The Power Behind the Throne...
Peter Clavelle's Queen City legacy is spelled C-E-D-O
When Peter Clavelle steps down as mayor of Burlington on April 3, he'll leave a long list of accomplishments.
There are plenty of ways in which he and the Progressives -- his party until he signed on as a Democrat in 2003 -- have transformed the city. Most of his greatest successes, and some of his most glaring stumbles, are in some way connected to the Community and Economic Development Office, a much misunderstood, quasi-governmental entity with a big mission.
What will CEDO look like now? Incoming Mayor Bob Kiss is a Progressive, but he hasn't supported everything that CEDO and Clavelle have proposed. And will it matter to him that both Clavelle and CEDO director Michael Monte endorsed Democrat Hinda Miller?
CEDO was founded in 1983, during Bernie Sanders' second term as mayor. Clavelle served as its first director. He left the job to become mayor in 1989. Except for two years in the early 1990s when Republican Peter Brownell ran City Hall, every other CEDO director has been a Clavelle appointee.
CEDO is an anomaly in city government. Monte calls it a kind of "all-purpose development policy arm for the mayor." Symbolically, a common inside door links their adjacent offices on the second floor of City Hall.
The department's 24 full-time employees are charged with carrying out the mayor's and the City Council's directives regarding community building, affordable housing and economic development. CEDO employees talk to people, set up meetings, and navigate the system to find money from numerous federal and state funding sources.
It's fair to say that CEDO has quietly brokered, birthed or aided nearly every major project in the city over the last two decades. That list includes promoting the growth of the Church Street Marketplace and Waterfront Park; abetting cultural events such as the South End Art Hop; keeping local businesses -- such as Seventh Generation and Lake Champlain Chocolates -- local; and facilitating organizations such as the Burlington Community Land Trust and Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility.
CEDO enforces the city's affordable housing codes, and helped build the Park Place and Rose Street Co-ops, as well as the Westlake Residences luxury condos now going up at the corner of Cherry and Battery Streets. It brokered the deal to bring Filene's to the Burlington Town Center.
CEDO also aims to foster civic engagement. It set up the Neighbor-hood Planning Assemblies to encourage grassroots citizen participation. The Legacy Project, Community Justice Center and the First Response Teams that clean up graffiti are all CEDO programs. Says former Director Diana Carminati, "If you look at what's vital to a city, informed, engaged citizens need to be as much a part of that as jobs and affordable housing and the availability of daycare."
Not all CEDO initiatives earn applause. Some have stirred significant controversy. CEDO played a huge role in bringing City Market downtown, and missed the mark with proposals to site a multi-modal transportation center on Battery Street and to lease the Moran Plant to the YMCA.
The way it's administered also inspires a certain amount of distrust. CEDO is unlike other municipal entities in that it relies on federal and state grants, funding nearly all its projects at litle or no expense to the city -- and outside the normal budget process. Just under $250,000 of CEDO's annual $5.1 million comes directly from Burlington taxpayers. Fred Schmidt, founder of Vermont's Center for Rural Studies, calls the office "masters of match funding."
"Expansive" is the word Michael Monte uses to describe CEDO's agenda. At one end of the spectrum is the kind of constituent work being done by Sara Moore, one of CEDO's 10 AmeriCorps/VISTA volunteers. Moore, 26, is based at the Center for Communities and Neighbor-hoods, a satellite office above City Market.
CEDO founded CCAN in 2004 to house its community development programs -- the Community Justice Center, for example. Moore works out of a room full of desks smushed together and cluttered with papers and phones the employees rarely answer -- presumably because they're out talking to real folks in Burlington's neighborhoods.
On a March afternoon, Moore is headed to the Farring-ton Mobile Home Park in the city's New North End. She explains her project on the bus ride from Cherry Street.
Farrington is one of several neighborhoods in which Moore tackles the vague assignment of "building community." It's a challenge in Farrington, which suffers from the "trailer park" stigma, and doesn't have a community center where residents can gather. Moore spends a lot of time canvassing the neighborhood, making contacts and accumulating what the military might call "human intelligence" about what's really happening there.
Moore's latest project is an 18-month calendar to be distributed throughout the park. As the bus chugs down North Street -- new sidewalks and lampposts courtesy of the $5 million revitalization project CEDO initiated -- Moore explains that each month will feature a picture and an interview with a Farrington resident. It will cost about $150 to produce, money Moore hopes to drum up from advertising.
"From talking to people, you hear about little stories of neighbors helping neighbors," says Moore. She hopes that sharing these stories will help dispel stereotypes about people who live in the park. "It could be like a community pride thing," she suggests.
Once off the bus, Moore begins knocking on doors. She stops at immaculate homes with plastic flowers out front as well as rickety metal boxes next to piles of rusting junk. Finding participants is a tough job. Behind the first door is an Asian woman who doesn't speak English. One gray-haired man says he'll do an interview, but when Moore asks for his phone number, he tells her he doesn't have a phone.
Moore has better luck with Theresa Cameron, who invites her in and offers her a seat on the sofa. Cameron is sitting in a chair close to her TV, watching the "Drew Carey Show." She and Moore have spoken before. Last year, Moore encouraged her to nominate one of her neighbors for a city leadership award -- another CEDO-sponsored program. Cameron did, though the neighbor didn't win. Still, Moore sees Cameron's participation as an accomplishment.
Cameron says she'd be happy to do an interview for the calendar. "I've done a lot, it wouldn't be boring," she promises. Then she tells Moore about a spate of serious health problems that have made her unable to work.
"Do you feel like you're in touch with the services you need?" asks Moore. Cameron says yes. Her casual query illustrates Moore's real mission: to identify and address the unmet needs of some of the city's most invisible and vulnerable residents.
Meanwhile, Bruce Seifer, CEDO's assistant director for economic development, is working with a different set of constituents. A 22-year CEDO veteran, Seifer communicates regularly with businesses large and small, helping them to keep jobs in town and create new ones. That includes finding federal money for a resettled refugee to start his own cab company, as well as helping General Dyna- mics' Burlington facility make its transition from a manufacturing site to a research center.
Seifer points out that CEDO also offers technical assistance. It's published a guide to doing business in Burlington that includes all the federal, state and local forms a start-up requires. The publication has won awards from two development organizations.
CEDO tries to address the needs of businesses in much the same way it addresses the needs of neighborhoods. Don Schramm, owner of software company Data Systems, remembers how CEDO helped start the Vermont Software Developers Alliance in 2004. Schramm says Seifer dropped by his office to try to interest him in signing up for Burlington Telecom's new fiber network. But Schramm said that what he really needed was a trade organization.
"I told him that there were more than 100 software developers in the Burlington/Chittenden County area," Schramm recalls. "When I'd say that to most people, they'd shake their heads and say, 'That's impossible.' Bruce didn't do that."
Schramm says he and Seifer made a list of everyone they knew in the business, then invited them to a meeting at the Wyndham Hotel. Seifer bought lunch, brought along a facilitator, and took notes. Schramm recalls that most of the 40 or so people in the room had never met. That initial gathering helped them to start networking.
Today the Vermont Software Developers Association has 28 members and a board of directors dedicated to helping "promote and grow Vermont software businesses," according to its website. Last week more than 40 people attended a meeting the group sponsored with Vermont Secretary of Commerce Kevin Dorn.
"It was phenomenal," Schramm says of this two-year process. "And it always had Bruce's nurturing hand in it."
Schramm is effusive in his praise for CEDO. He's actually been involved in three different projects with the department. He was the president of the Onion River Co-op's Board of Directors when the Cherry Street Price Chopper closed and the co-op won the bid to replace it as downtown's new supermarket. He's a stakeholder in -- and future resident of -- a co-housing project that has been trying for years to build in the city.
The Burlington Co-Housing Project is on the verge of finalizing a deal to build on land abutting East Avenue. The complicated proposal involves negotiations with the University of Vermont, neighbors on Bilodeau Court and, of course, CEDO.
Siting the co-housing project has been difficult -- a past attempt to put it on Mansfield Avenue fell through -- but this location seems to be a perfect fit. Schramm says that he found out about it from Michael Monte.
The city apparently knew the land was coming up for sale. The Burlington Conservation Board wanted to preserve it. And the Legacy Project reflects a desire for the city to incorporate the cooperative co-housing model into new developments. CEDO saw the opportunity and took the initiative to pull the pieces together.
"They have ideas," says Schramm. "They have ways of making things happen."
Before CEDO was established, city departments were run by commissions that were independent of the mayor and the council. "It was extremely decentralized . . . a balkanization and fiefdom approach to how government was organized," says Monte, who was one of the office's first employees; he served as director from 1989 to 1993, and was re-appointed to the post in 1999.
Bruce Seifer adds that when CEDO was formed, it was with the idea that it shouldn't merely respond to directives from policy makers and citizens -- it should guide and encourage development on its own.
"We'd had 30 years of needs assessment. This was a time for action," says Fred Schmidt of Vermont's Center for Rural Studies. He was a consultant for the city when CEDO was created.
Monte clarifies: "It isn't like, we get the money, I get to spend it, I chat with the mayor every once in a while. It's a lot more complex than that." He points out that a various City Council committees and citizen groups, as well as funding sources, oversee CEDO.
But Monte adds that his staff is encouraged to look for opportunities to meet the needs they encounter. Case in point: Last fall, social-service agencies and CEDO's AmeriCorps/VISTA volunteers noted an increasing number of struggling African refugees in Burlington's neighborhoods. Beth Ruzansky, a community development specialist at CCAN, found Lajiri Van Ness-Otunnu, a woman who would be an ideal liaison to that community and who would be willing to work as an A/VISTA. Ruzansky hired Otunnu, and matched her with the all-volunteer Association of Africans Living in Vermont, which desperately needed administrative support.
Now Otunnu works for CCAN, though she spends most of her time interacting with African refugees and immigrants for the AALV, helping to connect them to social-service agencies and job training resources.
Says Monte, "I think people want us to look for those kinds of opportunities."
Maybe not all people. "It has its plusses and minuses," long-time City Councilor Andy Montroll, a Democrat, says of CEDO's modus operandi. "I think there's been some good work done. I also think it's gone overboard in some cases."
In the recent case of the Moran Plant, CEDO and the mayor claimed it was in the city's best interest to lease the site to the YMCA. They attempted to seal the deal by merely passing it through the City Council.
By the time it came to the council, says Montroll, "that was a well-developed project. They came to us basically saying, 'Here's the project. Are there any details you want to understand before you approve it?' Well, yes."
Montroll says he's seen this happen with other CEDO-led initiatives. "People look at it and think, 'What's going on there? Why didn't we learn about this earlier?'"
Activist, attorney and former state rep Sandy Baird also objected to the Moran Plant proposal. "I don't see any evidence of a back-door deal," she says, "but I don't think they wanted much public opinion . . . We had to fight with Clavelle just to get it on the ballot."
When the proposal went to a vote, it was defeated in all seven of the city's wards. "They obviously should have consulted the public more," says Baird. "They were out of touch with the city. They assumed too much."
Montroll says this is the kind of behavior people expect from a private developer, not a city entity. He would like to see more oversight of CEDO, saying the oversight currently provided by council committees is inadequate. "Some of us have said over the years that there should be a citizen board or commission that oversees it. It's always been met with resistance."
Maybe Bob Kiss will change that. In his campaign for mayor, Kiss was also critical of the way the Moran Plant deal transpired. "Something slipped there," he says.
Kiss would like to promote "more meaningful participation from people in Burlington" around development issues. He says he would put any final decision about the Moran Plant up for a vote.
But Kiss isn't saying what else he'd change at CEDO. He hasn't yet spoken with Monte about the state of the department.
Monte speculates that Kiss will likely continue most of CEDO's programs and policies. "I don't expect that they're going to change dramatically," says Monte. "I do expect that he would probably emphasize certain things more than Peter has, which is typical of any mayor. He might ask us to do more around livable-wage programs. He might ask us to do more on microlending . . . It's a question of emphasis more than it's a complete turn-around or change. That's my sense of it."
But Monte may not be around to see the change; Kiss will have the option to dismiss the director, whose yearly appointment expires on June 30. Monte says he'd like to stay, despite the fact that he endorsed Kiss' opponent in the mayoral race. Kiss says he hasn't considered the matter yet.
But the mayor-to-be does praise CEDO. "It's become an integral part of the city's ability to shape the future," he says. "Elements of CEDO are definitely part of the solution, not part of the problem."
Kiss says he looks forward to delving into the details and finding ways to use CEDO to engage citizens. "If we didn't have CEDO," he says, "we'd be talking about how much we need it."