Downtown plan: Not if, but When

St. Albans Messenger, Saturday September 18, 2004

By LEE J. KAHRS Messenger Staff Writer

ST. ALBANS CITY–– It is not a matter of "if" the city's municipal parking lot will be developed, it's a matter of "when."

City officials said this week that if Wal-Mart does not agree to locate a store in downtown St. Albans, the parking lot between Lake and Kingman Streets will be developed.

"It's not an "if" issue," said City Manager Brian Searles. "We will pursue the development of that parking lot."

Searles said the city's plans for the property are just one component of a multi-phase downtown development project that would include extensive traffic and multi-modal transportation improvements.

Earlier this week, Paul Bruhn, executive director of the Preservation Trust of Vermont, unveiled a proposal for a multi-level building incorporating a 75,000-square-foot retail space and 30,000-square-feet of office space with three levels of parking to be built on the municipal parking lot property

The Trust is proposing the downtown plan to Wal-Mart as an alternative to the retail giant's plan to build a 147,000-square-foot store in the northern growth center of St. Albans Town.

Wal-Mart has repeatedly stated that it has no interest in locating a store in downtown St. Albans.

Mayor Peter DesLauriers, however, said he believes the property will be developed.

"I'm very excited," he said of the Trust concept for downtown. "I think this is the best news the city has gotten in a long time in developing it's potential."

DesLauriers said if Wal-Mart does not locate a store in the downtown, another store will, and that is the city's goal.

"We're not looking for someone to fill a space," DeLauriers said. "We're looking at Paul Bruhn saying there is potential here and we're more than happy to help them fulfill it."

Bruhn acknowledged the traffic and parking concerns around the downtown proposal, saying the success of the venture depends on the completion of the Federal Street extension project, which would alleviate traffic on Main Street.

That project is now called the St. Albans Inter-modal Connector, according to Searles, and there are big plans for it's completion. Together with a multi-modal transportation center planned for Federal Street, Searles said the city plans to improve transportation and traffic issues in a major way.

"Transportation improvements must be made for this to work and we have always known that," Searles said.

The city manager said the city is looking into possible railway improvements, building rail connections to businesses along the rail corridor and a spur to the St. Albans Town Industrial Park. The hope is that such a project would attract new businesses to the area.

Searles said the transportation center would be located between the Amtrak station and the New England Central Railway building on Federal Street. The project would offer one central location from which buses, trains and taxis would operate. Searles said the location would marry nicely with the development plans for the municipal parking lot.

"If we have three decks of parking there, and train and bus connections across the street, that is the kind of inter-modal we're looking at," Searles said.

Bill Rose, Transportation and Land Use Planner for the Northwest Regional Planning Commission (NRPC) said Searles already has secured a $50,000 from the state to fund an update of the Federal Street extension project. The money will cover updating the study's figures and hiring a consultant to perform preliminary engineering work on right-of way issues and problem intersections.

Rose said at the top of the list is the intersection of Lake, Federal and Catherine Streets.

Rose said NRPC staffers will act as project managers for the city's downtown development plans. He said the update will begin in November and should be completed in June 2005.

Rose said that once the update is complete, the NRPC will start looking into funding.

"There is a lot of good stuff going on," Rose said. "A lot of good ideas."

Time and Money

Searles was asked for a timeline on the city's plans.

"It all depends on money," Searles said, estimating "a couple of years."

The cost is substantial. Searles said very preliminary numbers point to an overall cost of $15 million, with the transportation center alone costing roughly $3.8 million.

Searles said that cost estimate would cover improvements on the entire corridor, including inter-modal connector work from the Exit 19 access road to Nason Street, the railway improvements, the transportation center, and development of the municipal parking lot. He again stressed that the numbers were "extremely preliminary."

Where that money comes from, Searles said, is a complicated question. He said funds would most likely come from a combination of federal, state and local money. Typically there is an 80 percent federal/20 percent local funding formula for downtown development projects, as well as a 90 percent federal funding for multi-modal transportation projects, said Searles.

Searles said the cost estimate also includes $1.2 million in federal transportation funds appropriated through U.S. Representative Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, for a connector road between Exit 19 and Federal Street.

Searles stressed again that the municipal parking lot will be developed, one way or another.

"It's important that people understand that we will pursue development of that property," he said. "It's good to be part of any discussion that will benefit the future economy of the downtown."

City/Town Relations

Town and city officials do not see the Trust's proposal for a Wal-Mart downtown as a decisive issue. Both sides say they will continue to improve relations between municipalities.

"It's a symbiotic relationship," said Selectman Bill Nihan. "I don't think Wal-Mart is an issue between the town and the city. We know we have to work together to minimize negative impact."

Mayor DesLauriers agreed. "The fear was that this would be a wedge and the town would see the proposal as competition. That's not the case."

At a city council meeting Monday, DesLauriers said that aldermen and town selectmen might hold a joint meeting at city hall within the next two weeks.

Town Selectman Bob Johnson said he supports the city's plan to develop the parking lot area, but not for a Wal-Mart or any other discount retailer. Johnson said he envisions another type of venue there.

"I would like to see the top two floors of the building there be a hotel/convention center," he said. "That would be a more sensible solution."

Searles said the bottom line for both the city and town is developing economic opportunity.

"The town understands that we want to continue to take advantage of economic opportunities downtown and we understand they want to take advantage of those opportunities in the growth center," Searles said. "Both the town and the city can grow and compliment each other's development without a competition."