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Envisioning the ‘Brattleboro Quad’

Property owner touts former Sanel Auto Parts building touted as site for proposed CCV/VTC campus

BRATTLEBORO—If there is to be a combined Community College of Vermont/Vermont Technical College campus in downtown Brattleboro, Peter Johnson would like to see it on Flat Street.

Johnson, owner of Emerson’s Furniture on Elliot Street, is touting a building he recently purchased at 47 Flat St., the former Sanel Auto Parts store, as the ideal location.

The virtues of what he calls “The Brattleboro Quad” are many.

“We’ve got 425 parking spaces within 200 yards of the building,” Johnson said. “We’re right next to the Transportation Center, and the connections for the town buses. We’re directly across from the Co-op, but we’re not part of the congestion on Main Street. And we can have this space ready to go in about a year.”

Johnson, whose furniture store sits next to and above the Sanel building, said he has had an eye on the property for a long time.

“Over the years, I’ve always thought that if the chance ever came up to buy it, it would make a lot of sense to do so,” he said. “It made sense to link up the two properties as one block.”

The opportunity came when Sanel Auto Parts wanted to move its store to a new location on Putney Road. Johnson outbid other potential buyers for the 16,000-square-foot brick building. He said he paid $575,000, slightly above market rate.

But when Johnson bought the property in early January, Gov. Peter Shumlin had yet to float the idea of a state college campus in downtown Brattleboro.

Johnson said he was nervous at first, for while he had a building that he long coveted, he had no firm plans for what to do with it.

Once Shumlin announced his intentions, Johnson said he immediately contacted an old family friend, Martha O’Connor, the woman tasked by Shumlin to find a suitable location for the campus.

He said he’s had several meetings with O’Connor regarding the property.

“Martha has been up-front all the way with me,” Johnson said. “She assured me that she would not waste my time if she and the colleges didn’t think it was a viable location.”

The design, by NBF Architects of Rutland, calls for an addition to be built onto the rear of the Emerson building to the Sanel building. Johnson said that the lower floors of the Emerson Building now used as a furniture warehouse would be converted into retail and restaurant space.

A small park would be built next to the Sanel building, where a parking lot now sits. It would be adjacent to a nearby lot that’s currently vacant, but will eventually be the new home of Biologic Integrative Healthcare, a family health practice that combines Western and alternative medicine. Johnson said he is working with Dr. Samantha K. Eagle, one of Biologic’s primary practitioners, on developing the Quad idea.

The top two floors of the Sanel building haven’t been used since the 1960s, Johnson said. The bottom two floors have been an auto parts store for decades. The building itself was constructed around 1900 and was office space and a warehouse for DeWitt Grocery Co., a wholesale grocer, until the company got out of the grocery business in 1950, and became a beer and beverage distributor.

The Brooks House on Main Street is also in the running for the downtown campus. Mesabi LLC, the partnership led by architect Bob Stevens and attorney Craig Miskovich, is in the process of attracting investors to back the restoration of the historic 1871 building that was heavily damaged by a fire in April 2011.

Johnson said he wholeheartedly supports seeing the Brooks House rebuilt. “The downtown needs that space,” he said, “but it needs to be retail and housing, just as it was before.”

And while the Brooks House is now gutted, and awaits a top-to-bottom restoration that could cost millions of dollars to complete, Johnson said the Sanel building is structurally sound and has a fully up-to-state sprinkler system.

At a May 22 meeting with business and civic leaders in Brattleboro, CCV president Joyce Judy said that the state college system plans “to move very aggressively” on the project, now that there is about $2 million in state funds available. The goal is to have a proposal ready to present to the Vermont State College Board of Trustees by this fall.

Judy said the school would need roughly 10,000 to 12,000 square feet of space, and that the two priorities for an ideal site are visibility and accessibility.

“Of course I’m biased, but I believe our site fits both requirements,” Johnson said.

But if the state college plan falls through, Johnson said he has a “Plan B” ready, and would find a way to create housing on the upper floors of the Sanel building to go with the already existing mix of retail and office space.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #154 (Wednesday, May 30, 2012).

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