BRATTLEBORO -- The Brooks House is now under new ownership and construction crews will be on site before the end of this month to begin work on the historic downtown property.
Mesabi LLC, the team of five local investors who are undertaking the project, completed the deal for the Main Street building Monday afternoon.
The group needed to raise about $24 million for the purchase of the building, and for all costs associated with the design and rehabilitation.
The Brooks House has been vacant since April 17, 2011, when a five-alarm fire ripped through the 1871 building, badly damaging the four-story structure.
Mesabi purchased the building from Jonathan Chase, the former owner who announced a year after the fire that he would not be able to rehabilitate the property.
"It's hard to believe we're really there," said Bob Stevens, a member of Mesabi LLC. "We had to pinch ourselves yesterday when we closed. Everyone is really happy."
Mesabi LLC is made up Stevens, along with Craig Miskovich, Drew Richards, Peter Richards and Ben Taggard.
The group is planning a groundbreaking ceremony on Wednesday, July 17 at 1 p.m. at the Robert H. Gibson River Garden on Main Street.
Stevens, of Stevens and Associates, a local architecture, civil engineering and landscape architecture firm, has been involved with the project from the first day following the fire when Stevens and members of his staff toured the building to assess the damage.
In the following months he drew up plans to help stabilize the building and protect it from the elements.
Early in 2012, Stevens said, Chase decided that he would not be able to come up with the money to rehabilitate the Brooks House. Stevens and Miskovich, who was also working with Chase as an attorney, decided they would try to come up with local capital, along with loans, tax credits and grants, to make sure the Brooks House remained a cornerstone of downtown Brattleboro.
"This was a community project right from the start," Stevens said. "This project makes no economic sense and we knew it would only happen if local people got involved. We knew there was no way we could let the Brooks House sit there. Brattleboro needs this and it only came together because so many people helped."
"This is great news for downtown Brattleboro and great news for all of Windham County," said Gov. Peter Shumlin, who will be at the groundbreaking ceremony next week. "I am really grateful to the Mesabi group. They worked tenaciously to raise the money and make this happen."
Brattleboro Selectboard Chairman David Gartenstein said Tuesday's announcement on the closing marked an important step in the building's rehabilitation.
"The town of Brattleboro is very pleased to hear about the closing," Gartenstein said. "The Brooks House is an important part of the vitality of downtown Brattleboro."
The board has approved $150,000 in loans to the developers to help complete the purchase and development.
"We look forward to continuing to work with the developers to see that part of town brought back to useful life," Gartenstein said. "We will work with them, and with the construction company to best maintain public access throughout construction."
Shumlin helped advance the project forward when he announced during his 2012 budget address that the state wanted to open a new downtown campus for Community College of Vermont and Vermont Technical College.
The Legislature approved $2 million for the new campus and ultimately the Brooks House was chosen as the location for the new college campus.
"Having the students and staff of CCV and VTech right downtown will be a huge shot in the arm for Brattleboro," Shumlin said. "Downtown Brattleboro has really suffered from the fire and then from the flooding caused by Irene. This is a huge victory for Brattleboro and we should all be celebrating."
Brattleboro resident Martha O'Connor is on the Vermont State College Board of Trustees, and was chosen by Shumlin to lead a search committee for a location for the new downtown campus.
O'Connor says college trustees supported the idea of a downtown campus from the start but she said they were less sure about how the state college would be able to pay for it.
When the Legislature included the $2 million in the capital budget, O'Connor said the project seemed that much closer to becoming a reality.
"I can't say I didn't have any doubts, but in the bottom of my heart I knew we would get there, and we did," O'Connor said. "I am thrilled everybody worked so hard to make this happen. It's wonderful for the town and for the colleges."
"This project has been in the works for a while and now that the developers have purchased the property we are excited about moving forward and beginning construction," Community College of Vermont President Joyce Judy said Tuesday. "We hope to take occupancy in one year from now. This is very exciting for us."
Programming and staffing will remain stable at first at CCV, Judy said, but the new classrooms will have updated science labs and she said the college will respond to a potential increase in class offerings the enhanced visibility might cause.
"We really are looking forward to building on our current foundation and being able to have a greater presence in the Brattleboro area," she said. "We have a capacity to grow. We are going to be able to serve the Brattleboro area in a way we can't do at our present facility."
And Vermont Technical College President Phillip Conroy said the move downtown will help the business and technical college develop stronger relationships with Brattleboro businesses, and for the nursing program to be closer to Brattleboro Memorial Hospital.
"This gives us a base of operation that is a lot to closer to the action," Conroy said. "The opportunity to move downtown makes good sense for us."
People renting apartments lost their homes and possessions, businesses closed and street level storefronts on Brattleboro's Main Street have been shuttered.
Developers hoped to start construction in early 2012, and then set a date for the spring.
Stevens said the very complex financing, which has the group using federal tax credits in ways that are not typical for this type of project, took time for lawyers, accountants and bankers to figure out.
The extra time, though, gave developers time to work on designs and permits and Stevens says everyone is now ready to move the project forward.
"It is very hard to redevelop old buildings like this and so many people here stepped up to make sure it happened," Stevens said. "It took a little longer than we had planned, but you have to have faith. We know people are really excited about this, and we're excited to get going too."
Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at 802-254-2311, ext. 279, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Howard on Twitter @HowardReformer.