WINDSOR, Vt. — As part of broader effort to re-develop the Windsor riverfront — essentially the area between Main Street and the shoreline — Town Manager Tom Marsh and Zoning Administrator Bob Haight are presenting a series of videos on Windsor On Air, the community television channel. “Connecting the Right Side of the Tracks” is now in its sixth episode (posted June 5) and several more are planned. These simple but well-produced segments feature Marsh and Haight standing in front of various buildings and spaces and talking about what their historical uses were and what their current use is or what potential uses could be found.
Episode #6 opens in front of the Amtrak station, which is about to get a makeover. At the time of the recording the pre-construction meeting was a week off and work was due to begin at the end of this month. The Windsor station, Marsh said, is one of the five smallest in the entire Amtrak system, but it is also one that has seen “interesting growth.” At present there is no obvious platform, but a 50-foot one will be built elevated 9 inches above the track so that the conductor does not have to set out a stool for passengers getting on or off the train. The old “platform” will be removed and replaced with a curb that will add 2 feet to the width of the road next to it. Other additions include a new row of lights and a weatherproof hut built around the existing lift. The area immediately around the station will also be trimmed of weeds and the drainage will be improved.
Haight is the town’s zoning administrator, but Marsh conscientiously discloses that he is also one of the owners of the “railyards” property. Haight and several partners bought it from the railroad a few years ago and have been re-developing it a piece at time since then. Other parts of this area, once the Stacy lumber yard, are now owned by the town. Standing in front of a Herb Ferris sculpture, one of several that are on loan from the Windsor artist and serve as focal points for parts of the railyards that have been somewhat reclaimed.
Marsh noted that some of the old Stacy buildings were painted by prisoners last year and that new lights have been added to the path in this area, but a huge sandpile is still present and is covering what was once a rotary that turned railcars around. The town manager hopes to have the pile moved and some of the old lumber yard buildings repaired “before next winter.”
One focus of renewed activity is a building that was historically the Windsor Community Farmers’ Exchange. It has been turned into a community arts-performance venue and is also available for meetings and conferences. A sound system and equipment to record video and audio have been installed.
Haight said that he is working with Brendan D’Angelo and Chris Goulet to gather community support “to see what’s possible” in this building. Marsh chimed in to list some recent events, including a Motown dance night and regular Sunday performances by the Dave Legacy band. There was a private post-graduation party there this past weekend, and in the near future a band is scheduled to make part of an album there.
“It’s casual,” said Marsh to his video audience. “It’s always cheap and maybe not on your radar yet.” The Windsor Farmers Exchange is on Facebook and the events are also listed at the WOA calendar page. “Bring a picnic and a bottle of wine,” suggested Marsh. “It’s a real asset to the community.”
In contrast, much of the railyards are still vacant. Marsh estimated it comprised 4 to 5 acres. As recently as the 1960s there was still economic activity there and was a “key part of business in town.” A half century later some of the 14 buildings there are completely dilapidated. Marsh and Haight stood in front of a steam engine that was found under debris of a former boiler house that made electricity for the Cone campus in the early 1900s.
“We couldn’t bear to throw it away,” Haight said. “This one was made in Claremont, but it is the kind of thing that used to be made in Windsor in the railyard area. There was a huge foundry where the sandpile is.”
The steam engine is parked at the entrance to the Windsor Tech Park — the former Cone campus — and Haight believes that there is room nearby for several new buildings on the scale of what now exists at the Artisan Park north of the village. He is thinking that small manufacturing spaces would be appropriate.
“The floodplain here,” he said, “is higher than at the Goodyear site. These rails couldn’t be used, but the geometry to restore rail is still here.” Haight said that he was showing a prospective tenant the property and that person remarked that, if he had access to rail, his transportation costs would decline by 40%. Haight said that rail access is now rare in Vermont and shouldn’t be dismissed from the Windsor railyards’ future.
The railyards are not without environmental baggage. “Everything between Main Street and the river is a brown field,” Haight said, “in the sense that it has experienced 150 years of railroad exhaust settling onto the ground.” There are, however, no records of any spills, which led him to describe the environmental problems as “relatively innocuous.”
Because the whole area is in the floodplain, any building constructed would have to be raised 2 feet above the ground, which Haight, who is also an architect, pointed out makes it straightforward to prevent vapors from the ground from getting into the buildings.
One venerable building in the railyards that is in relatively good shape is an old arms warehouse. Weapons built in what is now the American Precision Museum were stored here before being loaded onto a train. Marsh believed it was a potential site for retail businesses that did not depend on walk-in traffic.
“Why wasn’t the Artisan Park built here?” Marsh said he is often asked this question. There were many factors related to the state of markets and ownership at the time the Artisan Park was proposed. He sees the railyards as related to the revival of downtown Windsor. It is now time, Marsh said, to improve downtown with businesses “that are appropriate for our time.” Some of the present challenges include a tight labor market and the existence of abundant vacant commercial space throughout the state. Windsor has the advantage of ready access to Route 5, three-phase power, and municipal water and sewer.
“Artisan Park is mostly built out,” Haight said, “but it has demonstrated the viability of small companies. This [the railyards] was not an attractive place when the Artisan Park was started. Many changes have been made, and now it is more believable that there is the possibility of something positive happening here.”
“Incremental positive changes,” Marsh added, “builds momentum.”
Neither Marsh nor Haight expected Windsor to return to heavy manufacturing. Both of them remarked more than once in the course of the video just how noisy Windsor must have been in its heyday.
Marsh said that the railroad wanted $500,000 for the property, but Haight and his partners had negotiated a fair price. Around the time of the purchase there were other positive changes occurring, like the establishment of the bike shop nearby. “All the windows were smashed when he bought that building,” Marsh said of the bike shop. “Now people can look at it and see progress.”
Visit woa-tv.org to view all the “Connecting the Right Side of the Tracks” videos.