Survey results in 'huge' response

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BRATTLEBORO — A survey about downtown and panhandling was deemed a success as far as reach is considered.

"To get 1,177 replies is huge," said Select Board Chairwoman Kate O'Connor, who was speaking as executive director of the Brattleboro Area Chamber of Commerce for this agenda item on Tuesday night. "Even though some of the things were not positive from the survey, I think it's what we all know. It's this isolated little zone downtown that's really causing most of the headaches for people."

The chamber and Downtown Brattleboro Alliance sent out the survey on Oct. 26. It was also shared on Facebook.

Most of the respondents said they live in Brattleboro, according to O'Connor. About 20 percent claimed to be downtown residents. About 69 percent identified as females.

O'Connor said she wanted to summarize the results and urged people to be "responsible" with the information if it is made public.

"Because you can take one comment out of 700 and give it importance it does not necessarily have," she said.

About 85 percent of the participants "agreed" with the statement: "There is panhandling in downtown Brattleboro."

Asked whether they had been directly approached for money by a panhandler downtown, 78.6 percent of the participants said yes. About 17 percent said no.

About 66 percent of the participants said they had not been approached in a way that made them feel unsafe.

"But 65 percent said 'there are activities that negatively impact my enjoyment of the area,'" said O'Connor, who went through the comments and found most were related to drug activity on Flat Street and the Transportation Center.

Panhandling did not make about 48.5 percent of participants "less likely to visit downtown," she said. About 25.5 percent were "somewhat less likely" and about 14 were "strongly less likely" to visit downtown.

About 40 percent of the survey takers said they visit downtown every day. About 33 percent said they go downtown once a week.

About 65 percent said the shops are their favorite part.

"The flowers were about 41 percent, holiday lights were 8 percent, Gallery Walk had 35 percent and then there were a whole bunch of other things," O'Connor said. "So luckily, a lot of people like what we have to offer downtown."

Select Board member John Allen thanked the groups for conducting the survey. O'Connor said the next step is figuring out who will analyze the responses.

"I don't want to be the one that synthesizes the information and says, 'This is what people think,'" she said. "We have a really great town here and yes, we have our problems and I don't think it does us any service to take one thing and magnify it to the world and say, 'Our community is horrible.'"

Select Board member David Schoales commended the survey's high level of return.

"It's going to reveal a lot about what's going on," he told Allen, who had some reservations about whether the survey would be very telling.

Southern Vermont Dance Festival founder Brenda Siegel said she was sick to her stomach when the survey went out, "spending so much time talking about these people as if they're like this population of things and not human beings."

"I did think it led you to feel uncomfortable about panhandling and I felt like that was a little bit concerning," she said, encouraging the board to address perceptions of panhandling. "We need to do better...We need to be putting economic equality at the center and figuring out what we need to do about that."

Duo owner Stephanie Bonin, representing the DBA, said she felt the two groups were responsible for synthesizing the data.

"To put it out to the people in raw form makes me uneasy and also makes me feel as though the information will actually get lost because who has time to read through all these?" she said. "I feel we need to present this data not with a dot, dot, dot. Not presenting it with a solution but presenting it with, 'Here is the data, here is the steps we're continuing down.'"

Bonin called the number of responses indicating that participants felt unsafe downtown — about 34 percent — "startlingly."

Police Chief Mike Fitzgerald said officers are patrolling downtown about six hours each day. He also has a group helping to direct individuals who are panhandling to local resources.

"We're absolutely doing our best to stay downtown, to stay visible," he said. "Brattleboro is a safe place compared statewide, nationally and regionally. We have crimes, issues. But we are a relatively safe community by and large."

Reach staff writer Chris Mays at cmays@reformer.com, at @CMaysBR on Twitter and 802-254-2311, ext. 273.

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