BRATTLEBORO—Two years after he began quietly buying properties in southern Vermont, an entrepreneur who hails from Belarus by way of Massachusetts now has more than $3 million in real estate holdings in the area.
Pavel (Paul) Belogour, 50, has, seemingly overnight, bought acreage, buildings, and businesses. He’s bought a marina and a factory outlet store, and he is in the process of building what he describes as a Viking village in Guilford.
And last week, New England Newspapers, Inc., the Pittsfield, Mass.–based publisher of the Brattleboro Reformer announced that a new Belogour company, Vermont News and Media LLC, would purchase the Reformer, as well as the Bennington Banner, the weekly Manchester Journal, and UpCountry magazine for an undisclosed price.
The deal is set to close Friday, raising eyebrows and hackles among readers online who — to generalize the swarm of social media comments after the announcement of the sale — are wary of someone who, in their eyes, dropped in out of the blue and is on a spending spree with wealth of foreign origin.
But to others, notably those who are working for and with him, Belogour is the real deal — even visionary. And among those people is at least one reporter who is excited about what a new owner might bring to the once-venerated Reformer, a newspaper still recovering from the damage of two decades of budget cuts from its days as a publication of MediaNews Group and Digital First Media.
In 2016, after a press conference announcing the sale of NENI from Digital First to a group of Berkshire County investors, former Reformer publisher Martin Langeveld told The Commons that the owners originally wanted to buy only the Eagle. A Vernon-based consultant to the buyers who became a member of the company’s board, Langeveld said that Digital First would sell only the entire NENI subsidiary, which included the three Vermont newspapers. UpCountry, a beloved supplement to the Eagle from the 1970s, was revived as a glossy magazine under NENI’s current ownership.
‘Local ownership, control, and investment’
In an internal memo made available to The Commons, NENI President and Publisher Frederic Rutberg said he is “delighted” with the transaction.
Belogour, he wrote, will bring “the type of local ownership, control and investment” to the four publications as his own group of investors have done for The Berkshire Eagle, which will now become NENI’s primary focus.
According to Rutberg, Vermont News and Media has agreed to hire all of NENI’s Vermont employees.
Noting that the sale “was not designed or predicated for financial reasons” but “operational” ones, NENI “will come out of this transaction in an even stronger financial position than it had been before we were approached by Vermont News and Media,” he said.
“While NENI is selling the Vermont publications, we will be closely connected to them for the foreseeable future,” writes Rutberg. “Indeed, to some it may appear that we have entered a partnership.”
The Eagle will continue to print the Vermont papers and provide pagination and graphic design services for all the publications.
“The Eagle will continue to provide customer service both for classified advertising and circulation to Vermont, and the Eagle will manage its circulation, accounts receivable, and accounts payable,” Rutberg wrote. “Because of this close connection, there will be no reduction in employment in Pittsfield either.”
“We have strong ties to each other and I hope that the affection and commitment which are at the heart of these ties continues unabated through and after the closing of this sale,” he continued, pledging “to do all we can to make this transition as smooth as possible and to assist Vermont News and Media succeed in every way.”
Belogour plans to move the news office from its current quarters on Black Mountain Road to the Innovation Box, mainly to have larger and better meeting spaces.
Eventually, he plans to transition all operational aspects from the Eagle to Brattleboro “to bring jobs, jobs, jobs.”
An eclectic and enthusiastic buying spree
Belogour came to the U.S. in 1991 to attend Northeastern University on a rowing scholarship. There he earned a B.S. in economics.
According to his LinkedIn profile, after graduation he worked as a trader for Bank of Boston/Fleet Bank for six years.
He went on to serve as foreign exchange managing director for Commerce Bank and Trust.
From there, Belogour entered the world of software development for foreign exchange markets, a virtual marketplace of traders buying and selling currencies and making and losing money along the way depending on the vagaries of exchange rates. One financial website cautions neophytes that it is “not for the faint of heart.”
He founded and served as director of Boston Merchant Financial, Ltd., an online trading brokerage, for 11 years. In 2009, he founded Boston UniSoft Technologies, Inc., an IT company that develops investment software. He then worked with software engineers to develop UniTrader, software aimed to help brokers maneuver in the realm of foreign exchange.
The backbone of his wealth, he told The Commons, comes from commissions he receives when his software is used for a transaction.
In addition to his real estate holdings here and, soon, the newspapers, Belogour runs several businesses in the United Arab Emirates, Australia, Hong Kong, and Ukraine.
He also sponsors a Bulgarian soccer team.
“They were going out of business, so I came in and saved them,” Belogour says. “They were like the Red Sox are to Massachusetts, and this year they moved on to the first league.”
‘They speak highly of him’
Commercial/residential Realtor John Hatton at Berkley & Veller in Brattleboro hasn’t sold anything directly to Belogour, but he says his colleagues have.
“They speak highly of him — and these are people who I know and trust — so I’m going with that,” Hatton says, acknowledging questions wafting around the newcomer with seemingly deep pockets and a penchant for acquiring and reviving real estate.
“I’ve been wondering the same and I think everyone is,” he says. “Where’s the money coming from? [...] obviously it’s a lot of money he’s throwing around, but he’s doing a lot of positive things, like buying the Exit 1 outlet, which was derelict, and he turned it into something great.”
Hatton is happy to see the Landmark Hill building, formerly the home in Brattleboro of Community College of Vermont, redeveloped into Vermont Innovation Box. “We’ve needed a [business] incubator for a while,” he says.
Realtor Chris Long with The Masiello Group in Brattleboro has sold a number of properties in town and around Windham County to Belogour. He’s been the entrepreneur’s go-to, in fact.
“Paul has got wherewithal, certainly,” says Long. ”He’s a super nice man. I think he’s good for the local economy. He’s putting a lot of people to work. He and I work well together.”
Long and Belogour first met five years ago at a farm that Long had listed in Halifax. Then last summer, he sold Belogour a 1,240-acre property with a house on it.
“He purchased that because he loves big tracts of land, and he’s not going to develop it,” Long says. “He just fell in love with it. He’s going to protect that land — and that piece of property had ‘development’ written all over it.”
“He’s for real,” he continues. “He’s got a lot on his plate, but he is improving the things he buys. It’s not all about money.”
Investing he is.
To date Belogour has bought more than 3,000 acres of property in Guilford, including a property where he plans to build a Viking village — something akin to Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts — on a former dairy farm.
He’s met with the Guilford Selectboard at least three times regarding this planned luxury complex off Weatherhead Hollow Road. The complex is to be comprised of six secluded, luxury cabins and to include a meeting/dining hall and outdoor activities for guests.
He’s also bought 1,400 acres in neighboring Halifax.
Other buys include Black Bear Sugarworks, renamed Viking Farms; eight acres of Connecticut River frontage; Trout River Brewing Company in Springfield, now Vermont Beer Makers; the vacant building on Route 9 that once housed Country Kitchen and a mattress store, for $80,000; the $200,000 former Knights of Columbus building in Rutland; and the $50,000 former Vermont Marble Co. headquarters in Proctor.
He bought Norm’s Marina on the Connecticut River in Hinsdale, N.H. for $640,000.
Earlier in the year, he bid $3.95 million for the campus of the defunct Southern Vermont College, but the Bennington property ultimately was sold to Southwestern Vermont Health Care for $4.65 million.
Belogour says his interest in the Route 9 property was to relocate Vermont Beer Makers.
“In Springfield, the building where it was is coming down to be luxury retirement apartments,” he says. “Then I realized it was in a flood zone so I couldn’t make beer there, so now I’m working with local artisans, wood carvers, who expressed an interest and they’ll be making things right on the spot.”
Town records show that in Brattleboro, Belogour’s Vermont RE Development LLC has bought up a storm and has amassed several properties from his other businesses. As of this week, that company’s holdings include:
• 12–14 Elliot St. ($340,000, purchased Dec. 30, 2020),
• 70 Landmark Hill (the Landmark Hill building, a.k.a. the Smith Mansion; $459,470, purchased Sept. 18, 2020),
• 239 Old Ferry Rd. ($44o,000, originally purchased by BMFN, LLC, another Belogour company in 2019 and transferred Sept. 18, 2020),
• 580 Canal St. (the former Outlet Center, now Vermont Marketplace; $990,000, originally purchased by BMFN, LLC on April 14, 2020 and transferred on Sept. 30 of that year),
• 817 Putney Rd. (a commercial lot; $425,000, purchased Jan. 15),
The Landmark Hill property now houses Vermont Innovation Box, a business incubator, and a sprawling array of Belouger’s enterprises, local and remote: Vermont Beer Maker; Boston Unisoft Technologies, his software development company; Viking Farms, LLC, offering maple syrup; Belogour Properties, offering exclusive properties in Dubai, a city in the United Arab Emirates; a renovated website for the Bulgarian football team Pirin; Vanguard Research, offering business research and marketing help; Vermont Vendors, billed as an online marketplace for Vermont-made goods; Norm’s Marina; Vermont Marketplace; and the Maple Syrup Exchange, which provides a software platform designed to match maple producers and wholesale buyers. (“It’s just like stocks, only with real goods,” its website says.)
Belogour has said future plans include building a spectacular glass house and developing a glass production facility.
Infusing life into abandoned buildings
So why is he doing all this?
“Anything I do with the properties is to restore them,” Belogour says. “I feel privileged to take on an abandoned building, bring it back to life, and open for business. I feel satisfied this will, can, create opportunities for people and have a ripple effect.”
“I spent 15 years building an economy overseas, but I love Vermont; I love this place [...] I said I want to build a place I can call home.”
Belogour says “it’s saddening” for him to see that when he’s overseas, people have a perception of the United States as something of a bright and shiny place that has it all.
“I’m kind of embarrassed to say the downtown of Brattleboro looks a little run down, when people have this perception of America as being so wonderful, and it’s the place I call home,” he says. “So I will do what I can do to make a difference, a little difference.”
How does he decide what to buy?
“I look first for historic value, [that] if I don’t step in, it will disappear. For example, in Rutland, the Knights of Columbus building was built in 1868, and if I don’t step in, that was going down and was going to be a parking lot. I stepped in and said, ‘I want to restore this, I want to bring it back to life.’”
He says he feels good about restoring older buildings as assets for a community to use. “You could call it a hobby,” he says.
“They don’t make buildings like this any more,” he said, making gestures around his newly renovated space in the Landmark building. Vacant for seven years, the building is now the Innovation Box and the offices of his multiple enterprises. “The little things that are historic are worth saving.”
“I see the beauty of what’s been abandoned and can be brought to life, and build businesses, and have a ripple effect,” says Belogour.
“So the value is one thing. Restoring and building business is another,” he says.
One example: Dubai, which “10 years ago was a desert,” he says. “What it is now is almost hard to explain.”
“I look and say, ‘Look what happened to a place in the middle of the sand, it’s a paradise, and look what’s happened to Brattleboro, it’s decaying.’ It drives me crazy. Enough of this. I think it’s the responsibility of each individual to do what they can for a community.”
Belogour says it also drives him crazy to “send money to build someone else’s economy,” a sort of epiphany that he came to several years ago in his Dubai office.
“I think it was one of those moments when I was sitting in the office and watching 10 buildings going up around me, 75 stories high, all residential,” he recalls. “Dubai uses this expression, ‘If we build, they will come.’ I love Vermont and I thought, ‘What if I build? Will they come?’”
“Brattleboro is on the Connecticut River, minutes away from skiing — it’s a paradise on Earth. I said, ‘Why not show this place to the rest of the world?’ And why not look at the media?
Pledge for a ‘hands-off approach’
“We have newspapers,” Belogour says — and he believes that they should be used to tell the story of “not only Brattleboro, but Vermont.”
“Tell everyone about it,” he says.
In his new role as publisher, Belogour intends to do just that, but with a “hands-off approach.”
“I will have the management to decide what type of people should be hired, what stories should be written,” he says. “And anything I can do from the IT background to help, I will do so.”
“I feel the publications, newspapers, can be revitalized — more capital injected,” he says.
“Having local ownership and a newspaper that concentrates on a specific area is very important. I do believe reinvesting in those three publications will enhance the quality of reporting, allow newspapers to participate more in the life of the communities, expand on athletics, dedicate more space and time to tell people about businesses, and high school athletes.
“We want to make sure the kids who graduate in Vermont stay in Vermont,” Belogour says, noting an interest in getting students involved as interns and providing them opportunities in the new venture.
He acknowledges speculation that being from Belarus, a country where press freedoms are severely restricted, makes people alarmed and suspicious about the idea of him publishing newspapers in the United States.
On the contrary, he says — that makes him cherish the U.S.’s robust history of free speech all the more.
But why Vikings?
While Belogour is keen to improve the newspapers, it’s the Viking project that really gets him excited. He expects it to open in July.
He loves and believes in it so much, he bought an acre of land from a neighbor to build a new road with direct access to the acreage so he won’t have to use the Class 4 access road he’s using now.
But why the Vikings?
“Vermont is an incredible place,” says Belogour. “Here you have this paradise; the clean water, streams, the grass. This had to be shown to people, enjoyed. I said, ‘Why not build something that will allow people to experience Vermont nature?’”
So Belogour created the Viking village — rustic cabins (“on the outside,” he clarifies) — where people can stay and enjoy nature and come up with some kind of theme.
With the Norse colonization of North America taking place in the 10th century, in what is now Newfoundland, “why not give them credit?” he asks.
He envisions the Viking Village as “a kind of Disney of the North,” he says. “What if it takes off? Jobs, jobs, and jobs.”
Listening to Belogour, one might wonder if Vermont reminds him of his native Belarus.
“Yes! Green, cold, nasty in the winter — all the miserable things about Vermont, melting snow, freezing rain — that’s when I feel the best. I love it,” he says.
Belogour is also passionate about creating opportunities.
“The jobs,” he says. “When I came here, this country embraced me and gave me a job, and now I want to give back on a scale I can afford.”
‘You don’t get loyalty with lots of money’
Some Vermonters cite cautionary tales about trusting wealthy investors with sweeping visions for small towns. Fresh in many memories, including Hatton’s, is Jim Barnes, a developer whose plans for the Hermitage Club in the Deerfield Valley imploded several years ago, leaving dozens of vendors without payment, vacant properties, and a local economy in turmoil.
Further back, in the 1990s, a French businessman, Olivier de Cavele, charmed members of the business community and launched a number of projects in Greenfield, Mass., before being arrested and deported, leaving behind empty promises and an Irish setter.
And in 2020, Seth Andrew, an educational entrepreneur with daring plans, convinced a committee exploring the future of the Marlboro College campus to sell the property to his nonprofit, Democracy Builders Fund, despite grandiose promises and spotty compliance with filings. Andrew, accused of siphoning more than $200,000 from two charter schools with which he was no longer associated, was arrested last month and has pleaded innocent to three federal financial crimes.
Comparison of Belogour to these new-to-a-town, charismatic visionaries prompts a surge of fury among true believers, who say that the businessman is the real deal and has a proven track record — and is unfailingly loyal.
Robert Audette, a Reformer reporter since 2005 who also served as the newspaper’s day editor for a number of years, responded in frustration on Facebook in several private discussions about a story posted last week on VTDigger.org. The piece looked at Belogour’s local investment in the context of three federal lawsuits that are snarled in the complications of financial markets and international law. (For his part, Belogour accused the nonprofit news site of professional jealousy; reporter Kevin O’Connor squarely rejects the notion that the site’s intent was malicious.)
“We have an owner who is not absentee, is available and is open to our suggestions as to how to make the Reformer, the Banner, and the Manchester Journal the premier news dailies in Vermont,” Audette told The Commons on Tuesday.
He acknowledged that NENI stabilized the operation, which at the time of the 2016 purchase was operating with one reporter. The newsroom has added some personnel, but it still is operating at the “bare bones” level, he said.
And he acknowledged that “plenty of people are skeptical, even cynical” about the purchase, and “given the past 15 years of journalism, it’s no surprise.”
“I am only asking for patience from our communities,” Audette said. “Paul says he is committed to making the newspapers the best in the state. But he knows he can’t do it alone. He’s an IT guy, not a news guy, but he is learning fast. He has promised us 100 percent editorial independence and has given us license to brainstorm new ideas that might herald a new era of community journalism.”
“It’s exciting to be part of this great adventure,” he said.
Raymond Reed, owner of R. Reed Construction, Inc., is working on transforming what was the Outlet Center into Vermont Marketplace. He is a beneficiary of Belogour’s drive to provide local opportunity.
“Paul found me,” says Reed. “He could have easily hired a bigger company. He knew I was local and I use local vendors. He said he likes that I’m a success story. I’ve been in recovery for almost 10 years now and have custody of my daughter and I started with nothing. Paul knows all this and said he likes that I’m a hard worker and honest.”
“Paul wants to keep as much money as he can in southern Vermont, so he handed me all these jobs. He told me a handful of vendors have been with him for a long time and said he didn’t want to change that,” Reed adds.
“With people with money, you don’t ever get that,” he continues. “You don’t get loyalty with lots of money. You don’t get that kind of care for people.”
As to the skeptics and worse, Reed has no time.
“I’m beside myself with the negativity going on against him,” he says, attributing skepticism to “jealousy” that “is the work of the devil.”
“It’s not right to hate on someone because he became successful,” Reed says. “Paul’s a great person. He’s a family man. The more we work together, I consider him a friend. I run things by him in business and he’ll say it’s a great idea, it’s a horrible idea.”
“He’s the type of guy you wouldn’t know owned all this, and he’s the type of guy to walk around the job site and say good morning to everybody, whether it’s the guy cleaning the toilet or the foreman,” he says. “I consider myself very lucky to be part of what he’s creating and his vision. I’m proud to have my name attached to his businesses.”
A passive income
How does Belogour afford to do all he’s doing?
He enjoys a passive income, says the entrepreneur, after 20 years selling software worldwide that’s then resold and on which he collects a commission.
“Subscribe and pay fees, like Microsoft,” he says, adding that he has now sold some of those rights and software and for the past two years has been directing the development of software for mutual funds to distribute their product worldwide.
Belogour started his career in sales.
“I look at the niche market, and I said, ‘I can’t program as good as someone else, so let me concentrate on sales.’”
When he developed UniTrader, he “caught a wave on the digital revolution.”
“It was trading over the phone then and now it’s online. It happened to be I was logical to position the interfaces. Somebody else will code, but all the algorithms, all the [research and development], will come from me. And that product took off. And it was that time that smart phones started to appear and everything was online, and here I am.”
Belogour also owns several patents and software trademarks. When he was in college, he was awarded a patent for an in-line skate chassis with a suspension system he designed.
“When I started building business overseas, I had to discern where to do things, it had to be in Europe, and the least costly place? In Bulgaria.” he says.
“I opened an office and many companies followed. It’s the cost of doing business. I was building jobs in Bulgaria, then Hong Kong, [United Arab Emirates], Australia,” Belogour continues. “So here I am building jobs, spending my money, building careers, which is great.”
“But at the end of the day, I come here. I can only help where I can help,” Belogour says. “If I can do it here, so be it.”