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State offers help, resources, in the aftermath of the blaze

BRATTLEBORO—State and local officials are assessing the damage done to the Brooks House after a devastating fire Sunday night left as many as 60 people homeless, and the future of the town’s largest commercial building in doubt.

The owner of the building, Jonathan Chase, said Tuesday that he is determined to save the Brooks House.

“If I have anything to do with it, that building will still be standing there,” he said.

Chase said he is working with engineer Bob Stevens, of Stevens & Associates of Brattleboro, to assess the structural integrity of the building.

“We’re still in the evaluation stage, particularly the areas that were compromised by fire and water,” said Chase.

Chase’s determination to preserve a historic downtown landmark is shared by Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin.

“[The Brooks House] is obviously an important part of the downtown, and as governor, I will make sure we do everything we can to make sure we turn this tragedy into something positive,” said Shumlin after touring the fire site on Monday.

Patricia Moulton Powden, deputy secretary and economic development director at the state Agency of Commerce and Economic Development, said Monday that “the first hope is to save what we’ve got and keep this historic building in place.”

She said that she will remain in close contact with the town to help leverage any resources her agency can offer.

Jeff Lewis, executive director of the Brattleboro Development Credit Corp. (BDCC), said the biggest problems for the commercial tenants right now is “inventory and business continuity. They need to get back in business now.”

Town Manager Barbara Sondag said Tuesday that BDCC and Building a Better Brattleboro are working with Chase and with all the businesses in the Brooks House to assist with the aftermath of the disaster.

“We’re working diligently to get them through all the hurdles,” said Sondag.

Two hats for DeGray

The Brooks House fire was personal for Selectboard Chair Dick DeGray. His wife, Melissa Galanes, owns the Galanes Building, which sits next to the Brooks House.

“The fire department did an outstanding job forcing the fire north rather than letting it burn south, which would have been truly more devastating than it was,” DeGray said Monday.

Aside from minor smoke and water damage, the properties in the Galanes Block were relatively unaffected.

“It’s been a long 20 hours,” said DeGray, who praised the work and cooperation of the emergency responders.

The damage and disruption from the fire was something that an already fragile downtown economy did not need, he said.

“We’ve been kind of keeping our heads above water, which it better than most towns,” he said. “To have this happen, to have 50 percent of the prime real estate on this side of Main Street closed, will hurt.”

But DeGray said the town is “energetic, and we hope to use that energy to help Jonathan in any way we can to help him rehabilitate his building and get his businesses back in operation and his tenants back home.”

Looking long-term

Building a Better Brattleboro Executive Director Andrea Livermore said that assuming the best possible scenario — that the Brooks House’s facade can be retained and the funding is available to rehabilitate the building — the big question remains is: “How long is it going to take?”

“A major segment, the heart, of the downtown district, is going to be out of commission for a while, and that is not good news for everyone that’s downtown,” she said Monday.

While downtown Brattleboro has survived major commercial fires before, most recently the Paramount Theater in 1991 and the Wilder Block in 2004, Livermore said the Brooks House fire is  bigger by several orders of magnitude.

“In the end, it is going to be up to Jonathan to decide what he wants to do with this building,” she said.

Sondag stressed Tuesday that it will take time, and teamwork at all levels, to rebuild the Brooks House.

“There are no easy answers or solutions, but the only way this is going to happen is in a collaborative manner,” she said. “It is vital that we keep these businesses running and that we find homes for everyone who was displaced by the fire.”

“The best thing I heard from Jonathan was that he wants to rebuild and take this opportunity to make it better,” said DeGray. “We have a great, great community, and it’s even greater when it comes together in a crisis. We didn’t have a funeral [Monday]. We are going to have a new beginning.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #97 (Wednesday, April 20, 2011).

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