Bristol business park hinges on water bond vote

BRISTOL — The vote next Tuesday, May 10, on the $1.1 million water bond could be a crucial step in Bristol’s 20-year quest to build a business park with the capacity not only to incubate but to retain and grow businesses.
“People in Bristol are really passionate about Bristol,” said planning commission member John Elder. “I think a lot of people are devoted to this town but it needs the shot in the arm that would come with allowing successful businesses to grow. Everybody’s agreed about that for a quarter century.”
On May 10, Bristol residents will go to the polls to vote on a $1,115,020 bond to replace a large portion of the leaky West Street water main and extend the town water system to Lovers Lane. Extending the town water system to Lovers Lane is a critical part of the town’s plan to build a business park on part of the 30 acres it owns behind the new fire station, said Town Administrator Therese Kirby.
Without that extension, Kirby explained, development of that land would not be possible
The 30-acre parcel, which stretches behind the fire station and down the hill toward the New Haven River, lies within the 1,000-foot wellhead protection area for the Woodland Apartments. As long as that protection area is in place, there can be no septic on the parcel, and no septic means no development.
Extending the town water system to Lovers Lane would end the need for the well that serves the Woodland Apartments, and thus the need for the wellhead protection area. Eliminating the protection area opens up the possibility of installing septic systems, and thus a business park, on the 30 acres.
The $1.1 million bond would finance four projects, and the Lovers Lane extension would account for only about a quarter of that, Kirby said.
The projects and their allocations are:
•  $490,951 (44 percent) to replace the hundred-plus-year-old water line on West Street, from Airport Drive to Maple Street.
•  $285,949 (26 percent) to extend the town water system to Lovers Lane.
•  $235,652 (21 percent) for stormwater upgrades to West Street, to address drainage problems and bring that roadway into compliance with the Vermont Clean Water Act.
•  $102,468 (9 percent) to extend the water line to the new fire station.
The town is eligible for a federal rural development grant that could cover up to 45 percent of the bond ($501,759 in this case), but the rules of that grant say a town must first pass a positive bond vote.
Kevin Harper, who developed the BristolWorks property, argues that Bristol needs a business park that can keep companies in town for the long term, and that this spot is the place to do it.
“We’re great at starting businesses and Bristol is a great place to do that until you get to a place where actually you’re starting to make money and you’re paying people a livable wage and the next thing you know, they leave,” he said. “It’s happened over and over and over again — we’re almost famous for it.”
Added Kirby, “Just when they’re really getting profitable and bringing good jobs to Bristol they have to leave.”
Harper knows this pattern first hand.
He started the Autumn Harp cosmetics firm in a tiny space in Ripton, moved it to Rockydale Road in Bristol when it got a little bigger, moved to the Pine Street plant at what is now BristolWorks when the company reached eight employees, then sold it in 2001 when it reached 75 employees. After nine years and with 200 employees, the new owners moved out because they had become successful enough to need a larger space than Bristol could supply.
Elder pointed to other businesses that pulled up stakes just as they started to really reach their stride, including Vermont Coffee Company and Aqua ViTea, the maker of kombucha.
The 47,000 square feet of business space at BristolWorks is full, said Harper. Even with the imminent departure of Aqua ViTea, that space has already been swallowed up by a planned expansion of Bristol Bakery wholesale. 
“We have great tenants in there with long-term leases. So now there’s no place for anyone to go to grow their business or start a new business,” Harper said. “And Bristol is just a great town to live in. It’s a great walkable town. It’s a great town to raise kids. And there’s no place for jobs because the only place that we have that kind of thing going on is fully loaded.”
Harper believes the sweet spot for many emerging businesses (especially light manufacturing) to remain competitive is more in the range of 5,000- to 25,000-square-foot spaces, especially spaces that allow a business to put in just the right equipment and then simply knock out a wall and keep growing.
“You’re putting all this stuff in and it’s costing big money to hard pipe all this stuff in not to mention meet safety standards and efficiency requirements and you don’t want to do all that for a 3,000-square-foot building if you know you hit your first million and now you’ll have to start all over again down the road in Middlebury. So you really need the ability to grow in your space,” he said. “I think today’s entrepreneurs that are committed to a long-term vision for their businesses would prefer to live where they work and know that there’s opportunity for them to grow in the space they’re in.”
Last summer a federal grant enabled the town to study the proposed business park. The resulting study group brings together Kirby, Elder and Sue Kavanagh from the planning commission, John “Peeker” Heffernan for the selectboard, Adam Lougee from the Addison County Regional Planning Commission, Alan Huizenga of Green Mountain Engineering and Harper.
According to Kirby, the group had initially applied for the grant without a developer on board and had been told they would be turned down. With Harper on board, the town resubmitted and won the grant.
Although the final study is not expected until July, the group envisions a campus-style business park of roughly 70,000 square feet that would host a range of businesses, including light manufacturing, value-added agriculture and professional offices, with the possibility of some residential. The business park would be campus style, broken into five or six buildings, with parking lots tucked around the businesses and a walking path along the edge of the property overlooking the river and the hillside below.
The planning group envisions that many people would be able to walk or bike to work and walk, bike or take the bus into town during lunch and patronize downtown restaurants and businesses.
Kirby and Harper estimate the value of the business park at over $10 million, which at the 2015 Bristol tax rates would yield around $265,000 a year in education and municipal taxes.
“That’s the big picture,” said Kirby. “It’s jobs. It’s the grand list. It’s tax money.”
The town signed a purchase and sale agreement with Harper and Stoney Hill Properties for the 10-acre parcel last July, said Kirby, at the same time that it signed a purchase and sale agreement for the new town fire station. The agreement gives the town three years to remove the wellhead protection area. Once removed, the property would be sold at $35,000 per acre (equivalent to the price Harper received for the fire station). If not removed, the property could be sold for $25,000 per acre.
The town has been interested in developing the Stoney Hill acreage since the state first sold those 30 acres to the town for $1 in 1999, Kirby said. Indeed, in January 1997, the first of many study committees presented a report to the selectboard supporting a business park.
Although the town had its eye on developing the property for years, it was “landlocked” and the town had no right of way to build a road to access it. When Harper bought the current site for the new fire station from the Nelson family, suddenly the town — for the first time since the town purchased the property close to 20 years ago — could gain access to the 30 acres on Stoney Hill.
Only about 10 of those 30 acres are actually on the plateau, explained Kirby. The rest, for the most part, go steeply downhill.
Kirby believes that 2016 presents a unique opportunity for the town to build its long-envisioned business park because it finally has access to those 30 acres, a master planning grant from the state to fund the business park planning study currently under way and a development partner willing to work with the town to realize its vision.
“Our goal has been to allow prosperous businesses to grow in town because many of them that left, the owners left saying, ‘I would have liked to stay in Bristol; I like Bristol, but we couldn’t do it,’” said Elder. “So if we promote the growth of these places, we would have more wage-based jobs — with the possibility of higher wage jobs through manufacturing, which is typically a little higher income — and some salaried jobs that would allow more people in Bristol to earn enough to stay in Bristol. That’s really the bottom line.”
Reporter Gaen Murphree is at [email protected].

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