Retreat Farm expansion underway

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BRATTLEBORO — Retreat Farm's makeover-in-progress is mostly likely observed if you're driving in or out of Brattleboro via Route 30.

The Windham Foundation donated the property to Retreat Farm LTD and grants have propelled the nonprofit to this point.

"We're just about to kick off additional fundraising," said Arthur "Buzz" Schmidt, Retreat Farm president.

Close to $1 million has already been spent on planning, groundwork and renovation of the farmhouse, according to Schmidt's estimate.

Retreat Farm was transferred to his group on Aug. 19, a little later than originally anticipated due to issues with subdividing the land. The Grafton Cheese Factory had to be separated from the parcel. The business is owned and operated by the Windham Foundation.

Last winter, the state approved an Act 250 permit so some development on the property could begin. A master plan application will still be needed for Act 250 review.

Altogether, there are 600 acres that Schmidt's group is responsible for maintaining, including Retreat Meadows, trails, woodland and a farmstead.

"It's an expansive complex property," Schmidt said. "There's an underlying easement with the Vermont Land Trust that restricts the development on the property really to one 25-acre farmstead. That's where all the development has to occur. We can develop farm resources on the other lands and we're doing that."

During the interview last Tuesday, crews were outside working. Infrastructure was being installed in the square, which is a space between buildings where public events are proposed to be held in the future. "Derelict structures" scattered around the property — a large concrete wall in the square, two crumbling silos, a concrete foundation in the original piggery, and wood and concrete that had been part of an ice house — were being demolished. Some of the land was being smoothed and seeded for planted pastures which animals will call home. And renovations on the farmhouse, where offices are located, were underway.

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Planning is also a major part of the process right now.

"We're building the systems and other attributes of what will be a not inconsiderable organization," Schmidt said. "That means hiring people, and building financial systems and other administrative systems and other things you do when you start a business."

He said the petting farm will be expanded and will include a children's farming and forest program.

Announcements regarding other Retreat Farm programming will be made by the time the Brattleboro Winter Carnival begins in February.

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Wendy Harrison has joined the group as director of community and partner relations. Lu Neuse, who has been involved since the beginning of the project, serves as director of programs. Other staff members are supervising construction and planning elements.

"For the most part, we're in a planning mode through January," said Schmidt, who expects to submit the master-plan application during that month. "It's not all going to happen at once. You can anticipate a succession of different enterprises in the different buildings."

All activities will have to do with the working land, he said. Agreements with different entities are in the works.

Schmidt said the buildings will continue to be historic artifacts even when occupied.

"The good part is it will all look great," he said.

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Asked about challenges, recent weather was cited. The snow and cold temperatures "could have waited a couple weeks," said Schmidt.

"That would have been nice," he added.

Also, the cost is coming in a little higher than originally estimated. Several millions of dollars are expected to be spent before completion.

"I am told, with projects that involve real estate and buildings, you can never properly project the cost and time it takes to do things," Schmidt said. "So it's a constant education, learning about those unforeseen cost elements."

Schmidt and the rest of the gang are planning developments over a five-year period. They're not going to start anything they cannot finish, said Harrison.

"Each of the components has to find its own capital and has to have a sustainable business model," Schmidt said. "The last thing we would ever want for this property or the community is to have white elephants that are failing economically. We are, in essence, a start-up non-profit organization but we are starting up with this very large physical plant so we have to take on the attributes of a mature organization like immediately. So that's a challenge, but it's a fascinating one. By the same token, with a relatively modest initial investment, we can provide the community with a really wonderful public environment. And that's what we'll be able to do by next summer."

More information can be found at retreatfarm.org and on Facebook.

Reach staff writer Chris Mays at 802-254-2311, ext. 273, or @CMaysBR.


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