downtown revitalization model — Design, Promotion/Marketing, Economic Development and Organization.
But having Barr on board will be invaluable to take care of the tasks that are in her job description.
“It’s a major step. It’s been less than a year since we’ve not had one, and we could feel the pinch of a number of things we knew we should be doing, but it was very difficult for us to do,” Perry said.
Likewise, the return of dedicated office space will be a shot in the arm, Perry said. Aldermen this summer agreed to allow the partnership to set up shop in city hall in what was the police chief’s office before the police department move to its own building on Main Street.
The Friends of the Vergennes Opera House has agreed to allow the partnership access to that space through their leased space next door, just off city hall’s front lobby. There will be an open floor plan with a knee wall defining each group’s space. Hawley said last week work to fix up the office should be complete by the end of the year.
Perry said the fact the office is in city hall is ideal — it will allow Barr to greet visitors and prospective business owners in person at the logical entry point into Vergennes and to work hand-in-hand with city officials.
“That will be a tremendous boon, I think, to helping the city as well as the partnership,” Perry said.
Other projects that have either been completed, are ongoing or are on the partnership wish list include:
• Cleaning and painting the information booth on the city green.
• Re-establishing the partnership newsletter and upgrading its website (vergennesdowntown.org).
• Replacing aging downtown banners.
• Continuing to plant and care for flowers in the boxes on the Otter Creek bridge.
• Studying how to remove utility poles and lines from Main Street and install building-mounted lighting.
• Organizing a dual November seminar for business people and property owners on the value of and the process of applying for tax credits, with a state official presenting, and how to save energy in their properties, with Efficiency Vermont presenting.
• Establishing a “SWAT team” of Vergennes-area zoning and financial experts to help businesses interested in setting up shop in Vergennes. “We’ve seen other communities that have used that approach, and it’s been very effective,” Perry said.
The annual fundraising campaign comes next.
“We’re probably looking at something that at least touches every citizen in Vergennes,” Perry said.
“A lot of people don’t know that the Vergennes Partnership is. They don’t know why it exists. They don’t know it was involved in all these things that improved Vergennes over the past 10, 15 years. We have not done a good job of marketing ourselves, even though I think at many times in the past we have done a fairly good job in marketing Vergennes.”