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Mayors Mix It Up

Photo by Jeff Blair.
Photo by Jeff Blair.

by Nat Frothingham and Jerry Carter
At the invitation of The Bridge, Mayors John Hollar of Montpelier and Thom Lauzon of Barre met together in City Hall (Montpelier) and talked about a range of municipal issues. Nat Frothingham and Jerry Carter from The Bridge interviewed the two mayors and what follows are excerpts from the questions and the exchanges between the mayors.
Thom Lauzon was first elected as Barre’s mayor in 2006 and re-elected in 2008, 2010, 2012 and 2014. Mayor Lauzon said that this would be his last term as mayor. When he ran for mayor in 2006, Lauzon contended that Barre wasn’t going “anywhere.” Very little was being built. The city’s grand list values were in decline and there were very few incentives to build and enlarge the city’s grand list.
John Hollar was first elected mayor in 2012 and re-elected in 2014. Although his first race for Mayor in 2012 was uncontested, Hollar ran on a promise to do three things: “to jump-start projects that had been dormant, to deal with our declining infrastructure, and to deal with the city’s high property tax rate.”
The Bridge: John, if you were sitting in a café and talking to somebody from out of town and drawing a distinction between Montpelier and Barre, what would you say?
Hollar: I would say that Barre has a lot going for it . . . you look at all of the activity here and what I hear from people is that you better get on your toes and start keeping up, because we’re not keeping up with what is going on with Barre. They’ve obviously got a lot of energy, they’ve got downtown development, they’ve got state investment, and Tom’s brought a lot of development, so for me Barre is sort of setting the bar in terms of activity and not being complacent.
The Bridge: Do you think that Montpelier has been complacent?
Hollar: I don’t think that we are complacent, and I don’t think that we have had the same level of focus that Barre has had. I think that it is a little easier here [in Montpelier], because we didn’t have some of the challenges that Barre has had, but I think that change is difficult in Montpelier.
The Bridge: So, John, the focus that you talk about in Barre, what does that focus in Barre look like (from Montpelier)?
Hollar: Well for me, it’s about making sure that we continue to look at ways to develop our economy and ways to bring new investment into our community. That is the biggest challenge, because when you have those expenses that are rising at a flat grand list, you have this tax rate gap that is going to exacerbate the problem over time, so you have to make sure that you got that investment to enable you to keep up with the needs of a declining infrastructure of a two-hundred-year-old city.
Lauzon: Let me just say this—it gives me great satisfaction when my neighbors in Montpelier and my friends in Montpelier call me up and say, “You are kicking our ass. How are you doing this?” And I think that is an exaggeration on their part. It is not about kicking anybody’s ass. It is about doing the best job that I can for Barre.
I mean, I love Montpelier. Karen and I are here at least once a week. We come over, we go to the movies, we dine, and the seven miles doesn’t mean a whole lot to us, because we have restaurants here that we enjoy. Now, finally, we have restaurants in Barre that we enjoy and vice versa. We see a lot of friends dining over in Barre and that gives me a lot of satisfaction.
I mean, let’s face it; we are different municipalities, so there is always going to be a certain amount of competitiveness and I love beating John, but it is all friendly.
The Bridge: John, how would you describe Barre to someone who is from out of town? What would you tell them?
Hollar: Alright, so we obviously have some inherent differences. We have state government and we have a state capital here.
Lauzon: The differences primarily are economic. Maybe that is the elephant in the room. The demographics in terms of median income is hugely different in Montpelier than it is in Barre. And like John said very kindly, we have a lot of the challenges in Barre that they don’t have in Montpelier . . . When you look at our crime rates, [they’re] not terribly different between the two municipalities. We’re both probably understaffed when it comes to police officers. But obviously when you look at the number of children in Barre on free or reduced lunch, like I said, I relate everything back to numbers . . . we are 67 percent on free or reduced lunch in Barre, and here in Montpelier you are flipped. I don’t even think that there are 30 percent in Montpelier.
Hollar: So yes, obviously there are demographic and income differences, but there is also just the stability of our employment. We are fortunate to be the home of the state capital, which guarantees that we are going to have a stable workforce and that creates a different economic climate here.
The Bridge: You said, Thom, that you were focused on Barre with laser intensity. You talked about a 10-year plan. What does that look like? What’s coming up?
Lauzon: We tend to roll projects out pretty quickly. Everybody goes so gaga over City Place. But that is so “yesterday” to me. It’s built and it’s occupied and I don’t even want to talk about it anymore, even though we still have to cut the ribbon.
We’re focused on Summer Street Center which is the redevelopment basically of an entire city block using TIF (Tax Increment Financing District) funds. As our city becomes more successful, we have all of a sudden discovered—Holy Cow!—we need more places to park. We are going to develop a 100-vehicle parking lot. And through the Central Vermont Community Land Trust, we are developing 35 units of new, high quality subsidized housing units. Our issue is not affordable housing in Barre. It is not the quantity of housing in Barre, it is the quality.
The Bridge: What’s on your agenda, John?
Hollar: There are three significant projects that we need to get off the ground, continue, or complete. They are the Taylor Street development, which is going to consume a lot of time; and we are working with a developer in the state to potentially site a new garage, with some retail development as part of that project; finishing the bike path going east of town past Granite Street towards the civic center is another project that we will be shepherding through; and then making sure that the District Heat System is up and running in the fall as promised. There are other [projects] of less significant scale that we are thinking about. And then, we are dealing with our infrastructure. We still have to make sure that where we are investing at a level that we need to [in order] to have a sustainable infrastructure, which we [currently] don’t have.
We are underspending by perhaps half a million dollars a year in terms of what we need to do to maintain safe and adequate streets, sidewalks, bridges and retaining walls. Beyond that, we have an aging, I would say beyond aging, elderly municipal water system that we are going to have to deal with. We’ve got a great water treatment plant that has an enormous amount of excess capacity, but as a result of the size, and the cost of paying off that bond, we have not been able to keep up with the maintenance and replacement of the distribution system and the pipes, which is why you see these periodic geysers coming out of the ground with breaks. It is a longer term problem that we have to deal with.
Lauzon: I would like to say that is an area that we have under control. When I took office, the city of Barre was spending $175,000 to pave streets on an annual basis, and that was it. So, one of the first things that we did in the ten year plan—we are in year six currently of the ten year plan that I developed and rolled out—and it was really simple: we have 39 miles of streets in the city, and it costs roughly $1 million to pave a mile of street, so we need $39 million dollars if we are to go all the way around.
Hollar: Let me just jump back in here and talk about two other things that I left out, because there are two other priorities that I forgot to mention. One is unique to Montpelier and that is our Net Zero Montpelier initiative—to make Montpelier a net zero in terms of climate emissions and reliant on renewable energy by 2030. That is an enormous commitment.
The other one is housing. We do have a shortage of both affordable housing and market rate housing. It has been a commitment of the city for several years, but we haven’t really seen any growth there, so we have a council that has renewed that focus this year.
The Bridge: How do Vermont cities create the infrastructure to help promote a growing creative economy and create opportunities for young people?
Hollar: My view is that you make this an attractive place to live . . . creating the amenities and making this a place where people will say, “Wow this is a place where I want to live,” and to make sure our schools excel, which they are, is what draws entrepreneurs to live here, especially people who can telecommute. In my view, the best thing that we can do for economic development is focus on quality of life issues.
Lauzon: Slightly different viewpoint. Yes, you have to focus on quality of life issues, but more importantly you have to focus on opportunities. So, what are we doing in Barre?
I have been to the “Makers’ Space” up in Burlington and I would predict that within six months we will have that space in Barre. Because it is important to provide people with those opportunities. There is already great quality of life here. . . Ben and Jerry’s started in a garage in Burlington, Dealer.com started in a used car dealership in Williston, and Green Mountain Coffee Roasters started in a little shop in Main Street. We have got to work hard at providing those types of opportunities. If you want young people to stay here, then create opportunities for them. It doesn’t have to be $5 million, it has to be $20,000 so that somebody can start their own design shop. It is not a big number.
Hollar: The irony here is that Thom is probably a little bit more conservative than I am, but I just don’t fundamentally agree that government has a significant role in determining whether businesses decide to come here or not. What we can do is set the conditions that make this a place where people want to be. I mentioned some of them, but it is housing, it is workforce, it is education and it is infrastructure that is the primary role of government.
People have choices, especially people who have money to invest, in where they want to live, and what we can capitalize on here in Montpelier is that we have such a unique and vibrant downtown community.