BRATTLEBORO—Well over 200 people crowded into the new atrium of the 143-year old Brooks House to hear the dignitaries speak.
More onlookers peered down on the crowd from second-story windows lining the hallway, ballroom, and new addition of the landmark building, closed when a five-alarm fire left the structure gutted and bandaged in plywood.
The April 2011 blaze left 60 homeless and displaced 10 businesses. The shuttering of the Brooks House tore Brattleboro’s economic fabric.
“Only in Windham County, only in Brattleboro, would we take on the dream and do the impossible,” Gov. Peter Shumlin said at a ribbon-cutting ceremony to officially open the Brooks House on Oct. 3.
Also attending were the project’s development team, at-large U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, and representatives of the Community College of Vermont and Vermont Technical College, both of which have space on the second floor of the 80,000-square-foot building.
Shumlin commended those involved and the community that supported them for seeing the rebuilding project through.
“This is what happens when government and the private sector and grassroots efforts team up and say, Yes we can, yes we will, and nothing can stop us,” Shumlin said.
Bob Stevens of Stevens & Associates, a member of the development team, joked that if he knew more than three years ago what he knows now he wouldn’t have taken on the project.
Journey of a lifetime
ˆInside the gutted fifth floor “penthouse” of the Brooks House, owner Jonathan Chase blocks out imaginary walls with his hands.
ˆA pigeon wiggles through a gap between the penthouse’s new hip roof and wall. It flaps to an opposite corner and settles on a perch.
ˆ“Picture an apartment here; an apartment here, here, and here,” he says, illustrating the four townhouse apartments he envisions in the space.
ˆ— “Aftermath of Brooks House fire uncovers long-forgotten architectural quirks,” News, Aug. 3, 2011
At first, then-owner Jonathan Chase pledged to rebuild the five-story building that once boasted all-night poker games and guests such as author Rudyard Kipling.
A year after the fire, Stevens, Craig Miskovich of Downs Rachlin Martin, and Ben Taggard, and his cousins Pete Richards and Drew Richards of The Richards Group, teamed up to buy and restore the building that flanks Main and High Streets.
Bringing the Brooks House back from the fire took more than three years. Construction teams peeled away the scaffolding and then the plywood from the exterior brick walls like layers of bandages.
Stevens said that the Brooks House showed its more than 100 years of wear and tear. The fire gave the development team no choice but to gut the building.
“It was the right choice regardless,” he said.
Contractors labored to make the structure “bone straight” again, Stevens said. Parts of the building were deteriorating and most of the wood framing on the fourth and fifth floors was rotten.
One by one, new tenants signed on to the retail and apartment spaces. Some signed on the dotted line while their space of choice was little more than inked lines on floor plans.
The Community College of Vermont and Vermont Technical College have taken over 18,000 square feet of the building.
Classes started in the new facilities in September. The lab space in the downtown campus was a big plus for the state colleges. In a mock hospital ward, six test dummies await nursing students from Vermont Technical College.
“It’s a lovely space and we’re so excited to be downtown,” said Joyce Judy, Community College of Vermont’s president.
CCV has 12 academic centers in Vermont. It’s had a site in Brattleboro for about 42 years, said Judy. The college has 250 students in Brattleboro, but Judy said she expects enrollment to increase with the downtown location and new facilities.
The college moved from Putney Road to downtown.
In its former location CCV was limited in some of its programs due to a lack of space for art and science programs.
Judy said CCV and Vermont Technical College have built co-programs around nursing students and anticipate building more in the areas of science, math, and engineering.
Right now, nursing students can start at CCV and transfer to Vermont Tech. The schools are also building a four-year renewable energy degree, she said.
Oak Meadow homeschooling will occupy the old ballroom space.
Duo restaurant, Wow Frozen Yogurt, Brilliance rugs and jewelry, and soon Turquoise Grille, border Main Street.
From the ground up
ˆ“The Brooks House is the centerpiece of downtown,” Peter Richards said.
ˆRichards said his brother, cousin, and their young families are connected to Brattleboro.
ˆHe hopes to see the Brooks House, which abuts Main Street, High Street, and the Harmony parking lot, once again stand at a hub of activity.
ˆ— “Brooks House project moves forward: Three new investors join company; plans afoot to buy building by fall,” News, May 16, 2012
On the third floor, the rooms still have that new-apartment smell.
Some tenants already occupy their new homes. Apartment 410, under construction, contains the cupola and spiral staircase that looks over the corner of Main and High streets.
Stevens said that the construction team had to replace the spiral staircase. After crews finished shoring up the building’s structure and jacking up its foundation, the spiral staircase was found to be too short to reach the cupola.
Brooks House has 23 upscale apartments. Rents range from $960, including utilities, to $2,600, plus electricity.
Stevens explains that most of the apartments will rent for $1,500 to $1,600.
He added that five apartments are rent-stabilized at $960 following rates set by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Under conditions for some of the funding the project received, rents on the stabilized apartments can’t exceed 80 percent of area median family income.
As conversations from the ribbon-cutting’s early arrivals bounced up from the atrium and into the second story hallway, Stevens said of the project, “It’s really about the people that were involved.”
He said he felt lucky to work with a host of partners who, when a problem arose, which happened often, simply focused on finding a solution.
“I’m incredibly overwhelmed by the support,” Stevens said.
Pulling off the unthinkable
ˆThe ballroom of the Brooks House stands naked, its walls of joists and brick stripped of their grandeur by fire and time.
ˆA pigeon flaps from one side of the room to the other. Underfoot, a 100-year-old sub-floor punctuated by rows of rusty nails is exposed to the dull grey November light struggling through tall, grungy windows.
ˆGov. Peter Shumlin hands Greg Miskovich, one of five investors in the Mesabi Group, LLC, a plaque. Applause erupts from the sizable group gathered to witness Mesabi officially receive its $750,000 Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) Nov. 1.
ˆ—“A tipping point: Brooks House rebuild project receives grant,” News, Nov. 7, 2013
The ribbon-cutting capped a deserved celebration of a community that had pulled off the unthinkable in a region with a less-than-stellar economy.
The promising success of the Brooks House also raises questions for other local economic ventures. In an area with some of the lowest wages in Vermont, what are the prospects for developers or business owners looking to start or move a business to the region?
The approximately $24 million Brooks House project apparently has defied the laws of financial feasibility.
Stevens admits the high price tag for a building with an assessed value of $8 million doesn’t make economic sense.
The inverted equation of resources in versus a lower future resale value is one reason developers wouldn’t take it on, he said of the project.
Part of what determines a building’s assessed value is an area’s maximum market rents, Stevens explained.
“The problem with a small town is a developer can’t put $20 million in and get more out,” he said.
Paying for a topsy-turvy budgeted building is also hard, he added. Banks and other lenders use the appraised value to determine how much they’ll loan.
The Brooks House financing came together through a patchwork of public, private, state, and federal resources. A Stevens & Associates flow chart on how the money came together, which entity it came from, and where it flowed had resembled a spaceship’s circuit board.
The three top pots of money came from $6.6 million in new market tax credits, which funded 29 percent of the project; $6 million, or 26 percent of the project, from a senior lender; and $3.6 million, or 16 percent, in federal historic tax credits.
Stevens also had credited local investors who bought shares in the project for tipping the project’s budget from “almost there” to “doable.”