by Doug McClure
HARDWICK – The pedestrian bridge was discussed at length at the Hardwick Select Board meeting on February 4.
Public interest in the project is high. Representatives from several local businesses claimed the closure of the bridge has affected their revenues.
Current plans involving the bridge include submitting an application for a USDA Rural Business Development Grant (RBDG) for the maximum amount of $250,000, with an equal town match. The town previously received up to $175,000 from a separate USDA grant for the Lamoille Valley Rail Trail (LVRT), but before funds could be used the state announced it would take over construction and financing of the LVRT with an eye toward early completion. The USDA funds can be reallocated, but remain tied to the LVRT. Board Chair Eric Remick said demonstrating a link to the project would not be difficult. He said the town’s survey and other collected data showed the bridge was a top priority.
“We have a lot of other such [LVRT] projects,” Remick said. “None of them rise to the same level of criticality or access to town, so for me, this seems like a more pressing need.” He listed “the parking area,” and “a rail spur through sawmill to Atkins Field” as examples of “other things we don’t have an actual plan for.”
The town does not intend to solely rely on the RBDG grant for bridge funding. Rough estimates for the project place costs at approximately $500,000, but that amount may not cover ancillary engineering and design. If the town were to repurpose LVRT funding and combine it with the fund balance, it could meet the USDA requirement for matching funds.
“They just want us to commit to complete [the project],” Board member Shari Cornish said.
Town Manager Shaun Fielder referred several times to the possibility of fundraising directly from the community. How much could be raised is impossible to know, he said, but he described the 103 responses to a survey, which ended January 31, as “absolutely phenomenal.” He noted that the application could require a budget proposal from which the town could not substantially deviate once submitted. Cornish did not entirely agree and said the USDA grant, or part of it, combined with money from the fund balance would be sufficient.
Vice chair Elizabeth Dow suggested pulling the entire $250,000 match from the fund balance. “I was impressed by the thing [Business Manager] Casey [Rowell] sent out today that shows that our fund balance is not only full, it’s fat,” she said. “Rather than use the LVRT money, couldn’t we just pledge the $250,000 out of the fund balance? Presumably, we won’t use it because there will be other grants. That sets the LVRT money aside for more tightly associated LVRT projects.”
Fielder said regardless of which path they decided to take, “The info at hand indicates if we can demonstrate on the RDBG application — we’ve got the financial aspects covered if we go with this replacement strategy.” He cautioned there would be problems if the town undershot the completion cost of the replacement. His USDA contacts told him the town could have the fund balance and USDA grant commitment, he said, but if the full amount does not cover the anticipated costs it “really doesn’t make for a sound application.”
Fielder called for businesses impacted by the bridge closure to contact him with details. He said anyone in a position to provide a letter of support might consider doing so, because it would strengthen the town’s grant application. “If you want to offer anything, reach out to Town Manager’s office,” Fielder said. Stories involving job creation or revenue loss were especially useful, he said.
The board generally agreed to proceed with the expectation of meeting a $250,000 match requirement. Cornish is also seeking to revive the town’s efforts for a Downtown Designation, which could expand grant opportunities for village businesses and the bridge by as much as $100,000. Cornish said with Geoff Sewake now at work as Community Development Coordinator the possibility of the designation increased. If the Downtown Designation is successful, Hardwick could also under state law reduce the speed limit in the designated zone to 15 mph, an issue raised numerous times over years of select board meetings. Downtown Designation could also open the door to funding projects that the Pedestrian and Traffic Safety Task Force had proposed, but were found to be too expensive.
Rowell supplied updated numbers for budget revenues and expenses, which she described as “literally right on track where we should be.” Property tax revenue was off by an amount largely offset by an expected payment, and water and sewer bills were off by 3-5%, although a bill had just gone out. The delinquency rate did not concern Rowell, she said. Almost every item fell within range of the expected 58% for the FY2021 budget.
The equity committee gained two new members, nearly filling out its first board. Select board member Lucian Avery has taken interest in the committee for months and said he plans to maintain his commitment to the effort. Resident Rutu Shah expressed interest through the Neighbor-to-Neighbor forum. The select board approved appointing both.
The board heard two property-related issues. The first involved purchase of a property on Depot Street near the top of the Rail Trail which neither property owner Josh Allen nor his attorney realized had no access via right-of-way. The two sought a solution, which Remick said was in the best interests of the town, as Allen intends to revitalize a dilapidated building on the site. A complicating factor is that the only clear access to the property is close to the recently restored Section House property for which VTrans holds the rights for uses and adjustments. Representatives from the state said they were open to a solution. Dow, who is President of the Hardwick Historical Society, said the HHS had no “philosophical objection,” but was concerned about protecting a newly-restored structure “from the late 1890s, at least” and VTrans shared those concerns. The parties agreed to work toward a solution.The town also heard from Gail and David O’Brien, an East Hardwick couple, about the 0.12-acre property directly next to the bridge and adjacent two of its own properties. The couple wanted to purchase the small tract for $500 to merge, with zoning approval, the three contiguous properties that were historic family-owned properties, expand the greenspace the small tract affords, and remove a derelict warehouse, replacing it with a small workshop. The majority of the three properties are in the flood plain and any new work would require significant engineering efforts, which the two residents said they already initiated with DeWolfe Engineering Associates of Montpelier. The O’Briens would continue the current river access the small tract affords, pending attorney advice over liability, they said. Avery and Remick said their understanding was that Vermont law protected property owners in cases of recreational access where no access fee was expected. The board agreed to sell the property to the O’Briens, subject to the standard requirements for public notice.