Business & Economy

A Vermont developer’s challenge: Survive today to thrive tomorrow

A storefront sign advertises a vacancy at Brattleboro’s Brooks House. Photo by Kevin O’Connor/VTDigger

Mild-mannered engineer Bob Stevens wasn’t seeking to become a development superhero when he donned a hard hat 10 years ago to venture into the smoldering shell of Brattleboro’s fire-ravaged Brooks House.

“I went through with emergency responders to determine if the structure was stable,” he recently recalled. “Everything was so wet, the building was literally weeping.”

Stevens determined the central downtown block was soaked but salvageable. What he didn’t know was that he and several partners would buy it and, after too many unwelcome surprises, transform it into a $23 million community cornerstone.

A Vermont Life magazine cover story deemed it a “Miracle on Main Street.” Stevens hoped to spark more by founding M&S Development to help civic-minded clients plan everything from framing to financing.

“The Brooks House launched a whole other business for us,” he said. “We’re doing development work throughout New England.”

Enter Covid-19, which threatened to deep-six it all.

“We were in the middle of refinancing the Brooks House when the pandemic hit,” Stevens said. “Most of the major banks stopped offering loans.”

Worse, M&S Development was smack in the middle of a $30.7 million revitalization of downtown Bennington’s anchor Putnam Block.

“We had to shut down construction and send everybody home,” Stevens said. “There have been delays and cost overruns I don’t even know how to quantify — it’s not hundreds of thousands of dollars, it’s probably millions.”

And yet the miracles keep multiplying. The Brooks House has a new loan that temporarily allows lower rents for its struggling retail stores and restaurants. The Putnam Block is back on track and welcoming tenants. And Stevens’ design and development firms have a surprisingly burgeoning list of post-pandemic projects.

“We have a pipeline of work larger than anything we’ve ever seen, and this was before the stimulus packages,” he said. “It has been difficult to find carpenters, electricians and plumbers, and I think that’s going to get even harder. We’re concerned there aren’t enough to keep up with what’s coming.”

But thriving tomorrow requires surviving today.

‘How do we keep downtown buildings vital?’

Construction was simpler a century and a half ago when the late Brattleboro businessman George Brooks spent $150,000 to turn 1 million bricks and 500,000 feet of lumber into his namesake block.

“Without expecting to realize any return from it as an investment, he spared no money in making it a superior among the hotels of New England,” the Annals of Brattleboro report.

Built in 1871, the onetime hostelry boasted such guests as U.S. President Rutherford B. Hayes and British writer Rudyard Kipling; the latter drank lager in a basement bar and played poker in a penthouse suite.

Morphing a century later into a business and apartment hub, the five-story building was fully occupied when flames and 2 million gallons of firefighting water gutted it April 17, 2011.

Brattleboro’s Brooks House was gutted by fire April 17, 2011. File photo by Zach Stephens/Brattleboro Reformer

The owner soon hired Stevens — first to assess the damage, then to draw up restoration plans — only to balk when costs to simply clean up the remnants and cap the roof topped $1.5 million.

Stevens didn’t blink. Instead, he joined with local tax credit financing lawyer Craig Miskovich (M&S, M to Stevens’ S) to buy the property.

“How do we keep downtown buildings vital?” Stevens said at the time. “We were afraid this one would either sit on the market for years or a buyer might do the minimal amount to get it up and functioning.”

Stevens and Miskovich had the professional skills to do the job right. But eyeing an initial construction estimate of $14 million, the two also faced enormous personal risk. Teaming with other local partners and state leaders, they stitched together a crazy quilt of private and public money and tax credits and reopened the Brooks House in 2014.

Bob Stevens holds a pair of scissors with then-Gov. Peter Shumlin at the 2014 reopening of Brattleboro’s Brooks House. File photo by Kayla Rice/Brattleboro Reformer

The end of construction was only the beginning.

“We realized there was a market need for expertise in these projects,” Stevens recalled. “We took what we learned doing the Brooks House on the road.”

M&S Development has overseen not only the revival of Bennington’s Putnam Block but also a $17.4 million expansion of Brattleboro’s GS Precision aerospace machining and assembly facility, a $22.3 million addition to Bellows Falls’ Chroma Technology optical filter plant and a $19.3 million upgrade to Athol Memorial Hospital in neighboring Massachusetts.

‘We’ll be able to come back’

As for what’s next, the team is consulting with community institutions and manufacturing companies in Vermont, Maine, Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

“Some of the projects I don’t want to publicly say because they’re in early stages,” Stevens said.

But his firm is working with the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center on a $30 million, seven-story arts and apartment block just south of the Brooks House — the priciest Main Street project in the town’s history.

The plan, delayed and some thought doomed by the pandemic, could receive a boost from federal American Rescue Plan Act money.

“Providing ARPA funding now for these 26 new units of housing,” Gov. Phil Scott’s administration said in a recent statement, “is the type of investment Brattleboro wants and needs.”

M&S Development also is aiming to renovate a nearby block at 47 Flat St. into more affordable apartments. That project faces the same obstacle as others statewide: It costs about the same to develop in a rural or urban area, but most Vermonters can’t afford metropolitan-priced rents.

“There’s certainly a huge demand for housing, but there’s also a disconnect between the cost of building here and what the market will pay,” Stevens said. “That’s the challenge we face in most of the older towns in New England.”

To bridge the gap, M&S Development is assisting public and private entities with the grant, loan and tax credit programs it tapped to fund the Brooks House and Putnam Block.

M&S Development is finishing the first phase of a multimillion-dollar revitalization of downtown Bennington’s central Putnam Block. Courtesy photo

“One of the things about managing complexity is that you’re challenged repeatedly,” Stevens said. “We are getting better and better learning from these experiences, and we trust that’s going to be valuable knowledge for us on the next project.”

And so, with the start of construction season and anticipated end of the pandemic, the developer is looking for help — not only to lay bricks and mortar, but also to bolster a community’s larger foundation.

“It’s definitely a team effort,” Stevens said. “We collectively need to create enough vitality to increase the number of shoppers so businesses can increase their sales and afford to pay higher rents, which translates into developers being able to take care of their real estate assets.”

Such a framework, he knows, is cemented by faith.

“People have been there because they believed this, at some point, was going to end,” said the developer, speaking of both the past fire and present pandemic. “And when it does, the budgets will start to work again and we’ll be able to come back and keep moving.”

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Kevin O'Connor

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