Editorial: Overeager Partner; Questions About Randolph Project

Vermont officials can barely contain their excitement about the public-private partnership they’ve formed with Connecticut developer Jesse “Sam” Sammis to construct and operate a visitors center off Interstate 89 at the Randolph exit. So enthusiastic was Vermont Department of Buildings and General Services Commissioner Michael Obuchowski that the old “win-win” cliche wasn’t adequate for him to fully capture its magnificence.

“When you can save money, serve the public and fulfill your mission, and give the private sector an opportunity they wouldn’t have otherwise, I think that’s a win, win, win,” he told Valley News staff writer Chris Fleisher before a press conference called to announce the agreement.

Maybe, maybe, maybe.

Sammis has agreed, as part of an ambitious multi-use development proposal that would transform 172 acres along Route 66, to build and operate a 5,000-square-foot visitors center that will provide facilities and tourist information to motorists traveling through central Vermont. That barnlike structure will be attached to a 40,000-square-foot Vermont Products Showcase Center, which will display and sell goods manufactured in the state and promote Vermont artisans and cultural organizations.

While we’re not sure we’d award this proposal a triple-win rating, there is much to like about it. As Gov. Peter Shumlin noted at the recent press conference, the state would get a visitors center that “will not cost Vermont taxpayers one single dime.” The northbound rest stop was among several the state closed when money got tight, and the southbound one will cease operation when and if this visitors center opens. Our initial thought is that any public service that is regarded as important enough to command the state’s time and attention is one that also deserves its financial support, but that’s impractically purist in an era of pinched budgeting. Given the many demands on limited state resources, we’d rather see tax dollars spent on essential services than on a visitors center/rest area. Under the 30-year agreement, the state would provide directional signs on the interstate to the center and retain some control over how it is operated.

What makes us uncomfortable is that Sammis’ visitors center is not a standalone project, but a component of the much larger development, the Green Mountain Center, which includes 25 four-unit townhomes, three multi-family apartment buildings, two senior apartment buildings, 500,000 square feet of office and manufacturing space, a fitness center and a three-story, 180-room hotel. State officials have expressed enthusiasm not just for the visitors center, but for the whole package.

“The capacity this brings to the area is absolutely phenomenal,” said Lawrence Miller, secretary of the state’s Agency of Commerce and Community Development, during the press conference. “There are lots of components of this that are not only OK, but highly desirable.”

Again, it’s easy to grasp some of the benefits of the private component of Sammis’ development. For starters, it seems to have much local support, particularly from Randolph businesspeople, some of whom believe that the Randolph-area economy sorely needs a major hotel. We also like the fact that a sizable portion of the development is designated for light manufacturing because of its job-creating potential, and that most of the property, according to Sammis, will remain undeveloped.

But the development is still of a magnitude that the area will be transformed. It is not pristine — it is already home to a McDonald’s and a gas station — but it is largely open and undeveloped. Former Gov. Howard Dean pursued a wise policy of discouraging development near interstates, recognizing that the relatively unblemished vista of the state that motorists have from the interstate sets Vermont apart from most states. This development, in combination with another major one proposed for the Quechee exit off Interstate 89, makes clear just how quickly the state could surrender that advantage.

Fortunately, Sammis’ proposal must still undergo review under Act 250, the state’s land-use law. We’re not saying that the development should or shouldn’t be approved, but we do hope that the Green Mountain Center, of which the visitors center is a minor and ancillary component, is considered entirely on its own merits, notwithstanding state officials’ overheated enthusiasm for it.