The latest lament in Burlington about “those people” hanging out around the Church Street Marketplace has got me thinking: Maybe someone will decide to revive “Westward Ho!”
For newcomers to the Queen City, Westward Ho! was a late-’80s initiative  of Dennis Morrisseau and his wife Laura Thompson, founders of Leunig’s Café. Tim Halvorson, of Halvorson’s Upstreet Café, also got on board.
The concept was simple: Buy the homeless and destitute loiterers downtown a one-way ticket out of Burlington to the U.S. destination of their dreams, via bus, plane or train. One individual got shipped to Portland, Ore., by plane.
Today, some in Burlington seem more interested in banning “those people” from downtown than shipping them out of state. Options on the table include curtailing people’s ability to sit on the city sidewalks , banning smoking on Church Street, and pushing social services to the suburbs .
Could Westward Ho! make a comeback?
“My advice to anyone today is not to touch the thing with a 10-foot pole,” said Morrisseau, now a West Pawlet resident who’s a secessionist candidate for state senate.
Is the city’s economy damaged by the riff raff? Let’s look at the numbers.
As of December, just 6.1 percent of the city’s retail space was vacant, according to Bruce Seifer of Burlington’s Community and Economic Development Office. The regional average is 6.5 percent.
The central business district’s vacancy rate was higher: 7.8 percent. Its long-term average vacancy rate? 8.5 percent.
Then there’s the money.
City revenues from local option taxes — rooms and meals, and sales — topped $2 million in 2007 and slid to $1.75 million in 2009 as a result of the recession.
As of March 31 this year, the city had collected $486,000 — more than in any first quarter since the city began collecting the extra taxes in 2006. That number also exceeds revenues from every single quarter of 2009.
Morrisseau recently visited the Marketplace. “Everybody has to be somewhere. Everybody’s got to eat and also make a buck,” he observed. “Vibrancy helps all those things, yes?”
Guess it depends on whom you ask.
Go West, Young Man
The soon-to-be ex-publisher of the Burlington Free Press, Brad Robertson, is riding into the sunset. After just two and a half years on the job, the thirtysomething Robertson is leaving Vermont  to accept a promotion as president of Gannett Local  and vice president of business development for the U.S. Community Publishing division, which oversees Gannett’s 81 daily newspapers.
Gannett Local, based in Phoenix, Ariz., is akin to the “191 College”  service that Robertson launched last year — an in-house team that helps advertisers with marketing and social media.
But Robertson had to carry out some less pleasant duties, too, while in Burlington. Like many beleaguered daily newspaper publishers, he had to steer a listing ship , carry out sweeping layoffs and furloughs, cut back on benefits and raise newsstand prices.
During Robertson’s reign, in an effort to consolidate and cut jobs, Gannett moved the daily’s circulation call center to Kentucky and outsourced graphic design to India. This year the company will move any remaining in-house ad production to the Midwest.
Did the changes help?
Not according to print circulation and web readership figures.
Between March 2009 to March 2010, circulation dropped  from 35,448 to 32,993 on weekdays and from 43,513 to 42,216 on Sunday.
The daily’s web traffic, according to an internal corporate spreadsheet obtained by GannettBlog , has taken a similar dive. The number of monthly unique visitors to the Free Press site dropped from 385,844 in April 2009 to 362,703 in April 2010. The same happened with total page views — they slipped from 4.3 million in April 2009 to 3.6 million in April 2010.
On Tuesday, the paper sent out a survey for Target, which regularly inserts flyers into the Freeps. City Councilor Nancy Kaplan (D-Ward 4) immediately tweeted that the paper had misspelled its own name in the subject line.
Guess axing copy editors wasn’t such a good idea.
Ironically, Robertson has used social media to steer the Freeps into the 21st century and infuse new life into it . He encouraged reporters to engage with readers on Facebook and Twitter, and provided readers with streaming video coverage of debates, meetings and interviews. He also created niche print sections and publications: Green Mountain, Savorvore and Free Press Express are a few that have caught on.
Robertson boosters say he is a good listener. In an email to staffers he wrote, “I arrived here in October 2007 with a goal of making an impact, a big contribution to the Burlington community and as I am preparing to leave I realize that it is I who have been changed, who has been impacted by Vermont.” His predecessor, Jim Carey, wouldn’t have been caught dead saying that.
Two to Tango
A number of readers howled when I called Entergy Vermont Yankee a legislative “winner”  in last week’s column. Fret not. Give ENVY a week and they’ll find a new way to scare the bejesus out of us.
Late Friday, after the close of business, VY announced strontium 90 had been detected in the soil that had been dug up and removed after being soaked with tritium earlier this year. ENVY has nearly finished the task of pumping thousands of gallons of water out of the ground and removing contaminated soil.
The reported levels of strontium 90 — which has a half-life of 30 years — were 20 times higher than the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s limits for residential soil, and 6000 times higher than what’s recommended for agricultural use.
The strontium was detected as deep as 17 feet below the surface, said Larry Smith, ENVY spokesman. Testing will continue near the leak source, but Smith wouldn’t say if ENVY will check for strontium in other areas.
That worries legislative consultant Arnie Gundersen, who fears the strontium 90 could be moving toward the Connecticut River — a possibility, given the leak’s age and size.
For months, state health and ENVY officials parroted the claim that any strontium 90 readings were due to: a) residue from a fuel rod mishap in the 1970s; b) fallout from Chernobyl; c) fallout from nuclear bomb testing; or d) all of the above.
What about a tritium leak  at a nuclear power plant where strontium 90 is a byproduct of the fission process? Pshaw.
Once again, Gundersen has proved prescient . He asked the state Department of Health, and Entergy, to test for strontium back in February. They pooh-poohed his request.
ENVY got the strontium results on Monday, it told the state on Wednesday, and both camps released the news to the public late Friday.
That Sinking Feeling
Given the size and severity of the tritium leak, how long do you think it took to find? One week? One month? Six months? A year?
Try two years.
“Based on the model and the locations of the leakage source and the first well to show tritium contamination, I believe the contaminated water may have started leaking from the AOG pipe tunnel two years before being initially detected at the river’s edge,” Dr. William Irwin, the state’s radiological health chief, told “Fair Game.”
Irwin made the claim after reviewing analyses conducted by the Agency of Natural Resources and an independent consultant hired by Entergy.
Irwin says the leak likely started in early 2008, dispelling the myth that it was a one-time occurrence in January 2010.
Shouldn’t there have been signs of a leak before January?
In fact, there were. Five, to be exact.
According to a recent report by Nuclear Safety Associates, a consultant hired by the state Department of Public Service, ENVY staff reported five sink holes from July 2008 and April 2010 near the site of the recent leak.
The list of Statehouse retirees  continues to grow. This week, Rep. Ginny Milkey (D-Brattleboro) decided against a sixth term. Don’t be surprised if a Progressive jumps into the race. Two of the five House Progs hail from there.
A Democratic primary is shaping up in the two-seat district home of Reps. David Zuckerman (P-Burlington) and Kesha Ram (D-Burlington). Zuckerman is not running for reelection, but his former Progressive seatmate, Chris Pearson, is. Ram bested Pearson in 2008.
To win reelection, however, Ram will first need to win the August 24 primary. She’s facing two challengers: Peg Boyle Single and Keith Pillsbury, a school board member.
On the Senate side , Democrat David Yacavone will seek Lamoille County’s single senate seat being vacated by Sen. Susan Bartlett, who’s running for governor. Yacavone is a former official with the Agency of Human Services and now lobbies for the Vermont Association of Hospitals and Health Systems.
The race to replace gubernatorial hopeful Senate President Pro Tem Peter Shumlin (D-Windham) may be another Democratic primary to watch.
Toby Young, a Democrat and former House member, is in the race, as is former U.N. diplomat Peter Galbraith. Galbraith flirted with the idea of running for governor in 2008. Running for reelection in the two-seat Windham district is Democrat Sen. Jeannette White.
All the Buzz
Former Free Press business reporter Dan McLean is making a quick transition  from the press to “senior press advisor” for U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT).
Last week, Sanders’ office launched “Vermont Bernie Buzz,”  or “Vermont Buzz” for short. It’s an in-depth look at Vermont issues with original reportage from McLean and comments from the boss, ’natch.
“Vermont Buzz” sounds familiar … oh, right, it’s the name of the Freeps’ political blog . Hmm.
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