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Congressman Welch promises long-term commitment to rebuilding Brooks House

BRATTLEBORO—“We’ll do all we can,” said Congressman Peter Welch.

That’s what the Vermont Democrat said as he took time from his statewide Budget Priorities tour last week to witness the aftermath of the Brooks House fire up close.

A five-alarm electrical fire late in the night of April 17 rendered the 140-year old Brooks House uninhabitable. The blaze displaced as many as 60 residents and 10 business.

The congressman spoke with town officials, municipal employees, and community leaders at the River Garden about what federal-level financial support he and Sens. Patrick Leahy and Bernard Sanders could gather for the Brooks House and downtown.

Welch said rebuilding the Brooks House will entail a long-term commitment and that the Washington delegation was investigating funding resources.

Welch expects funding to come from within existing sources like the Department of Housing and Urban Development or from Rural Development grants.

Welch also spoke with concern about federal budget cuts depleting towns’ abilities to maintain crucial services like fire departments.

“We can’t fight fires in Washington,” Welch said.

Welch acknowledged the financial pressures on Brattleboro’s downtown and said the fire delivered the town “a blow.”

“This downtown is the envy of Vermont,” Welch said.

Welch said he remembered a visit last fall where he chose to support an independent business by purchasing a book from The Book Cellar, one of 10 displaced businesses in the Brooks House, over Internet giant Amazon.

Teamwork praised

Welch praised the town’s emergency response, which he characterized as an example of “excellent training.”

“As citizens we take municipal services for granted until we need them,” said Welch.

“There were some scary moments during that fire,” said Town Manager Barbara Sondag, adding she’d never been “so proud” of the people she works with in town.

“It was difficult watching the building aflame,” Jonathan Chase, the owner of Brooks House, told Welch.

The Chase family has owned the Brooks House for 40 years.

On the night of the fire, Chase said he drove into town from an extended trip about a half hour after the fire had started.

Chase said his goal for Brooks House is to rebuild the “old gal” and “have her dancing” again.

Welch promised that the Vermont Congressional delegation will work together to support Brattleboro.

Welch toured the Brooks House.

After seeing the interior of the burned building, Welch described the tour as “a moving experience.”

The congressman expressed praise for how the community has pulled together to support the people displaced by the fire.

Members of the press could not join Welch for the tour. Town officials said they wanted to maintain privacy for the residents who were collecting their belongings from their ravaged apartments.

“My job is to coordinate” on Brattleboro’s behalf at the federal level, Welch told the group. He said it was his job to send money back to communities to fund infrastructure and tools like training.

“It’s just the beginning,” he said, joking that he hoped tovisit Brattleboro so much that the town would consider him a pest.

After the meeting, Welch told the press that the Brooks House represents the type of “anchor building” that contributes to a “shining downtown.”

“Mixed use” buildings — properties that combine commercial and residential space — attract people to a downtown and “are what we need” in Vermont, said Welch.

He described some of the potential federal budget cuts as “misguided” because they “cut everything.”

The U.S. sends “several billion a month” to fight a war in Afghanistan, said Welch. He said it was better to spend money on rebuilding community infrastructure in this country.

Welch has been conducting his tour to hear from Vermonters about their federal budget priorities in light of the cuts Congress is considering for the budget for fiscal year 2012.

He said Brattleboro’s water system, which enabled firefighters to pour 1.8 million gallons of water on the burning building, and the fire department’s communication system, which kept firefighters inside the blaze in contact with those on the ground, as examples of “money wisely spent.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #98 (Wednesday, April 27, 2011).

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