Ben Doyle started Oct. 5 as president of Preservation Trust of Vermont, the 40-year-old organization started by the late Paul Bruhn. It protects and restores downtowns and buildings that serve as community centers.
Doyle grew up in Sutton, a small Northeast Kingdom town where his father was an English professor at then-Lyndon State College and his mother ran a bookstore in downtown Lyndonville. Doyle worked construction and on fishing boats on Cape Cod, earning a bachelor’s degree from the University of Vermont and a master’s from New York University along the way.
A stint in the Peace Corps in Paraguay showed him he enjoys community building and revitalization, and he found his way to USDA Rural Development before taking his new job in October.
Preservation Trust uses historic preservation as a tool for community building, and operates with a combination of grants and technical assistance to save important buildings, downtowns and village centers. Doyle had known Bruhn for years, as their respective organizations worked on community-building projects together. The nonprofit Preservation Trust has seven employees and an annual budget of about $1.2 million, and is fueled by grants and private donations.
Doyle talked with VTDigger about Bruhn’s legacy and the future of Preservation Trust. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What is the mission of Preservation Trust?
To build community by preserving the places and spaces that people love. In the sense that like the buildings and the spaces where we come together, where we gather, those places represent or demonstrate or make manifest our values, and build community. Some buildings are so obviously historically significant in character, like the capital, the Agency of Agriculture, National Life — but then you’ll see other buildings that are just as significant to a community that might not necessarily be as historic or beautiful.
How did the Peace Corps prepare you for your role at Preservation Trust?
I found I got enormous satisfaction from helping people identify their own priorities. That was the part of community and economic development that stuck with me that I really enjoy. Peace Corps was a transformational experience for me and directly connected to the work I do today. That’s what it really is about, is helping people decide what is important to them and do the things they want to do.
Paul always served as a champion for these small communities. I worked with him on the Albany General Store; I was on a visiting team with him in Vernon as they tried to talk about building their downtown core after the closure of Vermont Yankee (the nuclear plant). It was tough not to be inspired by Paul and his ability to bring people together and do things creatively and be nimble. I loved working at a federal agency and took a lot of pride in it, but it wasn’t nimble.
How do you decide what is ‘historic’?
It’s not about keeping the downtowns preserved in amber. If it’s not alive, it’s dead. It’s got to be vibrant, and there are a lot of different ways that can happen.
Like the Albany store?
The truth is, that’s not a particular historically significant building in terms of historic preservation, but it’s incredibly significant to that community and to the future of that community. The trust helps people take care of places.
Is Preservation Trust mainly about structures?
It is, but it doesn’t have to be buildings. The trust sees the relationship between the working landscape and our downtowns. If you populate the working landscape with sprawl and box stores, we start to lose. You’re hollowing out the downtown, and losing what is special about the charter of our state.
How does Preservation Trust operate?
It administers grant programs and works on historic easements in collaboration with Vermont Housing Conservation Board; VHCB might give a preservation grant to a building, or might work as a steward of easement. Sometimes we have grant programs that will give direct grants to specific projects to move forward.
Probably the most important thing the field staff do is work with folks in small towns who aren’t professionals but who just love this or that building in their town. Or they are a member of a church or some other kind of building they have identified as one they love. They might not have an idea of what the road map looks like to help preserve that. Our field staff will work really closely with them. We do a lot of modest grants for things that will be really critical steps, like the assessment of a building. People say they want to paint something; the assessment will say, ‘You should start with the foundation, not just fix it up but activate it, and bring people into it.’ It’s about how to fundraise, and once you have restored the building, it’s how to secure it in the future.
How is this different from other organizations in Vermont?
There are a lot of other organizations that can help someone save a small town hall, and a lot of folks work in this space. What makes Preservation Trust different is that we see ourselves as a friend, somebody who is there to give you advice, maybe help you out with a little money if you need it. We’re there to listen and stick with you throughout the course of a project.
A lot of these things take years. I can think of one town where a woman named Carol has been working on saving her town hall for eight or nine years.
Why not make that happen for her?
Because it’s not about making it happen for her; it’s about making it happen for the town. So what she’s working on is not an architectural assessment; it is about how do you build a constituency.
How do you choose your targets?
We try to help anybody who asks. You look for energy. A lot of people will talk about (Preservation Trust) as a catalyst. There have to be the other elements there: helping foster local leadership, giving folks the confidence to know they can do something. It’s about where is the network of resources, both locally and at the state and federal and philanthropic level.
It’s about having the connections to be able to connect folks to those resources, and then there is almost always that local champion who rah-rahs people. There is the broader community too that makes a decision.
Do you ever hear anyone say that preservation and a love of the past holds back the economy?
Yeah, there are definitely people who think that historic preservation or holding on to the past might inhibit our economy. The reason I love the work is because I am completely interested in the future of Vermont, and to me the work Preservation Trust does is about preserving that future and creating opportunity.
I believe historic preservation can preserve and enhance the character of that town. People want to go there because it’s vibrant.
People say the biggest economic challenge in the state is we don’t have enough people. The question becomes, what does the future of Vermont look like? Does it look like a place that can attract new Vermonters? Or is it passed over because folks are going someplace that feels more vibrant, welcoming and interesting?
To me, this moment in our time is so incredibly pivotal, between Covid, a reckoning around racial injustice. people just questioning our values as a country. In Vermont, it was the back to the land movement or the interstate highway system. It’s that kind of transformational moment in Vermont. Or it has the potential to be. People are going to choose to come to Vermont or they are not. How do we respond to that movement? Do we welcome folks? Do we have the housing, the infrastructure, the jobs? Do we have the things to welcome them where? What kind of community will they encounter?
What can Preservation Trust do about that?
It’s about helping downtowns be vibrant and unique. If people want to move, they want to move somewhere vibrant that doesn’t feel like Anywheresville USA. They’ll choose a vibrant downtown like Bristol rather than just a bunch of boxes that look the same.
As communities come up with a vision of being unified or sharing economic prosperity, the trust can provide good advice developing strategies and with work plans for preserving the incredible spaces and buildings in those communities and helping revitalize them. We’re not one of those organizations that comes in with the big dollars; it’s really about helping folks find their way.
We look at a lot of the towns where small businesses are struggling or have left the downtown. That’s an opportunity for the Preservation Trust to provide technical assistance that might help somebody purchase an option on a building until a nonprofit group can form.
Or we apply for a grant like they did up at the Albany General Store. Preservation Trust is nimble; we can look at a community project, figure out what needs to get done, help them connect to people who know how to do that, or play a special role in helping move something forward.
Is this a change at all from Paul Bruhn’s vision?
I wouldn’t say the vision is the same or different; the ethos is the same, the approach is the same. The vision is going to be determined what is required for the moment or future. Paul knew that, and he would talk about that idea.
What’s next for old buildings in Vermont?
There are a lot of opportunities to do more and there’s a lot of risk if we think about the barns we’re losing that are so iconic to how Vermonters have thought of themselves for a very long time. Every year we lose more and more.
There are some incredible success stories about our villages and downtowns, but there are others that are really struggling, I think the next years will really be pivotal. If the kind of migration we’ve seen in the last six months continues, it’s going to place a lot of stress on Vermont communities and on the working landscape. So ensuring our villages and downtowns thrive and are dynamic and interesting and experiential will help mitigate the pressure on those open spaces that we really value, and that help make Vermont the place it is.
Are old buildings more than just structures?
There is something profound about them. They were built by shared endeavor and shared commitment. What happens in there can and maybe should change, but we should also continue to care for them, because it says a lot about who we are and what we value. It says we are authentic. I feel like if there is a Vermont brand, it’s about local, about authenticity, about community, and I think the structures at the center of those communities and the places where people get together to build community should be a metaphor for that.