The City of St. Albans last week announced that Genesee & Wyoming’s American Rail Dispatching Center would be relocated in the old Fonda Container area off Lower Newton street.

There is a lot of history in that simple declarative sentence. The dispatching center is essentially the lion’s share of what remains of the railroad, an industry that defined St. Albans for the better part of a century. A 10,000 square foot building will be constructed by the Connor Group to house the dispatchers, and it will be built on the Fonda site, which was a paper product manufacturing operation dating back to the 1940s. It closed its doors in 2005, with the city purchasing it in 2007.

Both businesses — Fonda and then Central Vermont Railroad — were among the city’s largest employers and both faded from their places of prominence in the roughly 20 years from 1985 to 2005. Fonda’s doors shut in 2005, with the dispatching center being the largest part of the railroad that still operates out of St. Albans.

It’s been a struggle since to make up what was lost.

Last week’s news gives fresh hope on both ends. It’s also critical to note that announcing plans to build a 10,000 square foot plant for the dispatchers is another way of saying, here’s how we keep those jobs from going elsewhere. There are no immediate plans for another business to be located at the railroad’s building at the corner of Lake Street and Federal Street. The proposed new building is what the company needs to keep the jobs here. Period.

That’s 63 jobs, which on a Vermont-scale is a good-sized business. It’s a safe bet the dispatching company boasts a $4 million to $6 million annual payroll.

Keeping those jobs is the most important consideration and is win number one. Win number two is building the new dispatching center on the Fonda site which has laid fallow for a half dozen years. As St. Albans City Manager Dominic Cloud explained, the dispatching center is the first step toward populating the site with other businesses, businesses that will quickly add to the city’s grand list, which is win number three.

It’s one of the city’s last TIF projects. Voters will be asked to devote $1 million of the TIF money to complete the project. A $400,000 Northern Borders Regional Commission grant and a $25,000 grant from Franklin County Industrial Development Corporation will be used to help fund the project, which will include the installation of utilities and a new access road. It’s also a project that will hopefully complete the site’s brownfield remediation needs.

The city’s end goal would be to fully develop the roughly five acres, which could accommodate a planned-for addition of two other businesses. The infrastructure plus the new dispatching center building are the motivation for other businesses to step forward.

What the city’s taxpayers are being asked to approve is the allocation of $1 million of the Tax Increment Financing toward building the dispatching center. It’s like asking whether the taxpayers are willing to spend one million to save 63 jobs and four or five million in payroll. It’s like asking whether, on top of keeping the jobs here, we’re supportive of an investment that increases the city’s grand list, which is what’s used to repay the TIF.

It would be difficult to think of a question that would be easier to answer in the affirmative.

It’s a triple win. Bit by bit, this is an example of how Vermont turns its demographic challenges around.

By Emerson Lynn

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