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By Jim Boylan
Last week a friend of mine asked me what I thought about the upcoming town office vote. I said that it seemed clear to me Waitsfield needs to do something with our current town office situation. I had to admit to him that I do not yet have a firm position on the ballot question at hand.
I do, however, think that it is very unfortunate that this decision is being put into a very small decision box – in this case the ballot box – segregated from other issues the town is facing.
The first issue I mentioned to my friend was the state of the commercial/real estate sector in town. The other day as I drove along Route 100 going north from Warren, I was disturbed by the number of commercial vacancies. I noted that as you cross the bridge into Waitsfield the market at the Kingsbury/Foodbank Farm is out of business and then you drive by the very old Egan's Big World that has been for sale for a number of years. That is followed by the empty and for sale Purple Moon Pub/Easy Street Cafe and quickly with a for rent sign at the Bookkeeping Etc. building. When you get to the Route 17 intersection you see the most recent rendition of Egan's that has been empty and for sale for several years, followed quickly by the old Troll Shop building on the corner of Bragg Hill. It has been underutilized for a number of years and is now empty, for sale and looking a bit worn around the edges.
These are quickly followed by a for sale sign on one of the commercial condos at Irasville Common. Then you drive into Mad River Green where you go by an empty storefront in the red building behind Northfield Savings Bank and as you turn into the parking lot you see Jay's Restaurant, which was recently closed, its contents auctioned off and is now empty. There is another storefront in the green that looks empty except for a chair and a small sign in the window and yet another one next to Better Travel across from the post office that is empty.
Across Route 100 in Village Square there is a fair-sized empty storefront next to the drug store. As I continued up Route 100, I see an office space for rent sign on the Back to Action building. The large white building on the corner of Bridge Street is for sale and then there is a commercial space for rent sign on the old church next to the Valley Players.
A healthy commercial real estate market will always have a vacancy rate. It is good to have a few properties available for new or expanding businesses to move into, but it is bad to have too many vacant properties available. Eventually, too many vacancies start to feed on themselves and tend to drive the market and the community property values down. If left empty, commercial properties produce less taxes and in some cases no taxes at all.
I turned around in the Waitsfield school and headed south. I noted the number of properties that are either owned by the town and/or nonprofits along the stretch of Route 100 up to Bridge Street. The school, the Wait House, the Mad River Valley Health Center, the old polo field, the cemetery, the fire station, the ambulance service, Waitsfield United Church of Christ, the Masonic Hall and the library/town office are all there. These are a significant number of properties along a prime stretch of our "village center," most of which are not generating the revenue they would if they were privately owned, income-producing/commercial properties. As I went up the hill, I went by the Couples Club Field (owned by a nonprofit) and the pond in front of the Big Picture, which up until a few years ago, when the town had to pay for the repair of the dam at the end of the pond, most Waitsfield residents did not realize the town owned.
For some reason the select board has also become involved in trying to buy the Flemer Barns. The Flemer Barns situation should not be ignored in this puzzle. It is another large parcel in the "village center" that has the potential of being a positive economic asset, but it could easily become a long-term economic drain to the town based on a quasi public decision process. I think the town should extricate itself from involvement in this property and let the private real estate market work its process without any public sector involvement. There is no "public purpose" in the town's involvement in the Flemer Barns. We already own several historic properties; we do not need to own more.
We are now faced with the town office up or down vote.
As you think about your vote on this important issue you should look at the whole picture of what is going on in town and not just focus on some amount of "federal money" connected with one decision path. I do not have a recommendation, but I do know that there are changes occurring along our Main Street other than the sidewalk. All of these changes need to be carefully evaluated in light of a broader long-term economic picture, not just one decision point at a time.
A book titled The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference was published in 2000; it rose to the best-seller list. It was a socio-economic work that put forward the theory that the "tipping point is that magic moment when an idea, trend, social or economic behavior crosses a threshold, tips and the consequences (positive or negative) spread like wildfire."
We may very well be at a tipping point here in Waitsfield where public investment exceeds the private market's threshold for investment and the tip occurs. We have no way of predicting the consequences when that tip happens, but the tip will have an impact on us all who live and pay taxes here and we all should keep the "tipping point" in mind when we are thinking about how we will be voting.
Boylan lives in Waitsfield.