By Cynthia Prairie
Leanne Tingay, coordinator of the Vermont Downtown Program, came before the Chester Select Board on Wednesday Oct. 3 to urge the board to get behind efforts within the town to achieve a state Village Center Designation. And from the enthusiasm that the board expressed following her presentation, it appears that the town is poised to apply.
The Select Board itself won’t have to do much to achieve the designation, which offers tax breaks to some businesses within a specific area and can help the town obtain certain grants. But a majority of the board must authorize the application.
Julie Hance, assistant town clerk, will be working on the application. “I would hope that by the end of the year we would have something submitted,” she said.
The 10-year-old Village Center Designation program encourages revitalization and upkeep within a core commercial community. Deciding on what to include in that core community and creating the required map, said Tingay, likely will be the toughest parts of the process. The application calls for “a traditional center of the community, typically comprised of a cohesive core of residential, civic, religious, and commercial buildings, arranged along a main street and intersecting streets. Industrial uses may be found within or immediately adjacent to these centers.”
Hance said, “The Planning Commission has already established boundaries.” But she added, that was a couple of years ago and may have to be revisited.
Tingay also said that the Village Center Designation is much easier to achieve and manage than the Downtown designation, which has requirements that must be met along the way.
The Village Center program only has initial application requirements: support by municipal leadership; boundaries consistent with the definition and a confirmed planning process. There are currently 123 small Vermont towns with the designation, including surrounding towns such as Ludlow, Weston, Baltimore and Cavendish.
The benefits of the program to the town, Tingay said, include access to state tax credits, priority consideration for municipal planning grants, priority consideration for Community Development Block Grants, priority consideration for Agency of Transportation grants, technical assistance, training and networking. “They are already ones we get. So this will give us higher priority within those grants … extra points in the grant application process,” said Hance.
Town manager David Pisha said that getting grants hasn’t been a huge problem for the town, “but anything that can make it easier, so much the better.”
The benefits to the individual owner of a business within the boundaries of the Village Center include 10% for the rehab of a historic building, which can be piggybacked on the federal Rehabilitation Investment Tax Credit of 20%. There is also a 50% credit for code improvements, including sprinklers and elevators for ADA compliance, among others. And there is a 25% credit for facade improvements on historic buildings.
“Anything we can do to strengthen Chester in that aspect (tax credits) is a good thing,” said Pisha. “I think the changes will be subtle because of the rules and regulations that those within the district will have to follow. Some,” he added, “may not wish to take advantage” of the tax credits.
Tingay said that over the past 10 years, $7.5 million in state tax credits has yielded more than $60 million in construction activity.
Tingay added that annually, there is only $1.7 million in tax credits available: “You can sell your tax credits if you can’t use them. Some are dollar for dollar parity, some are 90 cents on the dollar.” She added that she would like the State Legislature to raise that fund by $300,000, bringing it to $2 million annually.
The application deadline for projects is July, with awards given out that month. Following the presentation, Select Board member Tom Bock said he liked the idea. He and other members of the board added that they didn’t hear a downside.
About the Author: Cynthia Prairie has been a newspaper editor for 30 years, having worked at such publications as the Raleigh Times, the Baltimore News American, the Buffalo Courier Express, the Chicago Sun-Times and the Patuxent Publishing chain of community newspapers in Maryland. She and her family moved to Chester, Vermont in 2004.