At the tree lighting ceremony on Burlington’s Church Street Marketplace last month, downtown business owners pressed upon those in attendance to shop at their stores this holiday season. They also spread the message that downtown is safe in an attempt to assuage fears around its negative perception. But, while they pine for your shopping dollars during peak consumer spending season, it’s clear these business owners still can’t help themselves and wish to continue playing the victim, never acknowledging the role they’ve played in creating a narrative of an unsafe downtown Burlington, one that trades in crime wave fearmongering and a disdain for vulnerable populations in the city.
Since 2020, a group of business owners has had the ear of local media and national outlets, which have run many stories about crime downtown and its direct impact on businesses, regularly quoting store owners, property owners, and their advocates. Homeport owner Mark Bouchett, Burlington Business Association head Kelly Devine, and real estate developer and former Church Street Marketplace Commission chair Jeff Nick are fixtures in such pieces. While the phenomenon is not limited to these three, each has directly contributed to the “unsafe” perception of downtown thanks to their comments. Magnified by media outlets keen to stir up clicks and viewers — outlets whose owners naturally share a similar worldview on property and police — retailers are finding their sensationalized statements might be hurting the one thing they truly care about: their bottom line.
Bouchett leads the charge, who in one breath can admit that downtown Burlington’s unsafe reputation “generally isn’t true” to VTDigger in late November, only to cry wolf weeks later to the Burlington Free Press that “concern has never been higher” about safety downtown, and “bad press” is one of the reasons consumers aren’t coming downtown. Whether in press statements or the confines of Marketplace Commission meetings, Bouchett has made his stances perfectly clear, but it seems he has a complete lack of awareness of his role in buoying that reputation. He leaves a paper trail in case he needs a refresher.
In September 2020, he penned a letter to Chittenden County’s state senate delegation and posted it on Homeport’s website before later removing it. The letter stated:
“The issues of public intoxication, open drug use, public urination and defecation, public sex acts, aggressive and harassing behavior, commandeering and blocking public thoroughfares, and sleeping or camping in both private and public spaces have always been with us. Furthermore, community spaces like The Church Street Marketplace have always been especially attractive to people who demonstrate these sorts of behaviors but sadly incidences like these have risen to an intolerable level.”
Bouchett also called on the delegation to inform the signatories of a “point at which a number of misdemeanor citations might be elevated to a criminal citation that cannot be ignored in the way these lesser deterrents have been. We know this is how many other states handle these matters and they are much better deterrents to aggressive anti-social behaviors. Allowing this to continue is bad for the residents, bad for the workforce, and ultimately harmful to even those engaged in such behavior.”
In December 2020, Bouchett was one of the subjects of a VTDigger article on public safety, in which he insisted his letter was about the safety of his employees, not the criminalization of homelessness and addiction.
Via Marketplace Commission meeting minutes, we can also see that Bouchett has used his platform as a commission officer, including a brief time as chair, to routinely complain about inadequate public safety, including:
- A discussion he had with Burlington Police Chief Jon Murad about why ordinances were not being enforced. (September 2022)
- Describing a meeting he had with city councilors Joan Shannon and Mark Barlow about working together to improve public safety and “how we should be better supporting the police, and how to best get the opinions of business owners heard by the city council.” (October 2022)
- Stating he was “disappointed” that a de-escalation training he attended was “too introductory” and “will be requesting further training that includes confrontation.” This comes seven months after Bouchett was featured in a WPTZ story confronting shoplifters, in which he stated, “Obviously, what you saw me do in that video, I would never ask my staff to do. That’s not their job, that’s not what they’re paid for.” (November 2022)
- Claiming traffic was down for businesses during the last holiday season, that theft is a “huge problem” for merchants, and that “laws need to be revised” while claiming the police are “hesitant” to do anything to offenders and that businesses will move out of downtown. In that same meeting, Bouchett states he attended a Champlain Housing Trust meeting and expressed “disappointment” that problems like “misbehavior and overflow” were not addressed. (January 2023)
- Stating that he attended a Public Safety Commission meeting in which he spoke on behalf of businesses “for the acute need to improve the state of safety and security” downtown. (May 2023)
- Reporting back from a recent merchant meeting, saying that retail theft is “robust” and restaurateurs are “distressed” and complain that foot traffic is down. The commission discussed how best to bring up the issue to the State’s Attorney. (July 2023)
Bouchett is far from the only business community member to run to reporters to find a sympathetic ear. Before him, Jeff Nick was chair of the Marketplace Commission for two decades, and he too has a record of comments that directly play into the public safety narrative surrounding Burlington, though his statements are much more direct in their aim, as he unapologetically targets the vulnerable and crusades for increased cop spending.
In 2019, Nick, who owns many commercial real estate units downtown, told Vermont Public that “Spending the entire day sitting on a milk crate or laying on a blanket or falling asleep on the blanket just feels like an anti-social behavior,” and “that really goes back to our mission, which is keeping the street vibrant, clean and safe.” This informs many of his viewpoints as years of Marketplace Commission meeting notes demonstrate a deep disdain for homeless individuals who congregate on the Marketplace. In a 2021 VTDigger piece about business owners meeting with Mayor Miro Weinberger over public safety concerns, Nick used a complaint he’s used since 2008: the city’s public right-of-way rule. It states that trespassing citations cannot be issued on the Church Street Marketplace, a public street. Nick, a big proponent of the Downtown Improvement District and the privatization of the Marketplace, called it a “thorn in the side of businesses that see the same people repeatedly causing problems.”
Other highlights include:
- In July and August of 2021, Nick appeared before the Police Commission and Burlington City Council, citing a private survey of Marketplace members saying 51 percent have been a victim of a crime in the last 12 months and that he’s “shocked” there isn’t a sense of urgency among city leaders, while also telling the council the city is experiencing an “emergency situation.”
- In April 2022, after a shoplifting incident at Homeport and Black Diamond, Nick was quoted by WPTZ, saying, “What we would like to see is a much greater police presence downtown. And we’re asking the city council to fully fund the police department this coming fiscal year. We absolutely need a greater police presence and law enforcement presence on the street, that’s for sure.” Two months later, the council voted to increase its officer cap back to 87 officers after business owners like Nick derided the officer cap of 74 set by the city council in 2020. Burlington fell to that threshold through attrition of officers, not defunding of resources, as Nick suggests. (It’s worth noting those resources were not utilized by the Burlington Police Department in 2021 to patrol downtown during key hours, a choice that many have argued was intentional, as a way to drum up safety concerns and push for an increase in the officer cap.)
- This October, Nick was interviewed in a story by WPTZ about businesses leaving downtown due to crime (only one of the businesses mentioned in the piece — Monelle — actually left downtown). He stated that all the properties he owns have been filled, but said “crime concern is still there” and that it’s happening because “retail theft laws aren’t strict enough.”
During his tenure as chair, some Marketplace Commission meeting notes have him calling for Vermont Speaker of the House Jill Krowinski to attend a meeting to discuss theft concerns in June 2021. In May 2022, he recalled a visit to Chicago, which prompted the following exchange between him and Mark Bouchett:
- Chairman Nick tells of his recent visit to Chicago, where he walked all over the city and saw no graffiti and no camping homeless people.
- He was told they just don’t allow it, so he wonders why we do.
- Mark [Bouchett] says, “People do what is allowed.”
As the head of the Burlington Business Association, Kelly Devine often spreads the gospel of fear on behalf of the business community downtown. This includes being the focal point of a national story run by The Daily Beast. Similar to Jeff Nick’s comments, Devine comments included quotes such as: “Why do people feel less safe downtown? I would say for certain the defunding of the police department is a contributing factor,” and railed against quality-of-life offenses not being prosecuted, which the article points out are a hallmark of “broken windows” policing. Fittingly, these tactics were mastered by Burlington Police Chief Jon Murad under the name “Precision Policing” during his time with the NYPD, who these same business owners and Devine have championed.
Some other samplings of Devine’s commentary include:
- After a September 2022 homicide in City Hall Park, Devine told WPTZ that she had “gotten letters and phone calls from people who have come to visit here and have taken time to reach out to me and say, ‘this is not the Burlington I know and love,’” in a piece titled “Burlington Businesses respond to weekend homicide.” (as if it wasn’t nakedly clear how local media and Church Street business owners are willing partners to manufacture fear in light of a tragedy)
- After two downtown jewelers experienced shoplifting in December 2022, Devine was quoted by WCAX report that implies the thefts were part of a broader “organized shoplifting” trend, an en vogue topic among small and national retailers, saying that “There seems to be word on the street that if you want to steal something, there are no consequences. That’s one of the biggest challenges we’re facing right now — people stealing in a way that is blatant, very over-the-top.” The National Retail Federation recently retracted its claim about organized shoplifting.
- In November, Devine was quoted in a WCAX report on the “exodus of Burlington businesses downtown,” where she stated that sales volumes were down and “public safety concerns” were among the reasons for the decline in foot traffic. She also claimed that the holiday season will be “critical” for “remaining businesses that are barely hanging on.”
- Devine penned a letter to the editor in the Saint Albans Messenger published in November, in which she positions the business community as being on the same front lines as UVM Medical Center personnel who’ve experienced patient violence, with statements like “Yet today we are facing one of our biggest – and hardest to address – problems in recent memory: the slow erosion of the norms that guide how we interact with each other as decent humans. From minor slights to major altercations and right through to blatant criminal acts, our downtown is daily facing the challenges of this behavior,” and “As the scope of illness and challenges in our community intensifies, I have learned that the potential for violence at the hospital has grown.”
- On November 30th, Devine was quoted extensively by the far right-wing publication the Vermont Daily Chronicle in a piece regarding a 2022 Vermont legislature bill that would allow for the cost of stolen goods to be aggregated to press felony charges against offenders, which Devine supports. Devine claimed that theft goes “underreported” because it’s not a high priority for the Burlington Police, while the theft of multiple sizes of one item means it “goes for cash or to support a drug habit.”
When the views of business owners and police officials are uncritically repeated, their preferred narratives are weaved into the common sense of the media and political class.
Take the Walgreens on South Winooski Avenue, for example. Seven Days published an article on a surveillance device outside the pharmacy’s parking lot in August. The reporting tied shoplifting at Walgreens locations nationally to stores closing across the country, something easily debunked at press time by a company executive, as the shrink rate decreased nationally. Seven Days would later acknowledge this in an article about the location’s closing, stating that labor shortages, unsafe working conditions due to company policies, and changes in consumer habits are the primary causes, not retail theft.
Though he’s been among business owners drumming up crime wave narratives, Marc Sherman’s Outdoor Gear Exchange is scaling down operations at its Church Street location not because of crime but changes in consumer habits and fewer office workers downtown since the COVID-19 pandemic precipitated remote and hybrid work. But, to the average local news watcher and online commentator, those details don’t matter: it only serves as further confirmation that Burlington is a hellhole beyond repair.
Narratives surrounding businesses leaving downtown have been overblown, as Church Street Marketplace Executive Director Kara Alnasrawi shared a list with VTDigger of businesses downtown closing, all of which are set to be replaced by new businesses, essentially a net zero for vacant storefronts. If downtown were so unsafe, there’d be challenges filling locations, and real estate on the Marketplace would take a tumble. Neither has been the case.
Now, touting beefed-up downtown security thanks to $100,000 in Covid relief funds and a Pomerleau Foundation grant, along with the police department offering overtime shifts on the Marketplace, these same business owners want you to know, at least temporarily for Christmas, everything they’d been saying wasn’t as bad as it was made out to be, and it’s a great time for you to line their pockets with your holiday spending.
What these business owners are not doing is reckoning with their hand in their role in seeing a downturn in their own business. When you run to the media to cry wolf about petty theft in your stores, decry undesirables loitering near your entrance, or even allude to the total demise of the Marketplace to the media, then you shouldn’t be surprised that potential customers, particularly those who shop at the boutique and expensive shops not aimed at the average Burlington resident, will start to believe you. You’ll end up with hundreds of reactionaries signing a public safety letter* that trades in the same narratives the business class uses in the media to paint the city as unsafe. Instead of using $100,000 in funds to assist those in the throes of addiction or helping them get housing and services, it’s used for police to do what policing has always done: protect property and its owners. Meanwhile, the state has yet to fund a suitable replacement for its early pandemic-era motel program for the unhoused in Vermont.
Years of a steady drumbeat at the hands of local businesses, police, and media have naturalized the notion that while Vermonters experiencing homelessness, addiction, or a mental health crisis may be a shame, the visible effects of those social ills downtown are a problem an order of magnitude more pressing, and for which money must always be found to confront. Bouchett told the Burlington Free Press last week that “both the public and the disadvantaged want to be downtown.” Fashioning a rhetorical “public” that excludes the disadvantaged may seem distasteful during the holiday season, but for a business owner, it’s essential.
*NOTE: There’s more than one person in Burlington and the entire state of Vermont who shares my name. One is a signatory of this letter. Let the record state that it is not me.
Matt Moore is a writer from Vermont. He is on the editorial collective of The Rake Vermont.