BRATTLEBORO—After standing vacant for more than a year, the Brooks House has received a preliminary nod to house two colleges, their faculty, their staff, and their students in a new joint downtown college campus.
Community College of Vermont (CCV) and Vermont Technical College (VTC) will be the anchor tenants of the mixed-use building. The two institutions are part of the Vermont State Colleges, the umbrella organization for the state’s five public colleges: CCV, VTC, Castleton State College, Johnson State College, and Lyndon State College.
CCV and VTC anticipate a final vote on Oct. 25 to formalize the decision to occupy 18,000 square feet on the first and second floors of the building, which has stood empty since April 2011, when a fire tore through the building. The accidental blaze displaced 60 residents and 10 businesses.
The investment partners of Mesabi LLC took over the $18 million rebuilding project from owner Jonathan Chase earlier this year. Chase inherited the building from his father, Norman.
Latest designs from Stevens & Associates for the Brooks House show one- and two-bedroom apartments, office space, nine retail spaces, three restaurants, a “fully rehabilitated bar downstairs,” formerly the Mole’s Eye, handicapped accessibility, and Green-building and LEED certification.
Apartment rents will range from $1,000 to $2,400 a month, according to the designs.
The designs also show pre-leased areas.
According to Allyson Wendt, marketing director for Stevens & Associates, the store Brilliance has agreed to rent a Main Street retail space.
Other areas marked “leased” include a basement storage area, the space to be occupied by the colleges, and five apartments.
“We’re thrilled,” said Wendt about the VSC’s decision.
The design team will continue to refine designs and finalize the budget, she said. Mesabi anticipates closing on the building before end of year. The team must still officially purchase the building from Chase.
Wendt said Mesabi had fall-back plans for Brooks House if CCV and VTC decided to locate elsewhere. The project became “significantly easier” with the colleges onboard.
According to Wendt, the plans also call for more community green space in the Harmony Parking Lot. The tunnel from High Street to the lot will remain open to cars.
Mesabi consists of Bob Stevens, PE, of Stevens & Associates; Craig Miskovich, of the Downs Rachlin Martin law firm; and Ben Taggard, Drew Richards, and Peter Richards. Taggard, Drew Richards, and Peter Richards are vice presidents and principals at The Richards Group.
The colleges have agreed to a preliminary 10-year lease of $250,000 a year. The institutions have two optional five-year extensions.
CCV President Joyce Judy and CCV Dean of Administration Barbara Martin said that Brooks House rose to the top of the list of potential properties because it met the colleges’ space requirements.
“It really is about the size,” said Judy. “The Brooks House gave us the most options.”
Martin said the process for finding a new location started for her about five years ago.
CCV, currently located north of downtown off Putney Road, has had a Brattleboro location for many years, she said.
Martin said she routinely receives calls saying the college “should move to this building.” Two years ago, the colleges started looking for a downtown location.
Gov. Peter Shumlin showed his support for Vermont State Colleges to move downtown, she said.
According to Judy, CCV has 12 locations in Vermont, with many in downtowns. CCV serves a variety of students, from high schoolers taking classes for college credits to adults looking to change careers.
It’s rare that students move to a community to attend CCV, said Martin. Instead, CCV students are woven into the community’s fabric. A big part of the college’s mission is providing affordable, quality education locally.
According to Judy, students can enroll full-time at CCV for about $6,000 a year.
“[The colleges] bring a lot of vitality and customers,” said Martin.
VSC believes in focusing its resources on teaching and learning, said Martin. It doesn’t provide amenities found on residential campuses, such as food service or day care. Instead, students and faculty seek these services in the community.
CCV traditionally serves 300 students in Brattleboro each semester and hopes to grow, said Judy and Martin.
According to Judy, a lack of laboratory space for science classes has hampered VSC course offerings in southeastern Vermont. Plans for the Brooks House campus include laboratories.
“I think it’s so exciting,” said VSC trustee Martha O’Connor.
O’Connor, a former Brattleboro Selectboard member, chaired the seven-member VSC finance and facilities committee charged with vetting the downtown locations. The finance committee is a sub-committee of the VSC board of trustees.
The new education population will also help the Mesabi group secure other tenants, such as bookstores or cafés, she said.
According to O’Connor, Brooks House suited the state colleges’ desire for ample space and room to grow.
The school administration negotiated the contract and settled on the Brooks House, said O’Connor. “The Shumlin administration had nothing to do with negotiations.”
O’Connor anticipates that a vote by the trustees will ratify the finance and facilities committee’s decision of siting the campus at the Brooks House at its Oct. 25 meeting in Randolph. The finance and facilities committee’s vote was unanimous, she said.
Before construction begins, Mesabi and the VSC must sign a lease, said O’Connor.
O’Connor said the process of choosing the Brattleboro campus “was as public as you can get.” She said she guesses the decision wasn’t a surprise.
“It’s a wonderful opportunity for Brattleboro,” said O’Connor.
She said she hopes the community embraces the colleges and becomes a part of the institutions’ growth.
According to O’Connor, VTC serves fewer than 100 nursing students in the area. Both colleges hope the move downtown will up their numbers. VTC also hopes to expand its course offerings, she said.
The state colleges founded similar Main Street campuses in Rutland and Winooski, said O’Connor, noting that the downtowns “came alive” in both cities.
O’Connor said that the colleges serve multiple age groups and hold classes throughout the day and in the evening. This schedule will benefit all the merchants on Main Street from the bookstores, to the retail shops, to the restaurants, she said.
Property number two
When asked how he felt about the committee’s decision, Peter Johnson, who submitted a proposal to house the colleges in property he owns on Flat Street, had a one-word answer.
“Screwed,” he said.
“This isn’t a downtown campus,” said Johnson of the choice. “It’s a downtown hallway.”
The downside of speaking out against the decision, commented Johnson, is that it comes off as sour grapes.
Johnson said he met with representatives from CCV/VTC and O’Connor a combined six times to consider his property, the former Sanel Auto Parts building.
According to Johnson, Judy and Martin said the Sanel property was their first choice. In conversations with Johnson, the representatives wanted the colleges to be “a large entity in a small building.”
“I don’t know where he got that information,” said Martin in a separate interview, referring to Johnson.
Johnson said that Shumlin told him within two conversations that owning the property was paramount for the CCV and VTC. According to Johnson, in the plan he submitted to the facilities committee, he had said the state colleges could buy the Sanel property after five years.
A month ago, Johnson said, he was told that the colleges favored the Brooks House because they needed 18,000 square feet of space. Johnson said his plan offered the colleges 3,000 to 75,000 square feet in 3,000-square-foot increments.
How does 18,000 square feet not fit within that range? he asked.
Johnson said that the numbers don’t add up across the board for him, given that the rent he proposed would have averaged $10 per square foot. According to the initial resolution, which will be finalized on Oct. 24, rent at the Brooks House will cost $13.90 a square foot.
The appraisals have come in at $7 million, said Johnson. Yet, he argues, the estimate for the renovation runs $18 million. He said he wants to know why.
Merchants can look forward to students taking over the parking spaces in the Harmony Lot and on Main Street, he predicted. The Sanel building is located next to the Transportation Center, which includes approximately 425 parking spots and a bus stop.
“There’s a lot of fallacies,” said Johnson. “There’s a lot of wool being pulled over people’s eyes.”
Johnson said his accountant, who has interacted with everyone in the process, said Shumlin twisted the board of trustees’ arms.
Johnson alleges that Shumlin told the trustees that the board could vote for whatever building it wanted. But, Johnson said, Shumlin threatened to take away the colleges’ money for the project if board members did not vote for the Brooks House.
“There’s way too many gray areas,” said Johnson.
Johnson said he has plans “B” and “C” in the works for the Sanel property. He is looking to redevelop the area into a pedestrian zone, featuring restaurants, retail spaces, and high-end apartments.
In an interview on Monday, Shumlin called himself a “stubborn advocate” for the Brooks House location, but dismissed charges that he pressured the college to choose that site over the Sanel building.
“Brooks House offers us flexibility to expand if we become as successful as I think we are going to be with having a downtown campus,” said Shumlin. “The Sanel building was a good location, but it is limited in space for future expansion.”
Shumlin sees the CCV/VTC campus as a catalyst for growth in downtown Brattleboro.
“Brattleboro has always been called a college town without a college,” he said. “The Brooks House is the ideal location for bringing young, innovative people downtown so they can connect with employers. Downtown Brattleboro has taken a couple of big hits with the fire and Irene, but this project will be a huge boost for the viability of the downtown.”
He also sees how a combined CCV/VTC campus can become a catalyst for helping Vermonters escape the throes of the state’s low-wage economy.
“There are a lot of tech jobs available in Vermont, but they are jobs that you can’t do with just a high-school diploma,” said Shumlin. “If we can give young people additional technical training beyond high school, it raises their earning power. We have a bright jobs future, and educating people for the jobs that pay $28 an hour will help them escape the $9-and-$10-an-hour jobs and earn a decent living.”
That’s where beefing up the state’s community college system comes in, he said.
“This is where so many first-generation college students get their start,” said Shumlin. “But we have barely moved the needle in terms of making college affordable for these students. We need to make our state colleges accessible and affordable if we want to have a stronger economy.”