Vermont could be home to its first privately-operated highway rest stop if a proposal in Randolph goes forward.
The proposed Green Mountain Center would sit just off the Interstate 89 Exit in Randolph. The 5,000-square-foot visitor center would have the usual essentials for rest areas: toilets, maps, vending machines and a place to walk the dog. But unlike any other Vermont rest areas, it would come with a 40,000-square-foot facility showcasing Vermont products, all at no taxpayer expense.
"It's something new for Vermont. It has the potential to be a really good project," said Rep. Patsy French, D-Randolph.
Three years ago the state closed four rest areas in an effort to save money. While running for governor, Peter Shumlin pledged to reopen the rest areas and explore public-private partnerships. Randolph developer Sam Sammis, who owns the 174-acre site, says the nearly $10 million project is a win-win. The state gets a tastefully designed visitors center at no cost and businesses, artists and other organizations get a prime location to display their wares.
"What's important to us is to make sure that if we don't have the money to fund them with state dollars so that they're state facilities, that we find ways-- as this public private partnership is hopeful in doing-- that we can provide these services through a state sanctioned visitor center that's privately operated," said Ed von Turkovich of the Vt. Department of Buildings and General Services.
Questions remain about the extent of retail sales that will be allowed on site and how that will affect commerce downtown.
French says she has heard only positive reviews.
"He'll have a part that is dedicated to advertising Randolph-area businesses, as well as other Vermont products. So yes, because it's this limited kind of retail, I think that people are in favor of this," French said.
Other groups have raised concerns about the state's longstanding policy to avoid development at interstate exits, issues that will need to be ironed out in the Act 250 permitting process. As to whether the proposal creates the appearance of governmental preference to one business, state officials say the Randolph developer was in the right place at the right time.
"Between Williston and Sharon on the northbound there is nothing and we should welcome our visitors to Vermont
and allow them to have facilities," French said.
The Shumlin administration briefed lawmakers about the proposal Tuesday. Committee members took no formal vote, but agreed that the state should move forward with the project.
We've also got an update on the state-run rest area on Interstate 91 in Hartford. That facility has been undergoing major repairs. Officials expect it to reopen by the end of September.