By KAITLYN NAPLES
After city leaders from the City Council and the Bristol Downtown Development Corporation (BDDC) heard from well over 100 speakers last week, the groups have decided to work with Renaissance Downtowns to develop an appropriate extension for its initial phase of the redevelopment of the downtown property.
At the BDDC public hearing last Monday evening, speakers seemed to be split in their opinions about the overall project, many looking for a referendum so the public has the final say on what happens to their downtown.
“The referendum should be for the people who will end up paying for that should have a voice,” said Tim Gamache, who said the potential $6 million Renaissance would ask the city for is a “big price to pay.”
Other speakers, such as Rochelle Levins, are also opposed to an increase in taxes for the downtown project.
“This endeavor is not a Bristol dream,” said Levins who is opposed to what Renaissance is proposing, which is a 101-unit apartment building, with about 2,200 square feet of retail space, parking, temporary event space, and an enhanced public green space for its initial phase that is expected to cost about $17 million.
What some speakers also don’t approve of is the public/private partnership Renaissance is proposing. In its proposal, Renaissance is asking for one financing measure— an incremental tax that would cover the cost of bonds sold to acquire, clear, and improve the land for development. Renaissance is expecting to raise $11.7 million in private capital, with the remaining $6 million coming from the incremental tax or other public funding sources.
Other speakers said if the company is having a difficult time trying to get private investors, it could be risky for the city to provide any kind of funding.
“We cannot take anymore debt,” said Lorraine Stanhope.
While half the crowd seemed to try to persuade the BDDC to say “no” to an extension, there was another half that praised Renaissance’s efforts and has hopes for the proposed downtown project.
“I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen so much excitement in Bristol,” said Lindsay Vigue, who lives in, and operates her photography business in Bristol.
Former city councilor Dave Mills said when the city was stuck with a vacant lot, there needed to be vision.
“They (Renaissance) gave us a vision,” Mills said, as he asked the BDDC “what do we gain by throwing them out?”
Other speakers, like resident Kim Villanti, said if nothing changes with the downtown lot, she doesn’t know if she is going to stay in Bristol.
“The people in Bristol don’t believe in themselves,” Villanti said, adding all she hears about downtown is the old post office being torn down and “the glory days of downtown.” But she said there is a resurgence of urban living and this is an opportunity to take advantage of that. She said if she were an investor she would have trouble believing in a project in a city where “the people don’t want to invest in themselves.”
“If the project is scratched I won’t be sticking around,” Villanti said.
John Smith, a finance board commissioner, said the financing options are confusing, however the city needs to invest in the future of its city.
“If we don’t take a stand and make a change now, our legacy isn’t something we will want to pass off to our children,” Smith said.
Renaissance Down-town’s project manager Ryan Porter said he appreciates all of the opinions. However, there is a lot of misinformation floating around Bristol. He said over the last four years he and his team have “put our hearts and souls into this project,” and said he has become a part of the community, even though he lives in New York.
“I think we’ve earned the right to figure out how to move this project forward,” Porter added.
Last Monday, the BDDC unanimously approved to work with Renaissance on coming up with an appropriate extension as to when their official financing plan needs to be submitted to the city.
City Councilors also approved a motion at last Tuesday’s meeting to draw up an extension. Councilor Henri Martin said he doesn’t like the financial proposal as it stands right now, but he said the city owes it to itself to “stay at the table,” especially after the downtown property being vacant for so long.
Between now and June 16, city, BDDC, and Renaissance lawyers are expected to come up with a proposal for the extension.