Two college kids may get their chance to breathe new life into a long-dormant coal plant on Burlington’s waterfront. Mayor Miro Weinberger announced Monday that he would like the city to invest $6.3 million in a proposal — concocted by two University of Vermont students — to convert the Moran Plant into the site of a performance space, restaurant, glassblowing studio and “educational brewery,” among other uses.
Efforts to refurbish the eyesore beside Lake Champlain have repeatedly failed during the last three decades.
If 22-year-old Tad Cooke and 23-year-old Erick Crockenberg and their team prove effective at scrounging up a lot of cash — the total cost is pegged at $26 million, much of which would have to be raised through donations — Weinberger will ask the city to pitch in $4.2 million worth of tax-increment financing, plus $2.1 million that had been previously allocated to the plant.
Cooke and Crockenberg, both natives of Charlotte and both finishing up self-designed programs in “ecological food and energy systems,” started hatching their plan in 2012. They’ve been getting help from Charlie Tipper, an experienced redeveloper and real estate investor, and have assembled a team of other development pros.
At a news conference Monday afternoon at the ECHO Lake Aquarium and Science Center, the mayor also laid out a Plan B in case funding for the ambitious project doesn’t come through: tear down the plant.
Tax-increment financing, referred to as TIF, allows cities and towns to allocate future tax revenues from within a defined district to current public infrastructure projects. The idea is that the projects will promote private development, which will then generate additional tax revenue.
Weinberger stressed that there are precautions in place to make sure taxpayer dollars don’t get funneled into some college kids’ pipe dream. Should plans for the Moran Plant go awry, Weinberger wants permission to use TIF money to demolish the plant, rather than return to the drawing board.
“After 30 years of attempting to redevelop Moran, this proposal is the last hope for a major redevelopment of the building,” said the mayor. “We need to either get this done or move on.”
“I think finally we are going to have closure,” chimed in City Council member Dave Hartnett, D-Ward 4. “Five years of spending almost a million dollars in taxpayer money and having zero to show for it has been very frustrating for a lot of people in Burlington.”
The Moran Plant proposal is just one of six projects — some public, some private — that Weinberger is asking city residents to approve as a package deal to revitalize Burlington’s waterfront. If the City Council endorses the proposal, residents will vote yes or no on Town Meeting Day.
In cash terms, the other proposals are comparatively modest — the next largest proposed investment of TIF money is $800,000 to improve the electrical and water infrastructure of the waterfront park.
But TIF dollars make up only a small portion of each project’s total costs. For instance, Weinberger approved $500,000 to add 120 boat-docking spots to the marina, while the Burlington Harbor Marina, LLC will drum up the remaining funds for the $5 million project.
The other projects include building a permanent site for the Lake Champlain Community Sailing Center, adding more docks, creating “floating nature-walks,” and sprucing up the bike paths and boardwalks alongside the lake.
Joining Weinberger Monday were several dozen developers, planners, city council members, and others who took part in the planning process, which began early last year.
A five-member “Public Investment Team” reduced the list of proposals from 120 to nine, weeding out projects that would have brought gondolas and botanical gardens to the waterfront.
Weinberger then whittled the list down to six. The mayor also increased the total amount of TIF dollars designated for redevelopment project from $5 million to $7.5 million. That change, according to Weinberger, was driven by a change in the state law regarding TIFs and an updated recommendation from the city’s Community and Economic Development Office.
Among the projects that didn’t make the cut was a proposal to create a “Cherry Street Promenade” and a costlier expansion of the marina. Weinberger cited uncertainty surrounding the recently-sold Burlington Town Center Mall as his reason for nixing the promenade.
Optimism was in the air among those gathered at the aquarium. “Before you know it people are going to want to come here and spend money, and its going to be exciting,” Hartnett said.
But how confident are Cooke and Crockenberg that they can pull it off?
“We are giving it hell until we can prove that it won’t work,” Cooke said. “All signs so far show we have a plan that is financially viable.”
The plan hinges on the would-be redevelopers securing sizeable federal and state tax credits along with a lot of philanthropic money. If they are successful, construction would start in 2016.
The main problem is securing the first commitments, according to Cooke. As he puts it, “No one really wants to leave the pier unless everyone is on the boat together.”