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A new lease on life

Brooks House developers make their pitch to prospective tenants

BRATTLEBORO—During her first walk through the fire-gutted Brooks House last year, Tapp Barnhill, executive director of academic centers for the Community College of Vermont, remembers saying to members of the Mesabi Group, “[You] deserve a lifetime achievement award.”

Fire ripped through the prominent downtown landmark in April 2011, destroying 60 apartments and displacing 10 businesses. Firefighters extinguished the accidental electrical fire, and the 80,000-square-foot historical structure remained standing, but uninhabitable without major renovations.

Flash forward to March 14 and the Brooks House Leasing Party and Open House.

People in their bright Sunday best crowded the Robert H. Gibson River Garden sipping wine from Windham Wines and eating hors d’oeuvres by the Bistro at Blue Moose. They read fact sheets, gazed at vignettes of retail, housing, and restaurant spaces arranged by Team Decor, and viewed a presentation on the Brooks House’s future.

“Brattleboro needs the Brooks House to work,” said Barnhill at the March 14 open house.

The Mesabi Group, LLC. — consisting of Craig Miskovich, Bob Stevens, Ben Taggard, and Drew and Peter Richards — have taken on the task of reclaiming, renovating, and revitalizing the 1871 grand hotel. The investment group dreams of a mixed-use building with restored historical features and all the modern LEED certifications.

Bread Loaf of Middlebury will serve as the project’s construction manager and contractor.

Mesabi expects construction to begin in May, with the building ready for occupants in 2014.

Prior to the night’s gala, the project had more than 60 percent of its space leased, said Stevens.

The project, estimated at more than $20 million, has also secured its primary lender, Mascoma Savings Bank, a mutually owned financial service company with branches in Vermont and New Hampshire. Mascoma requires 70 percent of the space pre-leased before it will consider the project financially viable.

Brattleboro Savings & Loan will also participate as a lender, said Stevens.

Stevens showed renderings of the future Brooks House. The renovated building will have retail and restaurants on the first floor, a tavern in the former Mole’s Eye basement restaurant, an atrium, a reconstructed main grand entrance on the site of the building’s original foyer, public space inside and out, and a pedestrian mall.

The building’s 23 one-to-three-bedroom apartments will occupy the third, fourth, and fifth floors.

Brattleboro native Stephanie Bonin and her husband, Keith, have agreed to lease the former Dragonfly Dry Goods space, 3,000 square feet, on the corner of High and Main streets, for their restaurant Duo. The couple also own Duo in Denver, Colo.

“We are so excited to come back to Brattleboro, and when we heard about the Brooks House project, it was the perfect opportunity. We looked around in Northampton and Amherst and nothing clicked until we came here,” Bonin said in a press release.

According to Stevens, the project’s financing consists of public and private loans, new market and historical tax credits, and a $750,000 Community Development Block Grant awarded in 2012.

“I’m not sure we knew what we were getting involved with,” said Stevens.

Still, Stevens smiled. He anticipated that the project team had leased enough spaces at the open house to meet the lender’s 70 percent threshold.

According to Stevens, historic tax credits typically cover single-use buildings with one tenant. The multi-use, multi-tenant nature of the Brooks House, coupled with the fact that Mesabi has yet to purchase the building from current owner Jonathan Chase, made the project a little more risky to the lender.

The project team had to “jump through a lot of hoops,” said Stevens. Sixteen banks already had passed on financing the project.

Stevens estimated that applications for the nine remaining apartment units were submitted by the end of the open house. The basement tavern and five retail spaces remain open.

According to Barnhill, the Community College of Vermont’s current campus, located off Putney Road for more than 20 years, serves 300 students. With the expanded space and visible downtown location of the Brooks House, she said enrollment numbers will increase.

Barnhill said the Vermont State Colleges anticipate moving Community College of Vermont and Vermont Technical College into the Brooks House in the fall of 2014 after a one-year design/build process.

The new space will offer CCV the ability to grow its allied health program and provide room for a science lab and art studios. CCV feels that the allied health and arts programs mirror the industries growing in Brattleboro. Both programs are hampered in the college’s current building.

Parking and walking to the new urban campus will be an adjustment for the students, Barnhill said. The new Brooks House campus won’t have designated student parking. Students will use the town’s public parking system.

The town’s public parking system has about 1,000 spaces, said Stevens. He said estimates state that about 70 percent of the spaces are occupied. The town needs about 90 percent occupancy to be financially viable.

Mara Williams Oakes, chief curator at the Brattleboro Museum and Arts Center, said to the crowd that it would take “a generation” for the project to repay investors.

If the members of the Mesabi Group were prepared to put their financial futures on the line then the community must also step up to the plate, she said.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #195 (Wednesday, March 20, 2013).

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