Updated Friday, Dec. 2 at 6:13 p.m.
Bruce Seifer, a man described by former Mayor Peter Clavelle as being “the face and voice of economic development in Burlington,” died Tuesday at the age of 71.
Seifer worked at the city’s Community and Economic Development Office from its creation in 1983 until 2011. He also wrote books on the topic of sustainable economic development.
“He was the consummate networker,” Clavelle said in an interview on Thursday. “He would connect people. He would listen to businesses, then shepherd the resources necessary to address their needs and their issues.”
Seifer’s former wife, Julie Davis, said in a Facebook post on Wednesday that Seifer died “from a natural death” following multiple health challenges.
Brian Pine, the current head of the economic development office, said he worked alongside Seifer for years, and the two became good friends. Pine described the main goal of Seifer’s work as being “business with a conscience.”
“I think he changed the face of economic development in Vermont forever,” Pine said.
Seifer, who was born in Long Island, New York, served as Burlington’s assistant director of economic development for 28 years. He was a steady presence throughout four mayoral administrations, beginning with that of now-U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.
At the time Seifer was hired, Sanders was trying to “take a more activist role and bring really deep values around equity and around inclusion of people who are often left at the economic margins of our society,” Pine said.
It was Seifer’s task to develop and implement that strategy, Pine said.
In a Dec. 2 statement, Sanders described his former staffer as "nothing short of a visionary when it came to economic development."
"Bruce knew that true economic development is about taking a neglected place and making it beautiful, making it a place where people can gather and have fun," Sanders continued. "The people of Burlington, and the people of Vermont, owe Bruce a deep debt of gratitude for all of his many accomplishments."
Clavelle noted that “Bruce's fingerprints are on many of the milestone landmark achievements in Burlington over the past three decades since the early ’80s, including City Market, business incubators, the revitalization of the South End, partnerships with nonprofits (and) recognizing their importance in community development."
Melinda Moulton, CEO of Main Street Landing, was a longtime friend of Seifer. In her earlier years of working to develop the waterfront area, she came to depend on Seifer to help her navigate city politics and economics, she said. When she was searching for a tenant for her Lake & College building, Seifer called her to say he had some options.
“And one of those prospects was Seventh Generation,” Moulton said. The environmentally conscious consumer goods brand came to anchor the building and remains there today.
Pine said Seifer left the economic development office in 2011 following the death of his 12-year-old son. Bentley Davis Seifer drowned in the Bolton Potholes in July 2011.
Pine, who at that time was working just a few feet away from Seifer at the development office, said at first Seifer was absent for a few months. “Until he finally said, ‘You know what, I can't do it. I can't get back to work.’”
It was shortly after that tragedy, Pine said, that Seifer developed health problems which he continued to struggle with for years. “I think part of his inability to get better was due to the tragic loss of Bentley, his only child,” Pine said.
Pine said that although Seifer stepped away from his role with the city, he continued to work, co-authoring “Sustainable Communities,” a policy book that uses some of Seifer’s successes in Burlington as examples.
Both Pine and Clavelle described Seifer as someone who knew how to have fun.
Pine recalled Seifer’s “active nightlife” in the years before he married, when he lived in an old apartment on Clark Street and hosted “probably some of the craziest, wildest parties you'd ever want to go to on Halloween.”
Pine also described Seifer as a devoted Grateful Dead fan who would travel around the country for concerts and a “goof-ball” on the softball field.
Amid all the fun, Clavelle said, Seifer “went to sleep at night thinking about economic development.”
“He helped build a foundation in Burlington for progressive economic development,” the former mayor continued. “And when that foundation was built, when principles for community and economic development were embraced, he guided the city's efforts for, again, just short of three decades, which is quite remarkable.”