In this column, VTDigger business and economy reporter Anne Wallace Allen looks at the legacy of Vermont preservationist Paul Bruhn and the efforts to find a successor.
SHREWSBURY – It seems everyone has a story to tell about Paul Bruhn and his work with the Preservation Trust of Vermont.
For Sally Deinzer, that story started when she retired from Central Vermont Public Service Corp. and got involved in a local group that had formed to find a new use for Shrewsbury’s tiny former general store.
The store’s owner, Marjorie Pierce, had left the building and a small endowment to the Preservation Trust when she died in 2001, and Bruhn, the Preservation Trust’s founding director, was looking for ideas from community members to get the building running again. The store had operated from 1865 until 1993.
In 2009, the Shrewsbury group opened a cooperative store, similar to one in Adamant that has been operating since 1935. They raised $67,000, bought some inventory, added a kitchen, and now, 12 years later, expect they’ll be able to report that 2019 was their first year of breaking even. The store sells many local goods and is staffed by volunteers and employees paid a “pittance,” said Deinzer.
The primary goal of operating the store is providing a community center for the Green Mountain town of Shrewsbury, which has a population of about 1,000 and lies about 35 miles south of the Killington ski area.
Deinzer likes her job and the townspeople who stop by every day for soup, fresh bread or groceries. The area’s many second-home owners go out of their way to support it, she said. Local musicians frequently get together there to play; locals come in for lunch.
“This is my baby,” she said. “People are passionate about this place.”
Bruhn, who died at age 72 in September, ran the Preservation Trust of Vermont for nearly 40 years. He’s credited with preserving hundreds of historic buildings in Vermont and restoring life to historic downtowns.
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Four months after his death, the nonprofit’s trustees haven’t yet started looking for a new executive director. They have a solid interim in former St. Albans Mayor Liz Gamache, who isn’t applying for the permanent job. And they have a complex legacy to continue.
While Bruhn is known for preserving some of the state’s most important architectural gems, he’s equally known for the way that he married the idea of reviving community along with historic structures. His touch can be seen in downtown areas all over Vermont that were emptied out over the decades before slowly returning to life with new businesses downtown.
“Paul was truly a magician,” said Neale Lunderville, chairman of the Preservation Trust board. “He had an extraordinary network of people who were passionate about their communities, and then people with technical expertise to assist those who were passionate.”
The low-key Bruhn worked behind the scenes to mobilize local experts so they could find a use for old buildings and restore them, and to fight the sprawl that drained town centers of their people and vitality.
“He knew the folks who wanted to fund projects, and his magic was connecting all those pieces,” Lunderville said. “He saw correctly that Preservation Trust of Vermont’s role and his role was to help bring all these elements together.”
In 2015, a landowner proposed building a large multi-use shopping center near the Randolph interstate exit, two and a half miles outside of the town’s historic downtown center. A local group, fearing that development would drain the remaining life from the downtown, called on Bruhn for help.
“We recognize in these communities there is a need for places to shop affordably without having to travel a long distance,” said Lunderville. “We also believe we can build commerce like that in the downtown areas.” Bruhn worked with local organizations to help them buy the land from the developer and turn it into a park that was completed last year.
Bruhn’s are big shoes to fill in an era when there are strong economic forces pushing towns to accept big box stores on the outskirts. Gamache started making the connection between preservation and community after she called Bruhn for help with St. Albans 15 years ago. City leaders were trying to spur the area’s creative economy.
Bruhn set up a two-day bus tour for community members, sponsored by the Preservation Trust. The bus was full. Gamache described it as a rolling “two-day think tank.”
“We started brainstorming to expand the team, to identify potential community leaders who could be involved and help it to spread,” she said. “It was about building relationships and creating that spark to see what we could do as a community.
“To me personally, it was one of the things that led me to become more deeply involved in community leadership,” said Gamache. “Over the years, the bonds and ideas formed from that bus trip helped other people to become more involved in seeing the possibilities of building a stronger community.”
Paul Costello, a longtime friend of Bruhn who runs the Vermont Council on Rural Development, said Preservation Trust is different from historic preservation organizations in other states.
“The community building approach Preservation Trust has had in Vermont is not just about historic preservation of buildings and things,” he said. “That’s part of it, but it connects it to people. The emphasis on community building is so important, and that’s the work that Paul was so masterful at doing.”
The board has taken an unusually careful and strategic approach to its succession plan. It has been discussing the matter of Bruhn’s successor since 2002, and updating its plan every five years, said Lunderville.
“We didn’t want to rush into the process of hiring a new executive director; this has always been the case,” Lunderville said. They hired an interim director, Gamache, to enable them to take their time through the transition, “knowing it would be a hard transition,” he said.
“We wanted time and separation between Paul and the new president,” he said. “We wanted to make sure we were as an organization taking stock of the future of preservation and community building in Vermont. When you have a leadership transition, that’s a good time to think about the next phase of our life as an organization.”
The board might hire a firm to help, said Lyssa Papazian, an architectural historian in Putney who is on the board of the Preservation Trust and is leading the search for Bruhn’s successor.
“We know we can’t replace Paul so our task is to really understand what makes PTV special and relevant and how best to keep that moving forward,” she said.
Deinzer, a former board member at Pierce’s store, said the tiny building serves as an information hub for locals as it did for years before closing.
“During crisis times, during Irene, or during any kind of major weather event, people will come here, will call to see what’s going on, what is the condition of the roads, do you know if the dump is going to be open on Wednesday. …“ she said.
To succeed as a community center, “there needs to be a nucleus of people who are seeking opportunities and venues for coming together,” she said. “There’s actually a lot of that in this town.”
Preservation Trust accomplished the same thing when it helped the Putney Historical Society buy that town’s general store, which closed after a fire in 2008.
“The store kind of functions as an informal social service agency for people who don’t know where to go or are afraid to go somewhere else,” said Papazian.
“It made me have a newfound and deep appreciation for local small business owners, how much they actually matter in a small community,” Papazian said. “They’re the unsung heroes of the communities we still have, and that’s what Paul understood, too.”
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