Brattleboro celebrated an important part of it’s history and future Wednesday when ground was broken on a $24 million reconstruction of the iconic Brooks House.
The historic building was gutted by an electrical fire in April, 2011.
Governor Peter Shumlin led the first symbolic sledgehammer blows inside the old hotel where Kipling played poker and Eleanor Roosevelt liked to stop for lunch.
The governor grew up in the Brattleboro area. He was instrumental in getting Community College of Vermont and Vermont Technical College to commit to new campuses in the building when the renovation is complete.
Speaking to a crowd of about 200 people, Shumlin recalled visiting the building after the fire, talking with people who had lost their businesses and homes.
“We all made a promise together that we were going to turn tragedy into opportunity,” Shumlin said. “And that’s exactly what we celebrate today.”
Shumlin said the new building, which will keep its historic façade, will be more energy efficient. He said the combination of retail space, restaurants, apartments and the college campuses, will bring new life and prosperity to the town.
He called the project a powerful example of Vermont vision and values.
“Unlike the rest of America,” he said, “Where they basically let their downtowns crumble, where they build big boxes out in the cornfields, we say, ‘Wait a minute! Community matters to us. Downtowns are the heart of Vermont.”
The Brooks house encompasses about a quarter of Brattleboro’s downtown.
Lead engineer Bob Stevens said the 2011 downtown fire and the devastating flood a few months later could have been the final blows in a series of downward economic trends.
“Our market place, our retailer and residents ncould not really afford to pay the rents necessary to rebuild this building,” Stevens told the gathering. “So we were sort of facing looking at this building and saying, ‘What do we do? Do we let this building sit and continue that economic decline? Or do we find some way to put a project together that doesn’t make any economic sense, because in some ways, we have to?’”
Stevens said three quarters of the building has already been pre-leased -- a requirement of the complex financing that made the project possible.
But he added that space is still available. The reconstruction is expected to take about a year.