One of downtown Barre’s true success stories can be found at Studio Place Arts, and Sue Higby, who’s served as executive director for more than 15 years, is largely the reason. In addition, she’s a member of the Barre City Council, representing Ward1, and Barre Promise Community, a group of local organizations that collaborate regularly on programs for young families and children in Barre City. Add to that an impressive range of experiences at national research institutions and environmental nonprofits—the National Council on Science and the Environment, The Nature Conservancy, and Resources for the Future—and it’s perhaps not so shocking that she’s throwing her hat in the ring to become the next mayor of Barre.
Higby was kind enough to sit down with The Bridge to discuss her background, campaign, and agenda.
The Bridge: SPA has been a highly successful enterprise in downtown Barre, a downtown that has been hurting for a long time. How do you account for the success?
Sue Higby: I appreciate you recognizing what Studio Place Arts is and what we offer, and this is a project that involved a very significant renovation project on a building that had experienced a fire and was left vacant. So, we saved that building and created an entirely new, non-profit organization from scratch—no members, no artists, no identity, no track record. You can imagine how difficult it was, and also how challenging and expensive the budget was.
I’ve been involved with Studio Place Arts as a director for fifteen years, and I was an early volunteer as well because I thought that the project offered so much to downtown Barre. How did I do it? Basically, I’ve been involved in the non-profit sector for a long, long time, so, I have a lot of experience that is very useful and constructive for pushing Studio Place Arts forward.
If you are a political candidate with a significant non-profit sector experience, there are a lot of skill sets that are useful. Basically, you are effective in developing strategies, and budgeting, and collaborating with teams. Inclusiveness is important in a non-profit area, as well as in the city at large, for example, teamwork, frugality, evaluating results, making adjustments. I look at the various experiences that I’ve had over the past 36 years in the non-profit sector, and I think, these are skills that could be very useful for sharing at mayoral level here in the City of Barre.
Are there any of these skills you mentioned in terms of the success of SPA that would be particularly useful in the role of mayor?
SH: I think all of the categories will be useful because I have on the ground management, planning, and budget experience. I’m on the city council right now. I represent Ward One, and I have already seen that my experience is invaluable to making basic decisions, but specifically, what I would say, is that I’ve been a long-time leader of Studio Place Arts, and I have relationships in this region and around our state that could help build new associations to position Barre City for more business investments, more home purchases, and more collaborations with municipalities nearby.
In terms of municipal affairs, it sounds like the bulk of your experience has come from your service on the Barre City Council. Is that the most directly relatable experience you have?
SH: I’ve also served on the Civic Center Committee since 2014, and I’ve served as a member of the Charles Semprebon Fund Committee from early 2011 through 2013.I’ve been a volunteer on a number of different projects that have been to the benefit of Barre City.
Why do you want to become mayor of Barre and take on all that stress?
SH: Isn’t there an old saying that if you want something to get done, ask a busy person? There are people who do things, and there are people who don’t. I do things.
And that’s why you want to run for mayor?
SH: I live here, have worked downtown for fifteen years, and really care about the current and future condition of our downtown, our neighborhoods, and our community members. And while I’m really proud of this city, I’m also very eager to push this city forward so we can continue to move ahead and become an attractive and economically vital place.
When did you make the decision to run for mayor?
SH: I think mid-December, very recently. Ona personal note, I lost one of my parents this fall, and what I realized is that I had an enormous amount of my mind focused and worried about my mother and that I needed to invest some of that space in my mind in something that was productive. When you are very focused on helping and trying to be available and worried about various outcomes, that when there’s a death, you realize how quickly you need to do something else.
How do you assess the situation downtown? Why after years of investment, are there still so many empty storefronts?
SH: That’s a very complicated question. Certainly, what I would like to see here in the city is a more open and competitive environment for our downtown, and I think that will affect new business investors.
Are you saying that you don’t think it is open and competitive enough at the moment?
SH: I am saying that I will create more open meetings, more public sessions for revisions about what the future of Barre City should be. I will manage meetings very carefully for results, and I will restore faith in our city’s governmental processes.
That would indicate to me that you think there is a loss of faith in management thus far.
SH: Please do not put those words in my mouth. I am telling you what I will do.
Do you think Barre has an image problem?
SH: I do want to respond to some of the image issues of Barre, not just marketing and advertising. I think sadly enough that there is an image issue that has existed for a while. I lived in Montpelier for eight years before I moved here, and I remember that when I announced I was moving to Barre City, some of my friends and colleagues were openly disgusted with me, “Why would you move to Barre?” My response was that I found my dream neighborhood and my dream house. I think part of what you might be hearing is income snobbery, sort of an elitism, which shouldn’t exist. I think through open conversations and earnest sharing of some of the great assets here, I have been able to open people’s minds.
You said you would not seek the endorsement from the Democratic or Republican parties. Why not?
SH: For local elections, that would be highly inappropriate. That’s how local races should run. I certainly have supporters within the local Dems. I think I have supporters amongst the local Republicans, too. This is a local race. It’s a mayoral race. It should be party free.
Are you registered as an Independent, then?
SH: I identify as a moderate Democrat.
Let’s talk about your agenda. What’s on the top of your policy wish list? What are the main things you would like to achieve? What issues are particularly important for you?
SH: The success of our downtown is linked to the health of our neighborhoods, and we have a wonderful amount of affordable housing within a walkable, bikeable reach of our downtown, and so, I want to seek opportunities to improve our housing stock by raising incentives to repair those homes and increase the percentage of owner-occupied homes.
I look around and I see a lot of new talent moving into Barre as well as passion to see some new outcomes. There needs to be a new, directed approach to identify people and get them more involved in the improvement of our community. One of the really great ideas that came up when I was out doing some meetings with previous mayors is that former mayor, Peter Anthony, suggested that to identify and bring in new talent for community projects was through welcoming meetings. When people buy new homes, invite them to City Hall every other month as a welcome wagon to encourage people to know their councilor, to describe what they want out of the city, and who they are.
That will make it possible for us to be in a much stronger position to use their skills and relationships to help build the city.
Looking at the budget proposals up for a vote on Town Meeting Day, are there any that you strongly support or oppose?
SH: I definitely support the general operating budget. It went to several different meetings and workshops to try to cut expenditures and get the highest value. I think there are a few little nips and tucks. One of the areas in the general budget that we will be able to adjust mid-year and see some savings has been the City of Barre has not gone out to get bids on workers’ comp. Insurance. At a meeting a few weeks ago, I suggested it would make sense, given the increase from last year to this year incurred in workers’ comp expenses, that we ought to go out and get a new bid. In fact, I think we will see some savings mid-year on that section.
There is a proposal for funding for repairing our pool. Because in my excursions, doing door-to-door campaigning, I’ve heard a lot of my neighbors and community members talk about the great importance of having recreational resources for children, teens, and families. I am definitely very supportive of spending money to repair the pool and put it in a position where it will not need too many repairs for the next 20 years. I wish we could afford building a new pool, but we have so many other priorities
The local options (rooms, meals, and alcohol)tax issue is something I am supporting. I’m not enthusiastic about this tax but I have supported it because we need more revenue. I’m not enthusiastic about it because in talking with local businesspeople, and in reading are port from the local Barre Partnership group, it’s clear to me that restaurants and other affected businesses do have some concerns. We need the money. That’s why I have voted for it.
Do you support the $15 minimum wage?
SH: The cost of living in Vermont is much higher than most people think, so the minimum wage issue is important. My instinct is that you’ve got to phase in the change over a period of time. I would say over a period of four years makes sense to me. It shouldn’t be something that happens right away.
Which of these skills that you’ve demonstrated at SPA will be particularly useful in the role of mayor?
SH: What I’ve discovered is that people who have been here for a long time have at some level become frustrated and don’t have as much hope and pride as they had in the past. I didn’t realize that there were as many people as there seemed to be who feel less empowered, and they want to see outcomes for our city that will make them feel even more proud.
The process of selecting a new mayor is kind of like a relay race. There are different personalities and skills based on what place you have on that relay team. In the relay teams that I ran, I was always in the second position. That’s because the second leg is about lane position, strategy, and all-out sprints, and that’s what I bring to the table. I’m the right person to pass the baton to right now. I know what’s needed, and I’m going to move on it.