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New identities

Brooks House officially breaks ground, while River Garden finds new shepherd

BRATTLEBORO—Celebrations over two prominent Main Street buildings this past week marked changes for Brattleboro’s downtown and spoke to hopes for increased vitality here.

On July 17, the Mesabi Group, LLC, cut the ribbon on its multi-year rehabilitation of the Brooks House, which was heavily damaged by fire in 2011.

When completed, the mixed-use building will host retail spaces, restaurants, a combined Community College of Vermont/Vermont Technical College campus, and apartments.

On July 22, Building a Better Brattleboro named Strolling of the Heifers as the organization buying the Robert H. Gibson River Garden.

The Strolling of the Heifers pledged to keep the building a public space while using it as a venue for its events.

In a joyful, albeit sweltering, celebration in the River Garden, 200 people packed into the space and sweated to a rousing chorus of appreciation from the Brooks House rehabilitation team Mesabi.

The Brooks House has been the “star of our downtown since it opened in 1871,” said Master of Ceremonies Jerry Goldberg.

Once considered the grandest hotel in New England, it hosted parties seen now only in an episode of “Downton Abbey,” explained Goldberg. With changing times and the Great Depression, the hotel lost its luster. It was converted by new owners, the Chase family, into an apartment building in the 1970s.

An electrical fire tore through the building in April 2011, displacing businesses and residents. Owner Jonathan Chase pledged to rebuild, then agreed to sell the building to the Mesabi group.

As though fashioning a crazy quilt, Mesabi pulled together funding from far-flung sources to buy the Brooks House from Chase and to fund its rehabilitation. Private investment, tax credits, grants, and loans went into the mix.

“For us, today is marking the transition of the 2{1/2} years of us getting this [project] off the ground and making it happen,” said Bob Stevens, principal of Stevens and Associates and member of Mesabi.

Mesabi consists of Bob Stevens, PE, of Stevens and Associates; Craig Miskovich of Downs Rachlin Martin PLLC; and Ben Taggard, Drew Richards, and Peter Richards, who are all vice-presidents and principals at The Richards Group.

Early on, Mesabi realized the estimated $24 million project did not meet most banks’ definition of an “easy lender.”

“We were [in] over our heads,” said Stevens. “The economics didn’t work. [We were told] there’s no return on investment on this building.”

According to Stevens, Brattleboro’s economy has been in decline for years. Many businesses can’t pay the rent needed to cover the costs of rehabilitating such a huge building.

“So,” he asked. “How do you put together a project that doesn’t make any economic sense?”

Answer: With a lot of help.

Stevens thanked a host of people who made the project possible, from local, state, and federal levels and the private sector.

According to Stevens, Gov. Peter Shumlin suggested attracting the Vermont State Colleges as an anchor tenant. Shumlin also went to bat for the project over bank funding.

Mascoma Savings Bank and Brattleboro Savings & Loan helped with loans. In giving its support, Mascoma stipulated that the project keep $1.5 million in reserve and pre-lease 70 percent of the building.

Stevens said the community stepped up and helped pre-lease the building through apartment and storefront rentals.

Oak Meadow, which provides secular homeschooling curriculum for students in grades K-12, now in the Cotton Mill, was the final tenant that helped push Brooks House over the 70 percent occupancy threshold. The education company leased a large portion of the second floor not occupied by the colleges.

Some 18 private community investors put their own money into the project, knowing it will be seven to 10 years before they realize a return on investment.

The project received an initial community development block grant of $750,000, extended to $800,000 when more funding was needed, Stevens said.

Stevens said the project team also took out loans, with the Vermont Economic Development Authority a key player. As investors, Mesabi can only borrow 80 percent of costs. VEDA has helped by borrowing an additional 10 percent, or about $1.4 million.

Along with helping the project receive the block grant funds, the town of Brattleboro also helped the project via a tax stabilization agreement and a $150,000 loan.

The building qualifies for new-market and historic preservation tax credits.

Stevens offered special thanks to anchor tenants Vermont Technical College and Community College of Vermont, which will open their doors to students on the building’s second floor.

Martha O’Connor, a former Selectboard member and a Vermont State College trustee, said the college expects to host its first classes in the new building in fall 2014.

Shumlin said Stevens made calls on the project’s behalf to drive the project’s funding.

“[Mesabi] is an example of why Brattleboro has such a great future,” said Shumlin.

When tragedy hits their communities, Vermonters come together to turn tragedy into opportunities, he said.

While many downtowns across the country are allowed to crumble, Vermont has stepped up and supported its downtowns, he said.

The celebration ended with a ceremonial “demolition whack,” with Shumlin joining the Mesabi quintet in taking sledge hammers to a wall in the former Dragonfly Dry Goods store. The site will be the new home of Duo Restaurant.

Remaining a public space

Five days after the Brooks House house hoopla, Building a Better Brattleboro (BaBB), Brattleboro’s private, nonprofit, downtown organization, announced the Robert H. Gibson River Garden’s new owner.

The announcement came some seven months after BaBB announced it planned to divest itself of the building.

Strolling of the Heifers, an organization focused on supporting farmers and connecting people to local agriculture, will take over the building.

Certain transitional details, such as how to handle the U.S. Department of Agriculture-backed mortgage, are being finalized.

Taking over the building marks a homecoming for Strolling of the Heifers. The organization was launched by executive director Orly Munzing and spent its first year under BaBB’s wing.

“It has been a very long, thorough process,” said BaBB board president and founding member Donna Simons, owner of A Candle in the Night on Main Street.

Simons described Strolling of the Heifers as “a dynamic organization led by a dynamo of this world.”

Munzing said her organization planned to create a center to showcase Vermont’s agricultural legacy. The River Garden will serve as a community space for happenings such as lecture series, intergenerational events, and Farm to Plate dinners.

The building will remain home to the Winter Farmers’ Market, she said.

“This is a community building,” said Munzing. She added that she hoped the community would support the organization and building.

Simons thanked the volunteers who helped evaluate the three proposals submitted to BaBB by businesses and Strolling of the Heifers.

“Strolling of the Heifers will shepherd this building well into the 21st century,” said Simons.

BaBB will partner with the Strolling of the Heifers as it takes over the building, she said.

According to Simons, the building will keep its name, its restrooms will stay public, and the back deck will remain open under new ownership.

“Most who know the building will only see changes for the good,” Simons said.

Keeping the River Garden open to the public, providing restrooms, and access to the back deck drove BaBB’s evaluation process of the three proposals it received for the building, said Simons.

Controversy has dogged the divestment process since BaBB announced its plans in December 2012.

Many community members spoke out, saying the River Garden is a public space that should remain open to the public.

Simons estimated the building ran a deficit of about $10,000 to $20,000 annually. BaBB had depleted its reserves to pay the bills.

Simons said that, over the years, the public claimed the River Garden as a purely public space and “as their community building.”

“But, in my point of view, and from the point of view of many, that was never the case,” she said.

Going forward, Simons said she hoped critics of the sale would “put their money and time where their mouths have been."

According to Simons, local architect and BaBB member Leo Berman conceived the River Garden as a four-season park and pathway from Main Street to the Connecticut River.

BaBB also envisioned the building as a business incubator. BaBB purchased the site, then home to a Rite-Aid pharmacy, in 1999.

“Unfortunately, it didn’t work,” said Simons.

Due to prohibitively expensive construction estimates, BaBB cut back on some of its vision by not installing air conditioning, shortening the atrium, and opting for an ersatz slate floor. The building lacked a kitchen space, and the atrium leaked.

A grant from the USDA paid for renovations to the atrium and roof.

Although the business incubator idea flopped, the River Garden did serve as a waypoint center for tourists, a place with public restrooms, and event space. These uses, however, were not sustainable.

Two other organizations submitted proposals for ownership, though Kate O’Connor, BaBB vice-president and Brattleboro Selectboard vice-chair, declines to give details, citing confidentiality assurances.

BaBB now plans to turn its focus from financial support of the River Garden to revitalizing downtown, said Simons.

“I want to stress that BaBB will continue: [We] will go forward and be a major contributor to the health of downtown,” she said.

Topping BaBB’s to-to list: filling vacant storefronts on street level and above, reaching out to merchants, cleaning the streets, and promoting the downtown to visitors and locals.

Acknowledging that many merchants have felt frustrated with BaBB, O’Connor added the organization’s new focus will include a reorganization.

Selling the River Garden “is almost a rebirth for us,” she said.

Simons also serves on the board of Strolling of the Heifers. She said she recused herself from BaBB’s voting process.

Munzing anticipates no money will change hands for the building. Instead, Strolling of the Heifers will absorb BaBB’s obligations to it.

That changing of ownership will take time, she added. Eventually, Munzing said, the Strolling of the Heifers will move its offices from Cotton Mill Hill to the River Garden, though it’s in no hurry.

Despite BaBB’s difficulties supporting the River Garden financially, Munzing said Strolling of the Heifers has the experience and infrastructure to host events. Also, as an agricultural-based organization, it can apply for grants closed to organizations such as BaBB.

Munzing said she is working with volunteer architects to design a kitchen for catering events and food demos. She said she hopes the building will host a small coffee shop and space to sell Strolling of the Heifers merchandise.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #213 (Wednesday, July 24, 2013).

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