Museum to clean up Arch St. property
"We've come up with the biggest, boldest, most exciting idea we could think of that we'd like to do with that property," Brattleboro Museum & Art Center Director Danny Lichtenfeld said of the boarded-up brick building and land downtown along the Whetstone Brook that had formerly been home to an electric power generating station and substation, machine shop and grist mill. "But right now, we're really having to crunch some numbers and figure out whether we can pull it off or if we have to dial it back a bit."
Lichtenfeld said the museum purchased the property in December 2015, knowing about $200,000 would be needed for cleaning up some environmental contamination. What he, BMAC and its trustees didn't really know, however, is what exactly to do with the property once it's all cleaned up. The museum announced on June 1 that it was the recipient of one of the 279 fiscal year 2017 Brownsfield Assessment and Cleanup grants awarded to 172 communities throughout the U.S.
Lichtenfeld expects a crew to begin the clean up in September or October, and to have an announcement about what's in store for the property by the end of the summer. He said some changes will be made to the building and expansion of the museum is a definite.
"We haven't exactly narrowed it down yet but whatever we can do there is going to involve strengthening the museum and making it a more valuable resource in the community," he said. "We're also really strengthening the vitality of downtown Brattleboro. Because we're going to, in one way or another, turn a neglected property that's not really doing anyone any good right now into some valuable community asset and that will be a benefit to the community."
Before BMAC bought the property, Lichtenfeld learned the site's soil, groundwater and building materials were contaminated with polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, heavy metals and polychlorinated biphenyl.
"We didn't want to buy it and there be any unpleasant surprises," said Lichtenfeld.
BMAC and its trustees were aware of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's annual grant program for cleaning up sites like the Arch Street one. So right after buying the property, an application was submitted. But the museum did not get funding then. Lichtenfeld said after making some improvements to the grant application, the museum tried again -— this time with success.
"We decided we were definitely going to do the clean up one way or another," Lichtenfeld said. "If we couldn't get funding through the EPA, we were going to have to raise it somewhere. There are not a lot of donors out there who want to donate their money so you can clean up some contaminated dirt and lead paint and stuff. It's great that this EPA grant exists because it provides money that would otherwise be hard to come by, to clean up contaminants and get properties ready to be redeveloped and be put into productive use."
Lichtenfeld described the clean-up effort as "relatively modest" when compared to million dollar projects. The museum secured the maximum amount of funding available under the grant program, he said. That will allow for a complete clean up of the 0.25 acre site.
Lichtenfeld said the EPA funding, totaling $57 million for the grant program, was part of President Barack Obama's last budget. That's now in danger of being cut.
"All these grants do is make it possible to clean up contaminated properties, put them back into productive use, ideally encourage development that leads to jobs and stronger communities, and it would be a real shame if that funding goes away in the future," Lichtenfeld said. "It's such a great program and it's not just a program that benefits red or blue states. It goes to clean up old industrial properties and put them back into productive use. And I hope the program continues to stay strong."
Vermont's Congressional Delegation, Lichtenfeld said, "worked real hard to keep this program and other similar grant programs the EPA has viable."
"And I think it's great that they do that," he added. "I hope we can continue to count on that program for funding in the future."
After contaminants are removed at 11 Arch St. or access to them is permanently restricted, fundraising efforts and other grant opportunities are anticipated to help with the redevelopment.
According to the National Register, the building on Arch Street was built in 1895 by the Brattleboro Gaslight Co. to contain its thermal electrical generating plant. According to Green Building Advisor, Brattleboro Gaslight was in operation until the early 1900s, supplying coal gas throughout the downtown area. "Unfortunately," noted Green Building Advisor, "the piping and open combustion of coal gas was dangerous — both from explosions and from carbon monoxide poisoning. In Brattleboro, for example, problems with leaks in the gas lighting system in a new hotel on Prospect Street killed two people and led to the hotel being condemned and torn down."
The building has also housed a generating station, substation and service center for Central Vermont Public Service Corporation and Twin State Gas & Electric.
According to Vermont Business Magazine, before BMAC purchased the building in 2016, it worked with Green Mountain Power and the engineering firms Stevens & Associates and LE Environmental to assess the condition of the property and determine its viability for restoration and redevelopment.
"That due diligence ultimately yielded two promising findings," stated Vermont Business Magazine. "First, the building, despite its long state of neglect, is in relatively good structural shape. Second, from the standpoint of environmental contamination, the property is cleaner than anticipated, especially considering its history as a power generating station and its location in the former industrial heart of downtown Brattleboro."
Reach staff writer Chris Mays at 802-254-2311, ext. 273, or @CMaysBR.
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