BRATTLEBORO -- By the time Tropical Storm Irene had inundated the region, the town of Brattleboro seemed like a city under siege.
In less than two weeks in the late summer of 2011, two people had been murdered, one over a drug dispute and the other over a workplace dispute.
Just four months before that, a fire in the Brooks House on Main Street threatened to spread to much of downtown. It took 10 hours for the more than 100 firefighters from around the region to snuff out the flames.
Before the fire, and since then, Brattleboro has seen its share of the economic downturn, with businesses closing and young people leaving for brighter horizons elsewhere.
For some, it seemed Brattleboro had seen better days.
But several months after the blaze at the Brooks House, a new fire in the imagination of the town was sparked by a group of Brattleboro residents convinced that the town's best days are still ahead of it.
"Brattleboro will become the college town it's always wanted to be," said Craig Miskovich, a partner of Mesabi, Llc, which was formed to find financing for the rehabilitation of the Brooks House.
At first the challenges were daunting, not the least of which was the estimated $18 million price tag for the project. Another challenge just as daunting was finding tenants for the rehabilitated building.
To the rescue came Gov. Peter Shumlin, who proposed a consolidated campus for the Community College of Vermont and Vermont Technical College in downtown Brattleboro.
"I feel very strongly that one of the things I can do as the first governor from Windham County in 50 years is do everything we can to grow prosperity for the area," said Shumlin.
"This is really going to make Brattleboro's downtown come alive," said Martha O'Connor, a member of the Vermont State Colleges Board of Trustees, which chose the Brooks House for the relocation of the colleges. "I've never seen anything in my lifetime that people have been so excited about. It's one of the best things I've ever worked on."
The excitement took a while to grow though, especially on the morning of April 18, 2011, with tenants still sorting through the ashes and waterlogged remains of their lives.
Jerry Goldberg, the executive director of the Brattleboro Area Chamber of Commerce, said he was stunned beyond words when he learned of the fire.
"I ran into Bob Woodworth and we both looked at each other," said Goldberg. "We didn't say anything, but I know we both thought ‘We are in for it. Who knows what's next?'"
Goldberg has been in Brattleboro for 17 years, having moved here from New York City.
He said that even though Tropical Storm Irene's impact on Brattleboro and the region was tremendous, he believes the fire at the Brooks House could have been more damaging to the town's future.
"The iconic nature of this building just stands for what downtown is," said Goldberg. "It's the kind of symbol of what we were and what we could be."
Allyson Wendt, a board member of Building a Better Brattleboro, said she was also stunned when she first heard about the fire.
Stevens and Associates, who she now works for, was called in to do an assessment of the building, and though it looked like a total loss, it was determined the building could be saved.
"It quickly turned into this hopeful optimistic dreaming," she said.
Even though the devastation was breathtaking, said Goldberg, he had no doubt the building would be rebuilt, he just hoped it would be more than it was before the fire.
That hope came true when Mesabi Llc., formed by Miskovich and Bob Stevens, of Stevens and Associates, announced its intentions to rehabilitate the building.
Miskovich moved to Brattleboro with his wife, who grew up in Jacksonsville, in 1998. He was out of town the first week following the fire, but knew from working with developers in the past that reclaiming the building was a daunting task.
"Bringing 80,000 square feet of mixed-use space on line was going to take a lot of time and effort," said Miskovich.
He and Stevens started discussing whether they were up to the task, and were soon joined by Ben Taggard and Drew and Peter Richards.
"It will take a long time and cost a lot of money, but it was inconceivable that it wouldn't be reclaimed," said Miskovich, a sentiment all five of the men shared.
But, admitted Miskovich, without the participation of the two colleges, the way forward was muddled.
"They are the tenants that give the investors, lenders and other participants confidence in the project," he said.
Dan Smith, director of community relations and public policy at Vermont State Colleges, said the two schools now have about 400 students in Brattleboro. They also have 18 full-time faculty members and 40 part-timers. He expects if everything goes as planned, the first classes will be held in the Brooks House in the summer of 2014.
"If by coming to downtown we can help strengthen the higher education presence for every institution in the community, it has the potential to be a transformative event for the town," said Smith.
"It's a pivotal moment," said Goldberg, crediting the partners of Mesabi for taking on the risk of the massive project.
"This groundswell of pride that they have in this community that encouraged them to put themselves on the line ... this is a huge undertaking," he said.
Shumlin said he was especially impressed by the willingness of the partners of Mesabi to pick up the ball and run with it when it seemed the cards were stacked against the community.
"It was a kick in the teeth but they are turning it into an opportunity," he said. "These guys are putting tremendous vision and energy and heart into this project. That speaks to why this community is resilient and strong."
"Brattleboro has its challenges but I like to think about the town in an optimistic way," admitted Stevens. Every day he sees the contributions the artists, the business people, the workers, the volunteers and the non-profit organizations make toward the region, and that gives him a lot of hope.
"We have the faith the Brooks House is going to create an energy, vibrancy and an uptick in the economy of downtown Brattleboro," said Stevens.
Bob "Woody" Woodworth, the owner of Burrows Specialized Sports, has been in town since the late 1940s. He said the crowd that will be attracted to downtown due to the colleges' presence is the market for the goods in his store.
"It's mostly young people with some disposable income," he said.
But over and above his business concerns, Woodworth said it will be nice to have a new source of energy in downtown.
"Anything we can do to attract young people here is a huge positive," said Woodworth.
Over the past 20 years, he said, he has seen the employment picture in Windham County change dramatically, and not for the better.
"Without job training and young people it's tough to realize the prosperity that is critical to the economic development of the region," agreed Shumlin.
The colleges, working with the Brattleboro Development Credit Corporation, Building a Better Brattleboro, Southeastern Vermont Economic Development Strategies, Marlboro College, SIT Graduate Institute and other local organizations, can expand the base of trained workers and attract businesses to the region, he said.
Stevens said having the colleges on Main Street is cause for hope that Brattleboro's future can be bright.
"The energy and activity of being located in downtown will help all the other businesses and make Main Street more vibrant and successful," he said.
Miskovich said he's excited for the day when the colleges open their doors in downtown.
"I've always admired the vitality and spirit and rejuvenation of a town that every year or so get a whole new crop of students to walk its streets and buy its coffee," he said.
Drew Richards said having the colleges in downtown Brattleboro will be "energizing and invigorating."
"I'm not sure people realize it," he said. "This is something this town has never seen before."
Bob Audette can be reached at email@example.com, or at 802-254-2311, ext. 160. Follow Bob on Twitter @audette.reformer.