BRATTLEBORO—Recently retired Town Manager Peter Elwell has been named the Brattleboro Area Chamber of Commerce (BACC) 2021 Person of the Year.
BACC Executive Director Gregory Lesch said Elwell earned the award “for stepping up to the plate and taking on the task of helping Brattleboro become a better place in which to live, for inexhaustible devotion and commitment to our community.”
The award was presented at BACC’s annual meeting on Jan. 25, which was held via Zoom for the second consecutive year due to COVID-19 concerns.
“There’s not a lot that can leave me speechless, but this did,” said Elwell, who left his post on New Year’s Day. “I was shocked, actually, and so grateful. It’s just amazing to me — I feel so fortunate.”
Also honored were the Harris Hill Ski Jump as Member of the Year, and David Hiler and Amy and Tim Brady as entrepreneurs of the year.
In his remarks, Elwell noted the fact that some of the honorees were born here and others emigrated to the town, making for “such a mix of experiences that we’re all bound together with our love of Brattleboro and our commitment to whatever is the particular thing we love doing [...] and do it in a way that builds community.”
Asked what he is most proud of during his tenure as Town Manager, Elwell told Lesch, “Listening to everyone — I never came in thinking I had all the answers.”
He also expressed his pride in “helping people who disagree find common ground, strengthening town governance and general administrative practices while deepening town government’s collaboration with the community, and overseeing a general transition in the management team and leaving an outstanding group of leaders, most of them still in the middle of their careers.”
The Chamber’s oldest award dates to 1955, when Harold Putnam was first honoree.
“A lot has changed since those days, especially socially and technologically,” said Lesch. “But the very essence of the award, honoring someone who has made a significant contribution to the greater community, remains the same.”
Elwell was born in Brattleboro in 1962 and attended Brattleboro Union High School. In 1984, he earned his undergraduate degree from Middlebury College and went on to earn a degree from the Fels Center of Government in Philadelphia, where he started his career as executive assistant in the mayor’s office.
He next served as assistant town manager in Palm Beach, Fla., for a dozen years. By then, he had a family, and he and his wife, Wendy Harrison, wanted to settle “in a place like Brattleboro.”
“That became our yardstick,” Elwell said.
Ultimately, Elwell moved to the role of town manager in Palm Beach, serving there for 14 years. Then came the moment that brought the family back.
In 2014, Elwell saw a Brattleboro Reformer headline that read, “Brattleboro town manager candidate pulls out,” with a report that the person who had accepted the post changed his mind at the 11th hour, said Lesch.
“Our honoree felt it was unconscionable for someone in his own field to behave so, and angry for his hometown to be left back at square one again,” Lesch said. “However, our honoree saw this as an opportunity. Maybe the ‘place like Brattleboro’ was actually Brattleboro.”
“The application process was closed, but he managed to contact the Selectboard chair and asked if he might apply,” Lesch continued. “The board was more than open to his doing so.”
“To make a long story short, in 2015 our honoree — candidate #51 — was chosen to become the next Town Manager of Brattleboro, an office held earlier by his own father for nearly 30 years,” he said.
The original candidate was never publicly named.
“Whoever that person was who made a commitment to Brattleboro and then walked away from it, it opened up an opportunity and I’m just so grateful,” said Elwell when accepting the award.
Elwell started work here on Jan. 20, 2015, dealing with what Lesch called “some clumsy financial practices” that needed to be improved, with police and fire facilities projects, with addressing matters of racial and social equity within town government, and most recently, with the pandemic.
In the last year of his tenure, Elwell appointed new fire and police chiefs and a public works director. Lesch noted that when Elwell arrived, department heads in town government —seven men and two women — were all white. Currently, there are seven women and two men, and two of the nine are Black, Indigenous, or People of Color.
Member of the Year celebrates 100 years
BACC Board of Trustees President Gina Pattison, director of development and marketing at Brattleboro Memorial Hospital, praised the Harris Hill Ski Jump and the cross-town volunteer effort that keeps it going.
“A century ago, in the winter of 1922, the local newspaper reported a committee of Brattleboro residents wanted to clear trees from a hill on Cedar Street so a few adventurous souls could strap boards to their feet and jump off a peak 30 stories high at speeds up to 60 miles per hour,” she said. “They called it ‘a leap of faith.’”
Brattleboro native Frederick Henry Harris proposed what is now the Harris Hill Ski Jump, introducing it to town Feb. 4, 1922.
The hill has evolved, as Pattison said, “from a simple launchpad and landing strip built for $2,000 to a $600,000 world-class venue with the only Olympic-sized ski jump in New England,” one of six in North America. (By one measure, that $2,000 would be equivalent to $33,190 in today’s dollars.)
Harris Hill will celebrate its centennial with numerous events, including the Pepsi Challenge & U.S. Cup and Fred Harris Memorial Tournament from Friday, Feb. 18 to Sunday, Feb. 20.
“I stop in my tracks when I realize this is a monumental milestone [...] to think for 100 years we’ve been ski jumping in Brattleboro,” said volunteer Pat Howell. “This recognition belongs to the town, the volunteers, to so many people who give their time, their expertise, their know-how, to make this happen.”
Entrepreneurs of the Year build on successes
Chamber board member Tracy John noted the Entrepreneur of the Year is the Chamber’s newest accolade, first bestowed in 2016.
“This is an important award because it acknowledges both sacrifice and investment of both the time and financial variety and all to support that ‘I’ve got an idea’ moment when someone sees and seizes an opportunity,” she said.
In announcing the honorees, David Hiler and Tim and Amy Brady, John commended the trio for their “risk taking” and for “their heartfelt love of our town.”
The three met at a Vermont innkeepers conference in 2011.
Their first project was to redevelop the old Riverview Café at 36 Bridge St., which had been empty for 18 months, into Whetstone Station, a restaurant and mini-brewery with eight signature brews on tap.
In 2015, they bought the 18-acre Hidden Acres campground on Route 5 in Dummerston and created Kampfires. They recreated the old farmhouse as The Inn at Kampfires and added a mobile food cart, the Rolling Stone.
Next came remodeling a former auto body repair shop on Frost Street to ramp up the trio’s brewing production and distribution.
Finally, in 2021, the trio bought the former River Garden — prime real estate downtown — and transformed 157 Main St. to a large, indoor event space, the River Garden Marketplace.
“Thank you so much,” said Hiler. “That makes us sound insane, but thank you so much.”
“We’re really honored to receive this award,” he said. “You can see by our actions that we continue to invest here because we love it. This town really shares our standards and our values. We looked at a lot of other places [...] and we keep coming back to Brattleboro.”
“It was unexpected, but so flattering, because you live in your own bubble doing these things,” said Tim Brady, thanking the Chamber for the honor. “It’s very humbling.”