Retreat Farm presents multi-year plan
"We hope ultimately as a result of our work that Brattleboro will have full benefit of iconic and beautiful new gathering event and conference spaces and facilities," Arthur "Buzz" Schmidt, Retreat Farm executive director, told the Development Review Board on Monday. "It'll have one of the top children's nature/farm education programs in the country. It will have a collection of synergistic, primarily land-based, enterprises that complement Brattleboro's Main Street experience and further the area's leadership among sustainable communities and food systems."
The hope is to get more families to spend time in Brattleboro and establish a new model for preserving historic structures in Vermont. Retreat Farm is planning to have local individuals and organizations hold events and run businesses on the Linden Street property.
The Development Review Board gave conditional use approval for the project that's expected to take about 15 years to complete. Buildings will be renovated and used for educational purposes, food services, conferences, recreation, performance, storage and manufacturing. The construction of cabins and a lodge on an upper terrace of the property is also being considered by the organization.
The non-profit Retreat Farm LTD was formed 18 months ago "to restore and preserve the nine-barn farmstead, and 500 acres of forested and agricultural lands of the historic Retreat Farm," Schmidt said.
"We're also adapting these structures and lands, and establishing a platform to support the emergence — we hope — of dozens of community events and farm and food and education and processing and recreational and cultural resident enterprises, all led by local individuals and organizations," he said. "Additionally, we ourselves will operate four of those residential programs: Our children's farm and forest program, which is the outgrowth of the petting farm that has been on the property for the past 25 years; a Retreat Farm events program; the recreation platform, primarily of trails; and what we are calling the Rockwell Hill platform for farm enterprises on one of the large farm parcels [on Upper Dummerston Road] that's not subject to this hearing and is not in the farmstead area."
Retreat Farm is seeking Act 250 approval from the state. The state permitting process will take into account stormwater, wetlands, wastewater and more.
Right now, it's difficult to tell just what or who will occupy space on the property.
"As you can appreciate, restoring and sustaining this historic Retreat Farm is a difficult proposition," Schmidt said. "The cost of restoring and re-purposing many historic structures is immense. The economic climate for new enterprises is uncertain, and all rural locations in the country and Vermont are in included in that. Achieving the vision implicit in this master plan will require that we establish numerous sustainable business models for dozens of enterprises, attract several resources, intrepid entrepreneurial leaders, secure many millions of dollars in philanthropic capital to subsidize restorations and leases, and have plenty of time to implement a master plan that respects the full set of challenges that we're facing."
The Farmhouse is expected to be completed this summer along with landscaping on the Farmhouse Square and the relocation of the children's farm/foresting program.
Schmidt hopes to have the next phase done in 2018. That will involve renovation of another structure, where he said the Brattleboro-based organization Food Connects "hopes to establish the rudiments of a physical food hub to support local agriculture."
"We would hope to transform this barnyard area," Schmidt said, showing where a new lawn and garden would go, and a haybarn would be restored into an auditorium. "We also hope to move the blacksmith shop... We lifted it by crane and it's sitting in a bunk here, awaiting approval to move it here to be part of the children's program as a museum, classroom or entrance. We haven't figured that out exactly."
One of the buildings is expected to be used for things like light manufacturing, yogurt production and basket weaving.
"The flagship enterprise, if things unfold the way we hope, will be here in the north barn where the petting farm was originally," Schmidt said. "And we hope that will become a farm-to-table cafe and market featuring local production."
By restoring a horse barn, Retreat Farm plans to establish an open office space for local environmental organizations. In 2023, Schmidt said he hopes the dairy barn can be made into a creamery or "more likely" an exhibition hall or artisan space.
Later on, the goal is to open an upscale restaurant with a cooking school.
"Thank you," DRB Chairman James Valente told Schmidt. "That was very helpful."
Windham Foundation Board Chairwoman Elizabeth Bankowski said her organization took over the property in 2001 after the Brattleboro Retreat decided it could no longer be in farming anymore.
"It became clear to us, it needed its own champion," she said, expressing hope that progress will come faster than Schmidt imagines. "We are very supportive of the whole project."
Windham Foundation owns and operates Grafton Village Cheese, which is still located on the Retreat Farm property that was recently subdivided. In the future, Schmidt said, the business will have its own identity but be a part of a larger group or organization.
"None of Buzz's aspirations are going to conflict with us, which is good," said Liz Richards, a member of the Harris Hill Ski Jump, which abuts the property. "I wish you guys a lot of luck. I think it's wonderful."
Reach staff writer Chris Mays at 802-254-2311, ext. 273, or @CMaysBR.
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