Greg Cox said Wednesday that the Vermont Farmers Food Center once again wants to redevelop the city’s most blighted property.
Cox, president of the organization that converted the former Mintzer property into a winter farmers’ market, went before the Community and Economic Development Committee seeking support for a $20 million project that would cover improvements not just at the food center’s property, but also to the long-vacant Lynda Lee dress factory located behind it. The committee voted to recommend the Board of Aldermen give Cox what he was looking for that night — the more modest sum of $32,000 to help pay for a feasibility study.
“This has the potential to change the face of Rutland,” Cox said.
Cox said his board was working with consultants on getting new market tax credits to help pay for $5 million of improvements to the food center property, which would include a commercial kitchen, custom meat-cutting room and a workforce development kitchen. The consultants told them, according to Cox, that $5 million was small change to such programs and that the organization should think bigger.
Directly behind the center sits the 30,000-square-foot dress factory, a long-vacant property with contamination issues that city officials have called the most blighted property in the city.
“What could it be?” Cox said. “There is a distinct, critical lack of infrastructure for agriculture. ... The Lynda Lee would be perfect for co-packing. Value-added is on a major trajectory in Vermont.”
On top of that, Cox said, the building could fulfill the Rutland Area Food Co-op’s need for additional space, which would in turn help relieve the “food desert” conditions in the Northwest Neighborhood.
“We would double the gross sales of that co-op in a minute,” Cox said.
Cox said the portions of the project dealing with the food center property was effectively funded. Cox said a Phase II environmental assessment was underway at the dress factory, which had known asbestos problems, and that brownfields grants would likely be available as well as historic preservation money — he said it was one of the few art deco buildings in the region. He said they had hired former Housing Trust of Rutland County executive director Elisabeth Kulas to work on the project.
Meanwhile, Cox said they needed $37,500 to study the viability of using the dress factory. He said his board of directors had allocated $5,000 and he was hoping the city would kick in some or all of the rest.
“I think, as a city, we would all like to know the capacity of that building,” he said.
Reactions from the committee members ranged from reserved support to enthusiasm.
“I’m from that neighborhood,” Board of Aldermen member William Gillam said. “We’ve been living with that piece of crap for a long time. ... I think $32,000 is nothing compared with the misery we’ve been living with for 20 years. ... If we want something to happen here. we’ve got to put some skin in the game. If we’re serious about this development, we have to ante up.”
Brennan Duffy, executive director of the Rutland Redevelopment Authority, sounded a note of caution, questioning whether a study in that price range would be enough to untangle the complex issues with the property. He also said it was being eyed as the potential site for a TIF district in the city, and asked if it did not make more sense to wait to do the study until the environmental assessment was complete.
Board member Devon Neary said that if the city wanted to use the site as a TIF district, that was a reason to act sooner.
“If we don’t have real, concrete projects lined up in nine months, we can kiss that opportunity goodbye,” he said, noting that he had worked in environmental assessments like the one underway at the factory. “We have developed much bigger sites with much greater contamination. ... The level of remediation doesn’t really matter when you have a funding source behind it.”
Board member Michael Doenges made a motion to take $32,000 from the Zamias fund — which Treasurer Mary Markowski said has $274,000 left in it after collecting the last of the impact fees from the owners of Diamond Run Mall — and the committee voted unanimously to send the proposal to the full Board of Aldermen.
“This is going to make our life hell for the next five years as a board, but we would like to share that hell,” Cox said.