Our Opinion: Turning tragedy into opportunity

Saturday July 20, 2013

Could any one of us imagine Brattleboro without the Brooks House? For 142 years this building has been the heart and a major focal point of the downtown area, first as a hotel and for the last 50 years as apartments and store-level shops that created a buzz of activity on Main Street.

When a fire ravaged the building in April 2011 it could have meant the beginning of the end for Brattleboro. The gaping hole of a burned-out building is unsightly for shoppers and leaves a bad impression with tourists, and that could hurt the remaining businesses as people take their retail dollars elsewhere. Similar tragedies have led to the spiraling blight of other downtown areas.

Fortunately, there were enough people in Brattleboro and at the state level who were determined not to let that happen here. A year after the fire the previous owner decided that he would not be able to raise the money to begin work on the building, so Bob Stevens and other investors calling themselves Mesabi LLC stepped in.

"We were facing looking at this building and saying what should we do?" Stevens recalled earlier this week. "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."

It would not be an easy road, however, as developers faced one challenge after the next while trying to raise the estimated $24 million needed to develop the Brooks House. The complex financing needed for this project led some funding sources to say it would be impossible to pull off, and the banks that did step up required the group to rent out 70 percent of the building before the investors received any money.

"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."

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.

That new beginning will include the apartments on the upper floors, retail shops at the street level, and a downtown campus for the Community College of Vermont and Vermont Technical College.

"Now at last the Brooks House will be making her triumphant return to downtown Brattleboro and to our state," said Brattleboro Area Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Jerry Goldberg, who is going to move into the Brooks House when work is done. "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."

"There is no way we could have put this together without the community and without the support," said Stevens as he praised the support of Gov. Peter Shumlin, the Legislature, the state colleges, the town, the banks and federal and state funding sources. As Shumlin noted, the project represented more than just the development of a downtown property. All of the work that led up to Wednesday afternoon's event exemplifies the determination and community-minded commitment that makes us all Vermont Strong.

"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."

We tip our hats to all of those who put so much effort into getting this project off the ground and we look forward to seeing the fruits of all that labor once the construction is finished and the Brooks House is once again a bustling center of activity.


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