Petitioned articles set for voters

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MANCHESTER >> In addition to a municipal budget voters will be asked to determine or amend during town meeting on Feb. 27, they will also hear the pros and cons for four petitioned articles which will be decided at the polls the following Tuesday, March 1.

Two are for relatively small amounts — $3,250 for the support of the Retired Senior volunteer program, and another is $4,000 for the Southwestern Vermont Council on the Aging.

The other two are somewhat larger — $25,000 for a new marketing initiative being sought by the Manchester and the Mountains Regional Chamber of Commerce, soon to be known as "The Partnership" — and $207,900 for the support of the Manchester Community Library.

The Partnership is scheduled to officially come into being this coming July and will essentially replace the local Chamber of Commerce as the main association for area businesses. The name derives from the notion of a public-private partnership struck between private sector businesses and public municipalities, said Berta Maginniss, the executive director of the current chamber of commerce.

The chamber's current Welcome Center on Bonnet Street will continue to operate, serving visitors and area businesses seeking exposure. But it will also attempt to expand its promotional efforts at "destination marketing"for the 17 towns and the businesses located within them represented within the current organization, as well as devoting more resources to area economic development, she said.

To help get the project launched, The Partnership is seeking a grand total of $75,000 from all the towns, and Magenniss has been attempting to get to meetings of all the select boards in the 17 town region to explain the partnership and why towns should get behind it, she said.

"We've never asked for public support before — this is our first ask," she said. The public money could then help leverage private sector funding through membership dues and larger donations from other businesses.

The enhanced operation will allow Magenniss and other area representatives to attend some of the larger travel shows, such as the recent New York Times Travel show which she recently attended, to boost the visibility of Manchester and the surrounding area and bring in not just more individual travelers, but conferences, conventions and tour groups. That's more relevant now with one new hotel already up and running and two others — The Hampton Inn and Suites and the Mt. Aeolus Spa likely to be breaking ground sometime this year.

"That takes a different kind of marketing when you're presenting the region to a group setting," she said.

The Partnership is the outgrowth of a series of focus groups and meetings involving chamber members whose input was sought on forging a new direction for the chamber which began in late 2014 as the organization attempted to take a hard look at what it was doing and how to respond to a perception of changes in the travel industry and the wider issue of economic development.

The economic development prong of The Partnership is likely to tie into a series of other initiatives underway that are exploring the economic landscape of the region. That includes the Northshire Economic Development Strategy, or NEDS. Under the direction of the Bennington County Regional Commission, the NEDS working group, composed of about 20 volunteers, businesspeople and professionals in the arts community, has recently completed an analysis of the area's economic picture with the help of a consulting group. they plan to make a presentation at the Long Trail School on Thursday, Feb. 11, to explain and discuss the report.

The Partnership is also emerging at a time when a wideranging report written by a special commission chartered last May by the state legislature finished work on another report delivered last December on the Southern Vermont Economic Zone, which described the future outlook of the regions economy in stark terms. "Southern Vermont is in trouble," the report began, which went on to describe housing, demographic and workforce challenges felt by the region and in need of attention.

The remedies need to be regional, which The Partnership is well placed to assist with, Maginniss said.

They plan to hold three public meetings, including one in Manchester on Feb. 22, to discuss the concept and spread the word. The other two meetings will be in Arlington and Londonderry, she said.

"Our job is to be successful in educating voters of our towns in order to help attract private sector funding," she said,

Manchester Community Library

The Manchester Community Library, which replaced the former Mark Skinner Library and opened its doors on Cemetary Avenue in Novemeber, 2014, will be seeking $207,900 in municipal support from the town of Manchester, an increase of $9,900 over last year.

The previous year, the library did not seek an increase in its funding, so when looked at over a two-year period, this represents about a 2.5 percent increase, said Steven Drunsic, the library board of director's treasurer.

While the total dollar amount may be rising, the municipal share of the library's budget is dropping, from close to 50 percent a few years ago to about 39 percent today, he said.

The library's total operating budget for the coming fiscal year is $533,795, he said

"That's a product of the board working diligently to craft a fiscally prudent budget that is sensitive to the demands being placed on taxpayer dollars while providing adequate resources to maintain a thriving town," he said. Rental income, from a steadily booked public meeting space — the Hunter Community room — private donations and other income streams are helping make up the difference, he added.

If the library were to have only sought another year of level funding, it would have had to dig deeper into its endowment fund, from which it already extracts revenue from interest on the fund's principal, or cut back its operating hours. Currently the library is closed on Sundays. Tapping the underlying endowment is not a fiscally prudent long-term approach and a habit they do not wish to get into, he said.

The board did take a hard look at how it could operate on the same amount of revenue as before but concluded it could not without curtailing its existing array of services, he said. the library is a much busier place than it was before its move to newer and larger quarters. More than 400 new library cards have been issued and the number of community events being booked for their meeting rooms is far greater than was the case in the former Mark Skinner building,

Over 50 community organizations have used one of the multi-use spaces available, resulting in just under 350 facility rentals by community members, groups, and non-profits—averaging close to 30 uses per month. Over 107 students, entrepreneurs, and business owners have used a Touchdown Workspace for a private room to study, meet with a colleague, or conduct an interview. In the past year, 1,330 people became brand-new members, bringing our total active membership to 5,185, according to Betsy Bleakie, the library's executive director.

"we are very focused on where our taxpayer dollars are going and the cost to the taxpayers to support the town and education and the instutions," Drunsic said. "But I think what sometimes gets lost is that these dollars are really investments in the town and in the future. Right out of the gate, the library has proven to be a worthwhile investment for the taxpayers."


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