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ARPA projects put on hold in the wake of Vermont’s July flooding

Downtown Barre, Vermont
Pat Bradley
Downtown Barre, Vermont

On March 11, 2021 President Biden signed the American Rescue Plan Act, or ARPA. The $1.9 trillion plan was intended to stimulate the economy after the COVID-19 pandemic. In Vermont funds have been used to help expand statewide broadband access, increase affordable housing and workforce development and fund community projects.

But in Barre, a number of projects requesting ARPA funds are on hold. In July devastating storms swept through the state and the Barre area experienced some of the worst damage. In the first part of our special series on ARPA investments in the Northeast, WAMC’s North Country Bureau Chief Pat Bradley speaks with the city manager and visits the historic Labor Hall, where ARPA funding for renovation plans were upended by the flooding.

The city of Barre is just south of the capital of Vermont, Montpelier, and is still recovering from July’s flooding.

“We had over 3,800 tons of debris removed from our small city after the flood. By the state’s own metrics, including FEMA applications, debris removed, Barre was the hardest hit spot in the state.”

Nicholas Storellicastro is Barre City Manager. We meet first in his office in City Hall.

“We received $2.5 million in ARPA," says Storellicastro. "Initially our plan was to, um the Council created a Community Innovation Fund that was about $200,000 that would go out to innovative projects from members of the community. The balance of that was really left in open-ended buckets between housing and capital improvements. We have needs on both ends of that. So we haven’t allocated the balance of that money for housing and capital yet, which turned out to be a good thing because now with the impacts of the flood that is an available resource for us if we need to. Now we did get applications for the Community Innovation Projects. We’ve awarded one big one which was $250,000 to Downstreet which is a low-income housing developer here in the city and they’re going to use that as part of a larger budget to redevelop nine perpetually affordable apartments in an old school. That money is out the door and we have approximately ten or so other projects that are now in limbo because we don’t want to give out the ARPA money without knowing where our operating budget ends up. In total we’re holding back about $2.25 million. In terms of these specific Community Innovation projects, we’re holding back about $175,000. So there’s about $175,000 worth of projects that were submitted, vetted, ready for council approval that we’ve pressed pause on.”

Community applications for ARPA funds ranged from requests to upgrade athletic fields, technology upgrades for the women’s shelter to books for a community center. Storellicastro explains that the fate of the projects are now tied to the fiscal conundrum the July flooding caused the city.

“We’re looking at massive cuts," notes Storellicastro. "We have a relatively small budget, $13-and-a-half million. Like many municipalities our budget, most of our budget, more than two-thirds of it is fixed. It’s wages, benefits that we have to pay based on contracts. So we have a really small base where we can find savings, right. We’re not going to save ourselves here by cutting the paper clip budget. It’s just not big enough, right. So depending on where our operating budget lands I think will be informative as to what happens with these projects. I think the Council is likely to provide even greater scrutiny than before because of our budget situation. So some of the projects that are not as maybe as high priority may be shelved and some others could move forward. But I, a lot of it will depend on where our budget lands. Unfortunately that leaves many people in limbo who had projects ready to go and move on and they’re waiting on us to see where we land.”

One of the projects in limbo is an application for about $30,000 to make upgrades to the historic Old Labor Hall. As we walk along North Main Street to the Hall, Storellicastro points out some of the damage and other ARPA potential projects.

"It’s a 10-15 minute walk to the Labor Hall," notes Storellicastro.

"As we’re walking through downtown there are a few businesses that look like they have not reopened," observes Bradley. "Do they have access to ARPA funds at all to help?"

"So they could have applied for some ARPA funds," replies Storellicastro. "But for example we have the Rainbow Bridge Community Center across the street from us. That place was also absolutely devastated by the flood but they became one of the hubs for recovery. They were doing volunteer work. They were getting food, water, supplies out to people on bikes. They’re one of our ARPA applicants. They applied for about $4,000 or so and change just for books. They wanted to start a library in their building. Now that has obviously changed after the flood. You know a library would be great, it’s probably not amongst their top ten priorities any more.

"So if the flood hadn’t occurred what would be happening with ARPA funds along this street?" asks Bradley.

"So we would have likely invested in a couple of those projects that we walked through," Storellicastro says. "So the Rainbow Bridge had a small request for funding. We passed through one of the walk-throughs where there was a proposal for public art and lighting to make it a safer passing between Main Street and parking lots. So those are two specific projects that were part of that Community Innovation Fund. Now we also were likely going to use the ARPA funding for capital improvements. So that could have been a whole series of utility improvements on Main Street, which we’ll likely have to hold off on it at this point. So we’ll head down here on Granite Street. This building we’re going to see, the Labor Hall, it’s on the National Register. It’s a beautiful old building. There’s a lot of history in this city with the granite sheds and granite workers. And there’s a big anarchist history that was developed right here in this building. They published some of the preeminent anarchist literature of the day. And so it’s really a treasure to have to have this building in our community. And beyond having applied for ARPA money to improve their building and expand the uses of it they were absolutely devastated by the flood here. This is one of the areas that was hardest hit in the city in July. We had people doing bucket-loader rescues here across the street from the Old Labor Hall. We’ll go around. Hello!"

"Good morning," greets Karen Lane.

"Good to see you, says Storellicastro.

"Good to see you."

The Barre Historical Society owns the Old Labor Hall and Vice President Karen Lane meets us there.

“This actually is a National Historic Landmark and we’re fond of saying that the only other one in central Vermont is the Statehouse," explains Lane. "So that makes it very special. Actually there are only a couple thousand in the whole United States. And it’s partly because of its unique history. It’s the only one like it anywhere and it was really built as a community center by Italian granite workers who came here mostly from northern Italy from the marble district and the granite quarries. And they were artisans. They were sculptors and carvers and very skilled. Many of them had been to art academy and studied art so they were very skilled. But they wanted a community center and this was pretty much their neighborhood, this north end part of Barre was their neighborhood. So this was right in the middle. And unfortunately that meant that it got a lot of mud and rainwater during the flood.”

The Labor Hall is less than a block from the Stevens Branch of the Winooski River. Storellicastro says it was in one of the epicenters of greatest damage in the July floods. The Historical Society had a number of strategies in place to protect the building and before the July flooding, Lane says they had almost completed a renovation of the building.

“We had decided we need our lift to go all the way to the top floor," says Lane. "So we had installed a brand new lift. And we had come short of fundraising for that a little bit. So that was one of the things we hoped the city would help us kind of put us over the top. And in the end we were able to raise the funds elsewhere. But as a result of the flood the poor lift, which we had not even been able to use, was damaged. So there’s now a new $34,000 that we need to spend to restore it to put it back in action.”

“So you applied for ARPA funds to repair the new lift?” asks Bradley.

“Right," Lane says. "And now we’re in the same situation only it’s a more costly repair than previously. And the other thing we wanted to do is kind of a long overdue improvement to the sound system, projection system, the things that make the building useful for community events. The request we had made was for those kind of improvements to install some more modern equipment. So those were all part of a second request for ARPA funds.”

“So with the ARPA funds now being on hold what does that mean for the hall and potential uses, potential things that you could be doing here in the hall?” asks Bradley.

“Oh that’s a wonderful question," Lane says. "I think there’s a great deal and one of the considerations for our being able to host events is what do we have? What can we offer? Do we have a good sound system? Do we have enough seating for everybody’s who’s going to come? There’s so much that we need to do.”

As we walk over to see the damaged lift, Storellicastro surprises Lane by mentioning how close the Labor Hall came to getting the requested ARPA funding that is now held up.

“I guess there are different terms for these things but this one’s called a lift because it’s really just enough room for somebody in a wheelchair with a helper,” notes Lane.

“You know for context the Council was scheduled to meet on July 11th to approve all these ARPA requests,” interjects Storellicastro.

“Is that right?" says Lane. "Oh, uh uh.”

“This was on the agenda and we had to cancel that meeting, obviously, and since then the Council decided that they couldn’t make the allocations in good faith until we knew what the budgetary impacts were," explains Storellicastro. "But for applicants like Karen and here at the Labor Hall they were 24 hours from knowing that these funds were going to be with them and it’s heartbreaking.”

“Oh, I didn’t know that, ;aments Lane. "That’s amazing.”

“Yeah." Storellicastro adds, "So that July 11th meeting agenda had this on there and not just this project but many others were put in limbo. And we put these out as Community Innovation funds because this is a particular, you know we don’t have a lot of spaces like this in Barre where you can gather, right. So this was sort of a unique opportunity to expand the use of a very unique building. And like I said we were this close which is, just makes it that much more difficult.”

Storellicastro says city leaders would prefer not to use ARPA funds for basic operational needs or fill gaps in the budget, but it is currently providing a fiscal safety net.

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