Brandon facility redeveloped for mixed use

Brandon facility redeveloped for mixed use

Barna, Ed

The closing of the state’s institutional facility for the retarded in 1993, like the decommissioning of military bases around the country, has created both regional economic problems and opportunities for revitalization.

A generation ago, the Brandon Training School was a small village, housing over 600 residents and employing an even greater number of caregivers and associated workers. But improvements in community residency gradually made the 426-acre, 43-building complex obsolete. More and more of the multi-story brick buildings went dark, and finally it closed.

Subsequently, the state tried unsuccessfully to market the property nationally, with help from a Boston real estate firm, the Finch Group. There were hundreds of inquiries, dozens of walk-throughs, and one locally based partnership that said it could create a multiple use project if the state had been willing to hold the mortgage, but in the end no one proved financially capable.

But once the Dean administration abandoned the $125,000-plus national campaign, and changed course and decided to subdivide and market the site, feasible projects began taking shape.

Brandon, which during the state school’s decline had gone from second to third place in Rutland County population, now is eagerly looking forward to its reuse.

The main player is Peter Holmberg, a South Burlington developer previously associated with the Wake Robin elderly community in Chittenden County. He and the state have agreed to a plan by which he will gradually acquire the property, the timing dependent on when various other buyers come along — in effect making Holmberg a marketing agent. Eventually, the state could net as much as $2.5 million from the sales.

Holmberg himself is seeking subcontractor bids for mechanical, electrical, demolition and smaller general work related to renovation of three buildings. Two would be for senior housing, and one for family housing. The consensus is that one reason for the site’s slowness to move on the real estate market was that the buildings, while structurally sound, need handicap access and code work, and may have suffered cosmetic damage from several years without heat.

The McKernon Group, based in nearby Sudbury, actually jumped in and took four buildings ahead of Holmberg. Owner Jack McKernon, who in recent years successfully restored a barn in Whiting as an incubator space for two small furniture companies, acquired the former maintenance barn, food service center, laundry and heating system boiler house. He will use the former for his own construction company work and wants the latter three because he believes they offer unique possibilities for re-use (eg, microbrewery or cheese factory in the boiler house, specialty foods in the canteen with its huge freezer). In all, about 46,000 square feet of leasable space is involved.

A day care center formed for Training School employees continues to function in one building, the Rutland Northeast superintendent’s office will move to the complex, and the local high school passed a $200,000 bond in March to buy another structure for its alternative education program.

Richard Baker, head of the consortium that came close to buying the Training School (at one point his office had already moved to the place where McKernon now has his), has purchased the former farmland associated with the facility, to the north of the main campus, and is now deciding how to combine it with another large land purchase he made previously along Route 7. Together, the parcels will include about 200 acres.

Perhaps most significant of all from Brandon’s point of view, the state at one point virtually gave away about 60 acres of former Training School land to the town, as a kind of payment in lieu of taxes, for Brandon’s first industrial park. Most of that land is now occupied by a massive Tubbs Furniture Company factory, which employs about 125 people and which, with its capacity to fill greater contracts, could see employment rise over the 200 mark, according to owner William Carris of Rutland.

Residential development at the Forest Park Village, as Holmberg has renamed the area, has Brandon Area Chamber of Commerce officials enthusiastic about revitalizing the downtown business district and its historic architecture, notably a huge Greek Revival town hall.

A new Brandon Village Partnership has just started a downtown program along the lines of Rutland’s successful efforts to counter mall development, and has just hired two UVM historic preservation program graduates as co-directors for a $40,000 planning grant.

‘here are exciting possibilities here we can hardly imagine,” McKernon said. “Everything is here.” Local architect Robert Rand, who is helping to redevelop a downtown waterfall site as a public park, summed up a widespread local feeling in saying “I think the town is on an upswing.”

Copyright Boutin-McQuiston, Inc. Apr 01, 1997

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