It was part marketing pitch and infomercial, history lesson and economic report, not to mention first-person testimonial – and not-so-subtle plea.
More than a dozen Waterbury residents, officials, business people and volunteers came before two legislative panels Tuesday afternoon to make the case why the state should return workers to the flooded-out state office complex. Residents argued on economic and geographic grounds the need to maintain vital downtowns and avoid sprawl. They also pointed out all Waterbury has done to invest in its own future. In sum, they essentially told lawmakers: “We’ve been hit hard, we’re still here, we’re doing our part, we hope you do yours – and soon.”
Their pitch comes just a little more than two weeks before the state receives a comprehensive report that will be critical in deciding what to do with the historic complex of red-brick buildings, many of which date back to the 1890s as a state asylum.
The report by Burlington architectural firm Freeman French Freeman, due March 9, will spell out a number of options and costs for restoration as well as relocation of workers to other sites, new construction, and possible public-private rehab partnerships at the complex. It will also look at a host of infrastructure issues, including flood-proofing at the office complex, which was swamped by tropical storm Irene on Aug. 29.
Lawmakers are acutely aware of the immense task they will face when they digest the report and swiftly come to a decision on the future of the 700,000-square-foot state-owned complex and the nearly 1,600 state employees who worked there. About 250 workers are there now, but the eventual destinations of the rest of the employees hangs in the balance.
“I think it’s going to be one of the largest projects we’ve undertaken in the state in a long time,” said Rep. Alice Emmons, D-Springfield, chairwoman of the House Institutions Committee, whose panel joined with the Senate Institutions Committee in holding Tuesday’s hearing.
The state has already spent more than $20 million just to stabilize the complex and restore basic infrastructure. Complete restoration could cost as much as $85 million, according to state estimates.
Sen. Robert Hartwell, D-Bennington, who chairs the Senate panel, called the task “a major undertaking” that the two committees have been tackling collaboratively. While state officials have indicated it may be two years before any state workers will move back to Waterbury – bringing their critical local spending with them – Hartwell said lawmakers heard the message that Waterbury needs some clarity on what the state plans to do.
“We understand you’re looking for a road path, and we are sensitive to that,” he said.
At the same time, Emmons cautioned that a key factor in any decision will be the dollars involved.
“We have to be very cognizant that whatever any of us wants to do, there may be a really big price tag,” she said.
Rep. Tom Stevens, a Democrat who represents the town, kicked off the testimony by pointing out the state’s long history in Waterbury, from its early days as host of a state asylum with as many as 1,700 patients to the growing state office presence that began in the late 1970s. Waterbury’s “negative image” as home to a state hospital, and later many group homes when patients were deinstitutionalized, eventually gave way to the thriving vital community that existed when Irene struck, he said.
Stevens said the flooding not only shut down the state complex but also damaged 200 of 600 structures in town, according to figures provided by Rebecca Ellis, a lawmaker and the Waterbury selectboard chairwoman. He said the scope of the disaster’s impact dealt a “serious blow” to the town.
“We’re not dead. We’re not going to die, we are going to survive, we are strong people, but we’ve been dealt a difficult blow,” Stevens said.
Throughout all the changes, he reminded the panel, “Waterbury has been a partner with the state, welcomed the state.”
Others argued that partnership should continue, citing the extensive work and innovative planning and initiatives the town has taken before and especially after the flood in a community-wide effort that has brought the town together. They cited work to create affordable housing, a new center for resilient technology, a business resource center and an effort to create a Waterbury Arts Center, a new municipal and police office to replace the ones damaged in the flood, and walking and biking trails to tie the village and recreation areas together, cutting transportation costs.
Ellis said in all 20 projects have emerged in the creative ferment as Waterbury pulls itself up by its bootstraps.
Resident David Luce argued that Waterbury’s efforts to restore historic buildings like its train station have been long-running and have created a vital downtown emblematic of the state’s vision.
“Historic preservation is not simply a popular buzz word of a nice thing to do. It brings people to a destination,” he said, noting the town also is a pedestrian-friendly icon that fits state efforts to combat sprawl.
Ellis told lawmakers that since state office workers left, businesses in town report an average drop of 35 percent in business. Business owners like Jay Provencher, who runs a small physical therapy office, said the office complex provided 30 percent of his clientele and he has had to lay off some employees and “is trying to hold on.”
In a stunningly bad coincidence, he told lawmakers he finished office renovations for his formerly thriving business on Aug. 28 – the day Irene struck.
Others talked of the impact of losing business rentals and sales and having to cope with the “new normal,” in the words of Jeffrey Larkin, owner of Arvad’s Grill and Pub. Ames Robb, a state worker in the Agency of Human Services, reminded lawmakers of the daily struggle of displaced state workers who now commute far from their homes to offices in Chittenden County. The long-distance commutes, Robb said, has disrupted their lives and raised commuting costs.
Robb said in the Department of Children and Families, three of 24 workers have quit because of the commute and all but one of those now remaining are driving much farther to get to work and spend up to two hours a day or more on the road.
A petition recently signed by 1,249 Vermonters from 65 towns, urges the state to support reconstruction of the Waterbury state offices, Robb said. She urged lawmakers to “do what is necessary” to bring workers back to Waterbury.
One of the common themes that emerged from the testimony was that Waterbury is not sitting around waiting for state help but taking steps to re-create the town as a 21st century example of vitality rooted in its historic beginnings.
“I hope that in hearing what you’ve heard so far, you understand that Waterbury is not sitting down and waiting for help,” said Duncan McDougall, who is involved in energy issues in town. He said the town is working hard to incorporate the state complex more into the village, create walking and bike paths to improve accessibility, tap into high-tech and green-technology and improve carpooling.
“We’re doing an awful lot in town,” he said. “If I were sitting where you are today, I would see this as a great opportunity.”
Sen. Hartwell, who said he was “impressed” by the town’s effort, and Rep. Emmons said they were eagerly awaiting the architectural and cost analysis of the state’s options and would then work together to quickly analyze the March 9 report.
“That’s when you will see us buckle down,” Emmons said.