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Brooks House project seeks more investors

Citing financial concerns, Chase turns project over to new corporation

BRATTLEBORO—Nearly a year after a devastating fire, a group of local investors is taking over the project to rebuild the historic Brooks House.

At a Tuesday morning news conference, owner Jonathan Chase announced that he is unable to complete the project on his own.

Speaking via phone from Florida, Chase said he has turned over the building to a new corporation called Mesabi LLC, which will be led by Bob Stevens and Craig Miskovich, who will now take over the rebuilding project.

Chase said he was open to investing in or providing financing to Stevens and Miskovich.

Stevens, the principal of the design firm Stevens & Associates, said he will revise the schematic designs and repackage the feasibility data so it can be presented to potential investors or buyers.

The total cost of rebuilding the Brooks House is pegged at $14 million. Chase said he has put $2 million into gutting and stabilizing the building for reconstruction, costs that were covered by insurance.

But Chase said that despite having access to several tax credit and grant programs, “this simply was not a project I could finance alone.”

He said that the cost to reconstruct and operate the building did not match the anticipated rental revenues, and that made the payback period too long for Chase to do the project solo.

Miskovich, an attorney with the law firm of Downs Rachlin Martin and vice-chair of the Development Review Board, said the project has a better chance of succeeding if the capital investment and the risk was spread out among a larger number of investors.

Stevens said he hopes that work on the reconstruction project can begin within six months, and gave thanks to Chase for doing the initial work to get the building ready for its next incarnation.

Right after the fire last April, the building was totally gutted and weatherized. Stevens said the building made it through this winter intact, but he does not want to see the building stay in its current condition longer than it has to.

Stevens & Associates was hired by Chase last spring to do the original feasibility study for rebuilding the Brooks House. Stevens said most of the original design plans will be used going forward.

Plans calls for retail space on the first floor, and market-rate and luxury apartments on the upper floors. The second floor, including the old ballroom, might be used as office space.

If work begins by this fall, Stevens anticipates the project being completed within a year. Before work can begin, however, other private investors will be needed and other grant sources and tax credits will need to be identified, he said.

Stevens said the Brattleboro Development Credit Corp., the town, and the state are all providing support to the project.

Town Manager Barbara Sondag expressed confidence that Stevens and Miskovich will be able to do the job.

“The town has had successes in the past with saving historic downtown buildings, like the Hooker-Dunham Building and the Wilder Block,” she said. “The Brooks House is vitally important to our downtown, and I am excited to see these plans.”

Bob “Woody” Woodworth of Building a Better Brattleboro said that downtown merchants have been struggling since the Brooks House fire.

“The impact of the fire has been a lasting one,” said Woodworth, owner of Burrows Specialized Sports.

Brattleboro Area Chamber of Commerce executive director Jerry Goldberg said the new plans for the Brooks House will give the town a much-needed shot in the arm.

“I am relieved that we can stop talking about what was, and can start talking about what will be,” said Goldberg.

Former Selectboard member Martha O’Connor, who is leading a search committee seeking a location for a combined downtown campus for Community College of Vermont and Vermont Technical School, said that locating that facility in the Brooks House is still a possibility.

“This is space that would meet a lot of our requirements, and the governor is enthusiastic about supporting this,” she said.

There is still a question about whether Gov. Peter Shumlin can come up with the money, but Shumlin said last week he is committed to putting such a campus in Brattleboro.

There is 80,000 square feet of rental space available in the Brooks House, with 30,000 square feet for retail on the street level.

Stevens stressed that it is going to take a collaborative effort to fulfill the promise that Chase made after the fire that he would rebuild the Brooks House better than it was.

“Yes, there is precedent for projects like this, but we are going to need a whole lot of help,” Stevens said.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #146 (Wednesday, April 4, 2012).

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