(From left) Bob Stevens, Gov. Peter Shumlin and Ben Taggard swing sledgehammers to break a wall inside the Brooks House in Brattleboro at the official
(From left) Bob Stevens, Gov. Peter Shumlin and Ben Taggard swing sledgehammers to break a wall inside the Brooks House in Brattleboro at the official ground breaking ceremony, Wednesday afternoon. (Kayla Rice/Reformer )
Thursday July 18, 2013

BRATTLEBORO -- As Bob Stevens was talking about the redevelopment of the Brooks House Wednesday he mentioned more than once that there were moments during the past year-and-a-half when he thought the project would not happen.

From the start, Stevens said, developers faced one challenge after the next while trying to raise the estimated $24 million needed to develop the Brooks House.

A fire in April 2011 significantly damaged the historic Main Street building, and after the previous owner decided a year later that he would not be able to raise the money, Stevens and a group of local investors have been trying to raise the money to begin work on the building.

On Wednesday more than 100 people from around the region and the state filled the Robert H. Gibson River Garden to celebrate the closing, and recognize a new beginning for the 142-year-old building.

"Today, for us, marks the transition of what we have spent the last two-and-a-half years doing, trying to get this project off the ground," Stevens said. "From the beginning it has been more than a project. It's really about the transformation of this town."

Stevens talked about the fire, and then about the flooding following Tropical Storm Irene.

He said even before the natural disasters, the town was facing uncertain economic times, and when the fire closed the building Stevens, and other people involved with project, realized that it would take a communitywide effort to rebuild it.


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Throughout his talk Stevens said it did not make economic sense to invest so much money into the building, when the final property would not be worth the investment.

But he said that leaving the Main Street property vacant would be the worse thing for the future of Brattleboro.

"We were facing looking at this building and saying what should we do?" Stevens said. "Should we let this building sit and continue that economic decline, or do we find some way to put a project together that doesn't make any economic sense, because in some ways we have to. We need to find some ways to turn this community around and make it prosperous again."

Stevens spent a lot of time recognizing everyone who helped get to where they were on Wednesday.

He said Governor Peter Shumlin, the Legislature, the state colleges, the town, the banks and federal and state funding sources all came through, often at the last minute when other funding sources said it would be impossible to pull off.

"If there's one message we want to make today it is that this is way over our head," said Stevens. "There is no way we could have put this together without the community and without the support."

Stevens also talked about how complicated the funding was, more than once pointing out that banks and investors had to make accommodations to make the whole deal work.

On top of the challenges around investing, Stevens said when the banks required the group to rent out 70 percent of the building before they received any money he thought again that the project would fall apart.

He wondered why anyone would commit to renting out an apartment when all he had to show were some plans.

Again, Stevens said, people were willing to take a chance and agree to prelease the apartments, bringing the group that much closer to finalizing the deal.

"I didn't think we could rent 13 or 14 apartments. We didn't have anything to show people, and if we showed it, you wouldn't want to rent it," Stevens said. "We had a piece of paper, and a vision and a dream. And all these people bought into that dream and believed that this would be a great place and signed up."

Brattleboro Area Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Jerry Goldberg, who is going to move into the Brooks House when work is done, talked about the building's history, calling it the star of the downtown since it opened in 1871.

He said tourists and business people came to Brattleboro during the hotel's heyday

In the mid-1900s the economy changed and in the 1970s the new owners of the Brooks House transformed the building with small apartments and store-level shops, until, Goldberg said, the fire of April 2011 closed the building.

"Now at last the Brooks House will be making her triumphant return to downtown Brattleboro and to our state," Goldberg said. "She'll once more inspire us with her vitality. Engage us with her versatility. And attract a new wave of visitors, local, and from away."

Shumlin said the project represented more than just the development of a downtown property. He said all of the work that led up to Wednesday afternoon's event will have impacts that extend far beyond the walls of the Brooks House.

"When tragedy hit us, we all made a promise together that we would turn tragedy into opportunity, and that's exactly what we celebrate today," said Shumlin. "The power to do the impossible. The commitment to ensure that community matters to us. Community is the heart of Vermont. We put that together with jobs, education, residential living and caring about knowing our neighbors, and this is the kind of project we get."

Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at 802-254-2311, ext. 279, or hwtisman@reformer.com. Follow Howard on Twitter @HowardReformer.