August 1, 2014

Williston, IBM in crosshairs of industrial inventory ‘crisis’

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By Luke Baynes

Observer staff

Williston had home field advantage for the Sept. 26 Circ Alternatives Task Force meeting, with representatives from the other three Circ communities of Colchester, Essex and Essex Junction joining the local Williston brass at the Town Hall meeting room.

As the home team, Williston batted last in a lengthy agenda that included updates on various proposed alternatives to the abandoned Circumferential Highway project, including the “Crescent Connector” bypass to Five Corners in Essex Junction and planned improvements to multiple intersections on Vermont 127 in Colchester.

It was nearly 8 p.m. when Eleni Churchill, a senior transportation planning engineer with the Chittenden County Regional Planning Commission, assumed the PowerPoint controls for a presentation on the Williston-Essex Network Transportation Study.

Churchill gave a recap of WENTS, reminding a crowded house that “Major Network Strategy 2”—chosen as a preferred Circ alternative by both the Williston and Essex selectboards on June 18—will compete with other regional transportation improvement strategies, with the ultimate goal of pushing a package of improvements through to the state for funding allocation. If implemented, MNS 2 would involve an extension of Redmond Road in Williston that would connect with the southern terminus of Vermont 289 in Essex, via a bridge over the Winooski River.

Churchill also laid out a timeline for the decision process, stating that “if the stars align,” a formal proposal will be presented to the selectboards in December, with an ensuing presentation to the Circ Alternatives Task Force in January and the finalization of a set of preferred transportation improvements in February or March.

Although Churchill’s remarks concluded the evening’s formal transportation agenda, the meeting subsequently went into extra innings, with Greater Burlington Industrial Corporation President Frank Cioffi stepping to the plate and serving up a round tripper that linked needed transportation improvements in Chittenden County to the region’s future industrial demand.

“We think we have a crisis coming with industrial sites that requires transportation thinking and solutions,” Cioffi said.

He pointed out that Chittenden County is a net importer of 16,300 workers from other counties and produces 35 percent of the state’s income tax revenues.

“We are the economic engine that fuels the state of Vermont, and it’s very important that we carry this message to policymakers statewide and to legislators statewide as well,” he said.

To illustrate the lack of viable industrial sites in the region, Cioffi used the example of Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, which had to scramble to accommodate increased manufacturing demand after it acquired Keurig’s line of single-cup brewing systems.

While GBIC was able to broker a deal that allowed Green Mountain Coffee to expand into Essex by supplanting an existing Gardener’s Supply facility—which relocated to Catamount Industrial Park in Milton—Cioffi said he doubts that type of “once in a 15-year economic event” could be repeated, based on the present scarcity of greenfield building sites in the county. Unless, he said, IBM shows a willingness to allow industrial development on its 3.5 million-square-foot Champlain Valley Technology and Innovation Park, which straddles the Winooski River in Essex Junction and Williston.

“As you look at Circ alternatives, please understand that the county, and the state of Vermont, really needs the IBM campus,” Cioffi said. “They need us (GBIC) to convince the IBM Corporation that we need that land asset to house the inventory for the future industrial development of the state.”

Jeff Carr, the primary CCPRC representative from the town of Essex, suggested that the Essex and Williston selectboards were already mindful of the importance of the IBM campus on regional traffic congestion when they endorsed Major Network Strategy 2.

“I think both the selectboards understood the importance of transportation linkage to that site by re-emphasizing a desire to not give up on a crossing of the Winooski River,” Carr said.

At the same time, Carr acknowledged what has largely been the elephant in the room at Circ alternatives meetings: that an IBM-owned bridge over the Winooski already exists.

“We’re tying ourselves in a knot over a crossing of the Winooski River when we have a private bridge across the Winooski River, and I didn’t know whether or not there might be opportunities for us to leverage that with transportation linkages with that site sometime in the future,” Carr said.

Tim Baechle, a manager at IBM who serves as a community liaison with the Circ Alternatives Task Force, told the Observer in an email that future public access to the IBM bridge is unlikely.

“Security is a critical aspect of the Champlain Valley Technology and Innovation Park and access to the campus will continue to be restricted,” Baechle wrote.

However, Baechle noted that IBM is willing to be a party to discussions with the Circ communities on alternatives to the full-scale Circumferential Highway.

“IBM continues to believe that the best solution to provide for current and future transportation, and for economic needs in the region, would be the full build out of the Circ Highway segments A and B,” Baechle stated. “However, we continue to support the efforts to look for effective alternatives to the Circ that will provide similar benefits. Our focus when looking at Circ alternatives is to provide improved access to the interstate, improve traffic safety, enhance opportunities for growth at existing industrial areas and better commuting opportunities.”

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