A peek inside the Brooks House

Monday March 11, 2013

BRATTLEBORO -- The local investors who want to redevelop the Brooks House are holding a special event this Thursday to get people excited about the project, and also to find a few more tenants who might be interested in renting space in the historic Main Street building.

After searching for almost a year for a bank to be the senior lender in the complex, $23 million real estate transaction, the investment group, Mesabi LLC, announced recently that Mascoma Bank will support the deal, but the bank wants a little more commitment from potential tenants before signing the papers.

On Thursday, March 14, from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m., the Robert H. Gibson River Garden will be transformed into the future renovated space of the Brooks House to show potential tenants what opportunities lie ahead.

The event, which is being billed as "Dream to Reality: Restoring the Legacy" will use a little creativity and magic to give people a chance to see into the future.

And while organizers are asking people to expand their imagination a little, the true story of one of the anchor tenants is enough to make any doubter believe.

Stephanie Bonin grew up in the Brook s House.

Her parents, Pierre and Betsy Bonin owned the Book Cellar, which was located in the Brooks House, for 22 years, and Stephanie ran around the historic building as a child, and then had her first job there ordering cards and books and working in the store.

After high school she moved to Boston, spent a few years doing environmental work and then began working in the restaurant business.

She now lives in Denver and owns the restaurant, Duo, with her husband, Keith Arnold, who is also from New England.

Shortly after the couple's second child was born last year they began to contemplate moving back to the Northeast to be near family.

They wanted to open a restaurant in New England that highlights the farm-to-table food they have been serving in Denver and they were looking for a small, progressive New England town that would support the business, and give their kids a healthy place to grow up.

In all her wildest dreams Bonin never imagined that town would be Brattleboro, and the building that would house the restaurant would be the very same structure where she spent her childhood.

But, as organizers for Thursday night's event want you to remember, dreams become realities.

Bonin and Arnold have agreed to bring Duo to the Brooks House, and hope to have the restaurant open next year after work has been completed in the historic 1871 building.

"Our roots are in New England and we want our children to have the kind of childhood we had," she said. "We are both ready to come home."

Bonin said she and Arnold, and their children visited a number of New England towns while looking for a new home for their restaurant.

There were strengths and weaknesses at each stop.

When they toured the Brooks House she said she and Arnold looked at each other and felt like they were home.

"There is an old picture of my parents, standing in the Brooks House, with me on their shoulders, and there I was, with my children, standing in the same space," she said. "It gave me shivers."

Bonin said events like the one planned for Thursday, and the whole redevelopment project, have supported the couple's decision to relocate to Brattleboro.

"Brattleboro is a special town," she said. "This project is so inspirational and it is exactly what we value, and why we want to be there."

Bob Stevens, who is one of the five investors behind Mesabi LLC, said Thursday night is a chance for his group to tell their story.

According to Stevens about 65 percent of the space is pre-leased, and the bank is looking for a 70 percent pre-lease rate.

"We are close, but we're not there yet," Stevens said. "We want people to know that if they are thinking of doing this, now is the time."

At the event on Thursday, retail, office and apartment spaces will be set up in the River Garden. There will even be macaroons from Duo that are being shipped in from Denver.

It is part publicity event, part public information session and part celebration for a project that many people in Brattleboro are trying to get off the ground.

Stevens said the investment team is looking to fill apartments, offices and some of the retail space, and Thursday night is chance to publicize the final drive of what has been a long and complicated process.

"We want to get the message out that if people are interested they should come talk to us," Stevens said. "We want this to be a fun event Thursday and really showcase what we are trying to do. We want it to be easy for people to understand what we are doing."

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


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