'Did It Work?': Redeveloping Brattleboro's Fire-Damaged Brooks House

Sep 13, 2019

After a fire damaged a historic building in Brattleboro, investors had a tough time raising enough money to redevelop the property. Ultimately, the project relied on both federal and state grants to finance the reconstruction. Eight years after the fire, we look at the current status of the Brooks House.

VPR's Did It Work? series looks at a sampling of publicly-funded initiatives in Vermont of the past several years. More from the series here.

The Initiative

On April 17, 2011, a five-alarm fire ripped through the historic Brooks House in downtown Brattleboro, causing significant damage to the 140-year-old building. 

When Tapp Barnhill saw the inside of the Brooks House after the fire, she wasn't sure the property would ever be redeveloped.

An archival image of the Brooks House, in Brattleboro.
Credit Brattleboro Historical Society

"When I walked through this building the first time and looked around it, what was going to have to happen to transform it, I turned to one of the guys and I said: 'You know, are you going for the lifetime achievement award here?' Because that's what it felt like it was going to take," said Barnhill, the Community College of Vermont's dean of academic center administration.

Barnhill was on a tour at the time to see if it was feasible for CCV and Vermont Technical College to move from the outskirts of Brattleboro into the Brooks House. Vermont State Colleges System officials eventually agreed to the move.

Once the colleges committed to moving into the soon-to-be-developed building, then-Gov. Peter Shumlin put $2 million into his budget to help fund the build out.

That $2 million earmarked by the Legislature was for classrooms and offices, to help pay for much of the development in the second floor. The project also received $800,000 through the federal Community Development Block Grant program.

In addition to the colleges moving in, plans for the overall redevelopment of Brooks House envisioned it as a mixed-use space with stores and restaurants on the street level, and apartments and offices on the top floors.

What Happened

All said, it took developers more than two years to put the complete financial package together just to start work on the building.

Bob Stevens, one of the investors, provides a tour of the still-in-development Brooks House renovation in 2014.
Credit Susan Keese / VPR File

A group of five local investors eventually raised more than $22 million, including the state and federal grants to finish the project — a much higher dollar value than the building itself, which would ultimately be assessed at less than $9 million.

The project received almost $800,000 in federal funds through the Community Development Block Grant program.

Josh Hanford is commissioner of the Department of Housing and Community Development, which runs the Community Development Block Grant program in Vermont. He said the federal money is supposed to jumpstart development that might otherwise be delayed.

"Without public investments to get it started, it wouldn't happen. It would still be sitting there," Hanford said.

"And the community having this as a source is a huge benefit for them," he continued. "They ... wouldn't raise this kind of money — $800,000 in the Brooks House example — you know, from their own property taxes or other sources. But yet having that building vacant, underutilized for any period of time, would cost the community a lot more than that."

The groundbreaking for the renovation took place in 2013. In 2014, the building re-opened and the colleges had their first classes at the Brooks House.

Bob Stevens, far left; then-Gov. Peter Shumlin, second from left; along with local development team members that spearheaded the Brooks House project, at the groundbreaking for the renovation in 2013.
Credit Susan Keese / VPR File

Did It Work?

Yes — with the money raised for the project, Brooks House has since been redeveloped, reopened and reoccupied. This success in Brattleboro has even become a model for the ongoing Putnam Block development project in Bennington.

Since the colleges moved into the Brooks House building in 2014, enrollment has been increasing each year; according to Barnhill, about 250 students will attend CCV in Brattleboro this semester.

CCV instructor Ananda Forest, standing, leads a class during one of the first days of the fall semester at the CCV Brattleboro campus.
Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR

Barnhill said the move downtown also helps the colleges connect with state agencies and local social service agencies that have offices downtown.

"I think for southern Vermont this was the right move," Barnhill said. "It revitalized a place that could have been a tipping point in the other direction. And I think for that reason alone, that money will return to the state so many times over what the initial outlay was."

Bob Stevens, a local engineer who worked on the project, is also an investor in the property. He said to get the project to the finish line, they needed every grant and tax credit they received.

"Without state and federal, [it would be] impossible," Stevens said. "And even with it, I would like to say that it is barely possible."

Bob Stevens is one of the investors who helped raise the money to redevelop the Brooks House in Brattleboro. He said the project may not have happened without the state and federal money.
Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR

Today, the colleges occupy space in the Brooks House, but the building is also almost completely occupied with stores and restaurants on the ground level. There are 23 apartments on the top floor which are all rented, with a waiting list for people who want in.

Stevens said if the building was not developed, there would be a loss to both the state and the town. He said there are state and federal taxes coming in off the properties and from the people who work in the Brooks House.

Still, he said it will take a while to really be able to measure the investment against the benefits.

"It's hard to measure it, or I should say it takes years," Stevens said. "At the end of the day, you know, the only objective metric that we can think of would be to say, 'is the grand list growing in downtown?' And you know, so you're not going to see that. It may be a generational kind of timeline before you can actually measure that kind of change."

Did It Work? GIF Verdict

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Credit Meg Malone / VPR

While we hear a lot about new initiatives or funding when first announced, it's not always as easy to figure out whether they lived up to their promises down the line — and if they were a good use of public money. In VPR's Did It Work? series, we're following up at a sampling of publicly-funded initiatives in Vermont of the past several years. More from the series here.