BRATTLEBORO—There are two views from the seventh floor of the Hooker-Dunham Building.
Looking from the windows overlooking Brattleboro’s Main Street, a scene unfolds of people on their lunch break visiting local restaurants, and of shoppers and tourists pausing to watch the restoration of the historic Brooks House.
From the window behind Luke Q. Stafford and Meryl Robinson’s desks: a hazy summer landscape filled by the Connecticut River and Mount Wantastiquet. Kayakers paddle the river. Birds dip and swoop from the tree branches. Pillowy clouds gather against a bright blue sky.
Give Stafford, Robinson, Tim Wessel, and Frederic Noyes camera equipment, laptops, and Internet access and they can work anywhere.
They would likely earn more money living and working in Anywhere, USA, instead of calling southern Vermont home.
Yet the quality of life they enjoy in living around Brattleboro compensates for the larger salaries they could make elsewhere.
“We chose place over salary,” said Luke Q. Stafford, owner of Mondo Mediaworks, a marketing agency that specializes in Web content.
Mondo provides social media management, video production, public relations, advertising, and website content management.
“I’ll be creative and do what it takes to stay here,” he said.
Stafford launched his marketing company from his home in Williamsville in 2009, then moved shop to the Hooker-Dunham and rented a co-working space with two fellow entrepreneurs. As Mondo grew, he took over renting half of a very large office in the Hooker-Dunham.
Mondo has grown at more 50 percent each year, Stafford said. The company supports three full-time positions and four part-time positions. Employees are aged 23 to 37.
About 25 percent of the company’s clients hail from Windham County, he said. But without clients from outside Vermont, Mondo would not have grown at the same steady rate.
A twisting road peppered with a lean jobs market and layoffs led Stafford to launching his own business.
Stafford graduated from St. Michael’s College in Colechester with a degree in journalism in 2003.
“It was a fruitless exercise trying to get a job at a newspaper,” he said of the post-college job hunt.
Stafford and his wife, Suzanne E. Paugh, also a St. Mike’s grad and an artist, moved west. Stafford taught snowboarding, worked construction, and wrote freelance for a few years.
But, he said, he and Paugh wanted to return to Vermont.
Stafford grew up in upper New York State. He fell in love with Vermont and its mountains at 13 during a snowboarding trip to Stratton Mountain Ski Resort. As a college student, he structured his classes around snowboarding.
Stafford said he feels aligned with the politics of Vermont. He appreciates how community members inhabit both ends of the political spectrum sometimes simultaneously.
“The democracy that exists here is genuine,” he said. “You see democracy in action.”
The first time he spoke at a Town Meeting, Stafford said he felt his words made a difference.
When Stafford and Paugh returned to Southern Vermont, Stafford taught snowboarding in the area before landing a job in Mount Snow’s marketing department. Stafford found he was good at marketing and liked it.
After about four years, Stafford lost the Mount Snow job in a round of layoffs conducted under the ski resort’s new management, an experience he said was traumatizing.
Stafford moved on to a six-month “adventure” with Run Tellman Run.
According to its website, Tellman Knudson of Brattleboro attempted to run barefoot across America to benefit homeless children. The run was not completed.
While traveling with Tellman, Stafford directed a documentary and handled public relations. Over those six months, he formulated Mondo Mediaworks.
Stafford said he always wanted to launch his own business and felt “sick of being at the whim and mercy of somebody else’s budget.”
The days of people having one career, building a pension, and living nice and safe, said Stafford, “just don’t exist anymore.” Instead, the father of two said he feels safer owning his own company:
“I can trust myself and, with all the responsibility on me, I know the buck stops with me.”
Stafford and Paugh, with their two daughters and their chickens, live on 15 acres. The couple also harvest maple sugar. “It’s a dream come true for me,” he said.
He works from Brattleboro because the town’s culture allows for innovation and agility, and accepts an alternative lifestyle that his business needs to remain creative.
It’s easy as a business owner to get “bogged down” in the area’s bad economic news, such as the upcoming closure of VY and the reality of an aging population, he said. Sometimes he just doesn’t listen.
While Stafford doesn’t want to play down the struggles business face, his strategy is to remember that he wants to live in this area — and that he’ll find ways to make the business work.
Low overhead is a lucky aspect of Mondo, said Stafford. He’s never needed to rack up debt to expand the business.
Hiring people has always been Stafford’s biggest business decision. “Slow and purposeful growth is an ideal I’ve stuck to,” he said.
For Stafford, this has meant no loans and no debt.
When asked whether Vermont was a difficult place to run a business, Stafford answered, “I literally have nothing to complain about running a marketing company.”
Meryl Robinson, Mondo’s coordinator, said she also chose place over income.
She moved from western New York state to Vermont for the mountains. She met Stafford at Stratton, where she taught skiing and worked in marketing.
“I feel like it was a charmed story in a way,” she said of coming to work at Mondo.
At Stratton, Robinson felt she had little job mobility. Mondo feels like it will give her opportunity to grow with the company.
Robinson said she enjoys living in Vermont because of the “world of things to do and places to go.”
Freelancing and multiple jobs
Frederic Noyes supports living in Brattleboro through freelance video camera work, teaching, and as a landlord.
Noyes and his partner, Kathy Urffer, have two children. Although Brattleboro is a great place to raise children, Noyes worries it is a challenging town for teenagers.
He jokes that he moved from Syracuse, N.Y., to Vermont in 2002, to “get away from the snow.”
While Syracuse is not the biggest metropolitan area, Noyes said he prefers living in a smaller town — though he admits to pining for sushi at 11 p.m. and wishing Brattleboro had a bigger culinary scene.
When asked why he decided to stay in Brattleboro when he might make more money elsewhere, Noyes said, “It feels like home. […] It’s the best of small-town living mixed with a lot of options nearby.”
Noyes said most of his video work falls within a two-hour drive from home, and that he earns about as much in media work as he does in real estate.
He said he’s found that the area rewards entrepreneurs and speculated that Vermonters are accustomed to holding down three or four jobs for love and/or money.
A nice aspect of the area is that its cottage economy allows for small businesses and sole proprietorships, he said.
As a landlord and Town Meeting member, Noyes said he has wrestled with the town’s dilemma around high property taxes. The trajectory of increasing property taxes has concerned him.
Noyes said while he wants the town departments to have budgets that support their needs, as a landlord he also feels reluctant to raise rents and risk losing good tenants.
He felt the town’s budget discussions and meeting members’ support of a second reduced municipal budget in June reached a good compromise.
Although he could move to a town with better job opportunities and a larger tax base, Noyes said he’s willing to make compromises “to make it work for my family.”
Wessel, who is a video editor and an owner of Vermont Films Group, Inc., moved to Vermont from New Jersey in 2001.
While he also supplements his media life with landlord duties, Wessel said he’s trying to scale back the real estate portion of his work.
Wessel and his ex-wife were homeschooling their son when they decided to move to Putney. They bought land and built two small, solar-powered homes.
“As far as income potential? Yes,” answered Wessel about his prospects for earning more money outside Vermont.
But, Wessel adds, he has always chosen place first then figured out how to make a go of it. He once moved to California without a job waiting, or any knowledge of the area, because he wanted the experience of living there.
“I’m mini-obsessed with [discovering] where’s the nicest place to live,” said Wessel. “I’m a little travel-obsessed.”
Now a Brattleboro resident, Wessel travels the United States and internationally for work. He tries to balance work-related travel with local clients’ needs.
“It’s more difficult in this area to do the local work,” he says over the phone from his home office.
Wessel’s work with Vermont Films requires he live not too far from a major airport. Bradley International Airport in Windsor Locks, Conn., fits the bill.
Wessel prefers working from Brattleboro over a large metropolitan area.
Brattleboro allows talented artists and entrepreneurs the opportunity “to be sort of big fish in a small pond,” he said.
Throw Vermont Films into the middle of New York City and suddenly the small company would compete for clients against better resourced sharks.
“That seems a more stressful situation,” said Wessel.
Wessel takes his love of travel and ability to work anywhere seriously.
A goal for Wessel is to live and work from an Airstream Travel Trailer, his laptop and editing software at the ready.