by Joyce Marcel. Photos by Randolph T Holhut. Vermont Business Magazine When you think about Vermont's economic destiny, do you first think about a crumbling old barn? Probably not. But Paul Bruhn does. “Vermont is really defined by its historic resources, its downtowns and village centers, the barns that dot the countryside – these define Vermont's character and are a very much part of Vermont's brand,” insists Bruhn, who has been the executive director of the Preservation Trust of Vermont since its founding in 1980. “And, as a result, they are the real foundation of our economic well-being.”
Bruhn fervently believes this and has dedicated his life accordingly. Has there been a general store in your area that went out of business and then reopened to the delight of your community? Paul Bruhn was probably behind its resurrection. Was there an old building falling down in your downtown that is now a thriving community meeting place? Thank Paul Bruhn. There's a Walmart in downtown Rutland instead of a shopping mall outside town and more sprawl. Paul Bruhn. How about that empty old theater that's now a thriving playhouse? Paul Bruhn. Grange? Paul Bruhn. View shed? Paul Bruhn. Barn? Paul Bruhn. Library? Yet again, Paul Bruhn.
But unless you're working in historic preservation, you've probably never even heard his name.
“Paul's very low-key, and whatever he's done, he always gives the credit to someone else,” said his good friend US Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT). “But everyone will say it's Paul Bruhn.”
When it comes to inspiring community members to join together for a community project, Bruhn is peerless. And his work is everywhere. In Brattleboro, you can see it in the revitalized Latchis Hotel and Theater and the Wilder Block. In Putney it's the general store — twice (the first renovation succumbed to arson). In Wilmington it's Dot's Restaurant. In Bellows Falls it's the Town Hall and Opera House. In Proctor it's the Marble Museum. In Rochester it's Pierce Hall. In Springfield it's the Ellis Block. In North Hero it's the Town Hall. In Brandon it's the Old Town Hall. In Randolph it's the Chandler Center for the Arts. At Mad River Glen it's the single chair lift. In Rutland it's Paramount Theatre. In Brookfield it's the Old Town Hall. In Greensboro it's the Town Hall. In Cornwall it's the library and town hall.
The list of projects — proposed, in process or completed — is extensive. It's been estimated that there have been over 1,500 of them in the state.
A Burlington native, Bruhn is still going strong at 70. He's as famous for his connections as he is for his preservation work. Leahy simply calls him “my hero.” His Rolodex is to die for. He is considered one of the fathers of the Church Street Marketplace. Wal-Mart took him so seriously they invited him down to world headquarters to hear him talk about sprawl and big box development — especially their own big box development. He knows where the money is and how to get it. He's a popular guy; his 70th birthday party filled the Shelburne Museum.
About that party, Leahy can only say, “Wow!”
“The turnout was across the political spectrum, across the state, across age groups,” Leahy told me. “Everybody spoke and everyone said, 'You've made the state better. You've made it possible for us to preserve things. Things I want my kids and grandkids to see.' Paul's one of the most extraordinary people in the state — and we've got many extraordinary people. I've never been able to say no to him.”
For a man who looks like a cuddly or squishy Santa Claus, it's amazing that Bruhn's been the bane of developers for close to four long and passionate decades. Even some of his mortal enemies say nice things about him.
For example, Jeff Davis, the developer of the Walmarts in Williston, St Albans and Derby, a man who has spent millions of dollars and years in court fighting Bruhn, admires his preservation work.
“I like Paul personally,” Davis said. “I admire a lot of the work he's done with communities and keeping some of our traditions alive. Of course we had problems with the Walmarts. Paul believed in his position and we believe in ours. We thought Walmart gave economic opportunities around the state for average citizens. And Paul was sincere in his beliefs that it was not good for the state of Vermont. There were three big battles. The store in Williston opened in 1997. The one in St Albans opened in 2012. That case got litigated and we prevailed. As a result of the litigation, we settled with the city of St Albans. In the Derby store, which opened in 2016, we made an agreement with Paul and also the Vermont Natural Resources Council. We did some off-site storm water mitigation over and above what was required by the permit process, and we paid some mitigation money to the city of Newport to offset any possible negative impacts to its downtown. We also contributed money to Paul's organization for preservation projects in the Northeast Kingdom. We've spent an awful lot of money litigating the first two, but Paul's a good guy. He cares about Vermont. We don't always agree, but that's OK.”
The Vermont Natural Resources Council's executive director, Brian Shupe, praises Bruhn for being a close partner in the recent successful fight to save the stunning view shed at I-89's Exit 4/Randolph from being developed into a large hotel, visitors center and shopping mall.
“Preservation Trust did not intervene (in the Act 250 process) but supported our efforts,” Shupe said. “They produced witnesses and worked closely with interest groups. Paul helped them get their message out through advertising. And when the owner/developer withdrew his application, we worked together with the Castanea Foundation to preserve 150 acres. Then we fundraised to buy 23 acres right at the top of the hill. PTV currently owns it and we're seeking a local farmer to take ownership of it. Paul was critical to that effort.”
Shupe called Bruhn “one of the most optimistic people” he'd ever met.
“I thought we'd never raise a million dollars to buy the Exit 4 land, and he thought we would, and he was right,” Shupe said. “He led that effort. There's no one who cares more about Vermont communities. Paul is easy to work with. He's such an affable person. He's incredibly well-connected and he uses those connections to further his mission. He's had a hand in something in every corner of the state. He's a super-stand-up guy. And he's committed to Vermont.”
Peter Van Oot is a long-time environmental lawyer with Downs Rachlin Martin who has known Bruhn since the late 1970s, when they were both working in Washington, DC. Most recently, he negotiated the settlement regarding the controversial I-89/Exit 4 development. He characterizes Bruhn as “an honest, creative and tenacious advocate and negotiator.”
"Paul is tough, and at times exasperating; but he tells the truth, works extremely hard for his position and we always part as friends,” Van Oot said. “While we haven't always agreed on the issues, Vermont is a better place for Paul's years of service and advocacy."
Bruhn operates as an unelected politician, said Robert Neeld, a structural engineer and the owner of Engineering Ventures in Burlington and Lebanon, NH. Neeld has been working with the PTV for over 20 years.
“Paul's got so much support, you can see how he's been able to affect change over the years,” Neeld said. “We're a small state, but thanks to Paul, we're leading the way in the preservation field for the country.”
Neeld, who does PTV's preservation assessments, jokes about Bruhn's ability to close a deal.
“I run a 30-person engineering firm and I save the fun stuff for myself,” Neeld said. “Those are the preservation projects. Paul uses this against me. I was once a guest at one of the Trust's annual meetings and Paul, the way he does things, said 'I'd like a few people to get up and tell us what they're going to do. Bob.' He gave me no warning and there were 50 people in the room. The good news was he talked for another 45 seconds so I could gather my wits. I said I enjoyed doing these preservation assessment reports. I said, 'Every time I go into the attic of an 1850s church, I feel like I'm getting free admission to a museum.' His response was, 'If you feel you're getting something you enjoy out of it, you should ask for less money.'”
That means Bruhn knows how to stretch a dollar.
“He's the kind of guy who can get a lot out of a little,” Neeld said. “He knows how to leverage things. It's remarkable what he's done over the years in terms of directing people to work on the preservation of their buildings, keeping them motivated and energized to take on these projects. He tries to get the owners connected with expertise connected with money and motivation. He's not running a restoration project. He's trying to organize a group of people to get together and organize and run a project. Paul is a great politician.”
Bruhn denies that he has that kind of power. He calls what he does “a team sport.” He has a strong working board behind him and works with many other agencies, such as the Vermont Natural Resources Council, the Conservation Law Foundation, the Vermont Arts Council and the Vermont Downtown Program. At the PTV, he has a staff of five and a general fund budget of $450,000 that covers salaries, field serves, seed grants, lobbying, etc. In addition, he can lay his hands on another $1 million here or $2 million there for special projects.
And as Bruhn would be the first to point out, his work hasn't been an unmitigated success. Sometimes sprawl wins. It's one of the reasons that in 2004, the National Trust for Historic Preservation put the entire state of Vermont on its list of the most endangered historic places in the United States.
“If there's been a major failure, it's Taft Corners,” Bruhn said. “It's a real blot on the Vermont landscape. We were very involved there. We worked very closely with Williston Citizens for Responsible Growth and the Vermont Natural Resources Council to stop that development there. The loss is probably as big a disappointment as I've had — and that was a big one. There were bad decisions made in the permitting process. In the end, we just lost. St. Albans is another example. In the mid-90s, the Act 250 Environmental Board made a very courageous decision and said no to Walmart. They came back and the second time around, the court system was different and the courts couldn't see their way to saying no.”
Even with the Walmart losses, Bruhn's accomplishments speak for themselves; the people who work with him speak even louder.
“I've known Paul since he was a young man in his 20s,” Leahy said. “He ran my campaign in 1974. It was an election where I came from about 30 or 40 points behind. No one thought I could win, but Paul said he would do what he could to help, and he did. Just as importantly, he came down to Washington and helped me set up my office. We're both native Vermonters, and we talked a lot about all the great things that had disappeared by the time we were kids. Like the beautiful stone post office in Montpelier which was replaced by what I call one of the two or three ugliest buildings in Vermont. So after Paul worked for me for four years, he went back home, started going around the state and decided to really work on historic preservation.”
By now Bruhn has garnered a national reputation, Leahy said.
“Why do we have so many Bruhn grants?” Leahy said. “Nobody's ever turned me down. He keeps pushing it. He goes places around the state which have things that should be preserved, where people don't know how to do it, and he works with them. We both feel strongly about preserving downtowns. Throughout all this time, when Paul has come to me to ask for help, it's never for himself. It's always for others.”
Leahy told me this story: “When Paul and I came down to Washington, the Dean of the Senate was Jim Eastland from Mississippi. We all tiptoed around him. Now that I'm Dean of the Senate, nobody tiptoes around me. But Paul came to me and said, 'I'm homesick.' Jim Eastland retired at the same time. So they had two big articles on the front page of one section of The Washington Post. One was about Paul, who was so excited to be going home and waking up in Vermont every day. The second story was about Jim Eastland's long time chief of staff. He said, 'Mr Jim's gonna retire. I'll go back to Mississippi with him help him set up his papers.' They asked if he was looking forward to retirement, and he said, 'I don't know anyone in Mississippi. My friends are all gone. It's going to be kind of lonely.' Two months later, I read the obituary for Eastland's chief of staff. And Paul's still going like a bat out of hell.”
The list of projects Bruhn and Leahy have worked on runs on for pages and includes just about every county in the state. Their Village Revitalization Initiative, a cooperative effort between Leahy, the PTV and U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development, was designed to build stronger and more economically vibrant villages and small towns. Begun in 2005, it has supported 27 projects in 25 different communities in Vermont. That federal investment of $2,435,200 helped leverage more than $27 million in total project costs.
At the time Leahy said, “This initiative proves again that historic preservation is not a cost for saving the past, but a wise investment in the future. Vermonters are respectful stewards of our state’s rich heritage. Cookie-cutter solutions are not the Vermont way. Paul Bruhn and the other partners in this effort carefully and thoughtfully forged unique, local, ‘hand-crafted’ solutions that embrace our history, while envisioning a vibrant future for these special Vermont places.”
In 2011, Leahy and Bruhn won the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation's Chairman's Award for Achievement in Historic Preservation.
“This creative and important initiative demonstrates how effective partnerships can use relatively modest funding to accomplish important local projects that create jobs, preserve our heritage, and improve the vitality of communities,” said ACHP's chairman, Milford Wayne Donaldson, when he presented the award. “It is a great model for other elected officials and preservation organizations to emulate across the country.”
When he accepted the award, Leahy, a gifted story-teller, brought up that old Montpelier post office story again: “As a child, I recall visiting the 1891 Romanesque Post Office building that defined a block of downtown Montpelier. It was a beautiful building – complete with an arched entry way, a turret and a grand courtroom. In 1963, the structure was destroyed to make room for a white box building that resembles a prison, a design familiar to any town in the county that got a new federal building in the 1960s. With the loss of that building, the character of my hometown was forever changed. If the Preservation Trust of Vermont and Paul Bruhn had been there, they would have saved that post office... When Paul, my staff and I discussed the creation of the Village Revitalization Initiative, our goal was simple: to help towns protect their greatest historic, economic and community-building assets — their historic town centers — from the fate of the Montpelier Post Office.”
In 2014, Leahy and Bruhn won the National Trust for Historic Preservation Richard H. Driehaus Award “for the preservation and restoration of Vermont's historic buildings and communities in downtowns across the state.”
On the other side of the aisle, Burlington native, retired financier and Republican gubernatorial candidate Bruce Lisman is also a strong Bruhn supporter.
“We met in Cub Scouts,” Lisman said. “We were in the same pack. And we've been friends ever since. We even went to camp together for a couple of years. I think the world of him. Paul is a hero of mine, and not because he's my friend. I think the work he's done with Preservation Trust has been nothing short of extraordinary. I'm a regular contributor. We did a joint project on restoring the tree canopy around Vermont. In the nicest way possible, he gets a lot done. His hand has been everywhere.”
Bruhn, who never graduated from college, has won two honorary doctorates, one from the University of Vermont — a school from which, he gleefully points out, he once dropped out — and one from Green Mountain College. This year he also won the Vermont Council on Rural Development's Lifetime Achievement Award.
Paul Costello, the VCRD's long-time executive director, said Bruhn “is the go-to expert in Vermont on community supported enterprises. His work on the preservation of signature buildings has saved some of the best of Vermont and enriched virtually every downtown of the state. We gave Paul a lifetime achievement award because we believe he has — more than any single individual in Vermont history — helped downtowns lift themselves up, redevelop properties, build unity and direction, and revitalize themselves. Paul is kind of a hero around the historic preservation and historic restoration community. He offers encouragement and empowerment. He's a great guy.”
Gus Seelig is the executive director of the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board. He met Bruhn in 1986 when they were pushing for the establishment of the Vermont Housing and Conservation Coalition, which led to the founding of the VHCB. The two have worked closely since.
“Any time you work with Paul, it's a lot of fun,” Seelig said. “There's probably nobody in Vermont who has been more committed to small rural communities, helping us think about how to stay vital, and how to use our historic assets as a way to grow and strengthen the bonds of community. That's probably been the hallmark of his work. He brings a set of skills and a commitment that is rarely matched.”
Across the United States, small rural cities and towns have been struggling, Seelig said.
“We're not without our struggles here, but the fact that there's a downtown Walmart in Rutland is a result of Paul's work,” he said. “Every time there's an example of success in a small town, it makes other people feel they can try it. We're about to break ground on a building in Montpelier. It's above the Aubuchon Hardware Store. The upper two floors have been vacant for more than 70 years. The fact that we keep doing these things and having success at it makes us feel it's possible. We would certainly not have the downtown tax credit program without Paul Bruhn and the idea that we can and should invest in our downtowns.”
Federal tax credits for historic rehabilitation have been available since at least 1976, but Bruhn and Leahy brought the idea to the state. Since 2002, 20 percent of almost $300 million in rehabilitation work has been supported in Vermont by federal tax credits. That includes Brattleboro's Brooks House and the current rehabilitation of downtown Bennington's Putnam Block.
Separate from that has been the Vermont Downtown and Village Center Tax Credit, which provides tax relief for buildings if they put in sprinklers, handicapped access including elevators, and bring buildings up to code.
“They have been crucial in many projects and we have led the lobbying in the Legislature for increasing funding for that program back when former Gov. Peter Shumlin was president pro tem of the Vermont senate,” Bruhn said. “When he was governor, we worked to get a $500,000 increase. Now, Gov. Phil Scott is a big supporter. He advocated for a $200,000 increase last year and we hope he will be supporting it again this year.”
Downtowns are in Bruhn's DNA, said Katie Buckley, Commissioner for the Vermont Dept. of Housing and Community Development.
“I met Paul when I worked for the town of Guilford and we were involved in the Friends of Algiers project, which combined affordable housing, getting a water line from Brattleboro and the reopening of the general store,” Buckley said. “The owners of the general store were thinking about selling it to 7-Eleven. We didn't necessarily want to be property owners or see the building flattened and turned into something we didn't want, so we talked with Preservation Trust of Vermont. Paul's a convincing guy. We took on the country store project, raised a ton of money and it's doing great now. Paul asked me to join his board in 2011. When I was asked to be commissioner I had to resign, sadly, due to a conflict. I loved that board. I do serve on his Preservation Reality Holdings board.”
Bruhn's passion for all things Vermont, and his “gentle shepherding and stewarding” Vermont's way of life is what makes Vermont special, Buckley said.
“The guy eats, lives, breathes and sleeps downtown,” Buckley said. “My different iterations of professional work have all allowed me to work with Paul. It's like he has me on a retractable leash. Everything I do, my leash gets pulled back and I get to work with him again. He has such a great sense of humor and a twinkle in his eye. He's a blast to be around. And you can't say no to the guy.”
Bruhn was born and raised in Burlington and except for a short time away at college and his four years in Washington, DC, he's never left.
Home for him is a weatherized summer camp which his family bought in the 1930s. It sits on the banks of Lake Champlain with a spectacular view of Shelburne Point and Shelburne Bay. The trees outside display an array of Jay Purvis's colorful bird houses.
“The deal was I'd get the place when I graduated from college, which I never did,” Bruhn said. “I always thought if there was a chance I'd ascend to the Pearly Gates, my mother would be there to say, 'No way.' Then, a couple of years ago, I got an honorary degree from UVM. And this year I got one from Green Mountain College. One was a doctor of law and the other a doctor of humane letters. So I'm hopeful that my mother is now proud of me.”
Bruhn's father, who started and ran an office supply store in Burlington, died when Bruhn was only five months old.
“It was office equipment, office supplies, a gift shop and a card shop,” Bruhn said. “After he died there was no money. There was just the store. I had two older sisters, one 12 years older and one eight years older. So my mother had to jump in at the store — this was in 1947. She did it and was a great merchant and kept the store going and supported the three kids and took care of us until I was 16 and it was clear that I didn't want to go into the retail business. Then she had an opportunity to sell and she did and went to work for one of the other office equipment businesses. She also served a term in the first reapportioned Legislature. She's quite an amazing story.”
Growing up in Burlington was fun, Bruhn said.
“We had a great life,” he said. “Burlington was walkable and bike-able. I was very independent. I could ride my bike to school and play basketball downtown at the Y. I worked at the store, especially at Christmas time. It wasn't about contributing to the family well-being. It was about working. I worked in a laundry folding sheets for a while.”
By his own admission, Bruhn was not a good student.
“I always say that the height of my academic career was Tom Thumb Nursery School,” he joked. “But after high school I decided to go to Fairleigh Dickinson University, which was the only school l got into. It didn't work out. So I came back to Burlington. I sold knives for a while — they were great knives. Then I started going to night school at UVM to study political science and then marketing. I did very badly and quit just before they were going to throw me out.”
In 1966, just before he was bounced from UVM, he was saved by Proctor and Ruth Page. He started working for the Suburban List, a weekly newspaper edited by Ruth Page, selling advertising at $25 a week.
“And Ruth taught me to write a little bit and I started covering things,” Bruhn said. “I had a great friend, Frank Cunningham, the editor of the Vermont Catholic Tribune. We were talking and had this great idea that there should be a monthly magazine in Chittenden County. This was the era of Boston Magazine and New York Magazine and all these other regional magazines. I convinced the Pages to cover it, and I was the editor and publisher. We put out a really great and interesting magazine for four years. It was an editorial success but not much of a financial one, I'm afraid. That went until 1973, and then I went to work as a consumer fraud investigator with Pat Leahy when he was state's attorney. They gave me a badge — but no gun. And that was good, too, although it didn't last very long.”
When, after 35 years in the US Senate, George Aiken decided to retire, Leahy ran for his seat against Congressman Richard Mallary. It was 1974, in the wake of the Watergate crisis and the resignation of President Richard Nixon. Leahy asked Bruhn, then 27, to run his campaign.
“It was a very exciting time,” Bruhn said. “Campaigns are a really amazing work experience. You have a very specific goal. You have a very specific time frame. You can't call anybody to say, 'Gee, let's extend the deadline here.' You've just got to do it. One of the advantages is you can completely pour yourself into the work.”
A candidate's staff can only do so much, Bruhn learned.
“Campaigns are really about the candidate,” Bruhn said. “If you have a great candidate, you have an opportunity to win. Patrick was a tireless campaigner, and so was his wife, Marcelle. They worked really hard. No one could outwork Patrick. That's still true.”
Even when things looked their bleakest, Bruhn learned that with enough time things could change.
“When we started, Dick Mallary was ahead, 49 to 22,” Bruhn said. “The campaign began in April, and through the summer we got to 32. The week before Election Day, it was 49 to 42. Then, in the last week, we were able to do some things. Patrick was on the TV show 'You Can Quote Me' and was fabulous. Marcelle did an amazing voter turnout ad. We made a list of all the contributors – there were well over 1,000 people. Nobody had had that many individual contributors up until then. We won by a percentage point or two. It was a remarkable experience.”
Bruhn went down to Washington right after the election.
“Senator Robert Stafford gave us some office space, which was wonderful, and I started blundering around,” Bruhn said. “I was meeting the heads of other Senate offices and trying to figure out what it was we were supposed to do.”
One thing that amazed Bruhn was how disconnected Senate staffers appeared to be from their home states.
“They really had lost touch,” he said. “They had become pretty enamored of Washington. I thought, “This could happen to me, so I'm going to plan on spending two years here and then get back to my life.' I stayed four years, but it was always going to be a short-term commitment.”
Bruhn made friends quickly.
“Everyone said there was this lady, Mary Alice Richards, in the sergeant-at-arms office, and people said she was incredibly difficult,” Bruhn said. “I went over to see her and she was actually very helpful. That office controls everything you need – typewriters, desks, chairs, copying machines, the pictures on the wall. She controlled all of it. It came around to swearing-in day, and the tradition is you have a little party in your office. And I invited Mary Alice to come. After a while, I noticed she was kind of standing in the corner, crying. I thought, 'Oh my, what have I done wrong?' I went over and asked her. She said, 'I've been working here for 20 years. I've probably helped 50 new senators set up their offices. And this is the first time I've been invited to a swearing-in party.' I thought that was crazy. But there is a Vermont way of doing things, and that's what it was about. Needless to say, whenever we needed anything, it was there before I hung up the phone.”
This was Leahy's style from the beginning, Bruhn said.
“Patrick's many things, but one of the things is that he really cares about people,” Bruhn said. “He cares about everybody. He knows the names of the Capitol Police. He knows the names of the elevator operators. He's always chatting about what's going on in their lives. Patrick and Marcelle are just two of the nicest people in the world.”
Leahy wanted to make it easy for his constituents to stay in touch, so his Senate office installed the Capitol's first toll-free WATS line.
“We were able to do it, in part, because we had that wonderful relationship with Mary Alice,” Bruhn said.
Leahy was on the appropriations committee and on a subcommittee of the Interior Committee. He and Bruhn began to study the various programs that could send money home to Vermont.
“There was this one program called Historic Preservation,” Bruhn said. “I thought that must be a really great program. I started learning about it. Patrick became the principal advocate for funding the program on the Appropriations Committee. I learned that when viewed broadly, this work is not about saving individual buildings. It about building stronger and more vital communities. It's about helping to grow and still protect the essential character of Vermont. I thought this is something I'm really interested in.”
Finding His Future
When he returned to Vermont after four years in Washington, Bruhn was looking to get involved in historic preservation. He started doing some consulting, and in the interesting way that people have of somehow attaching themselves to Bruhn just when he needs them, he met the man who would have a dramatic effect on his future: Robert Sincerbeaux.
Around that time, the Church Street Marketplace was in embryo form; it was a natural draw.
“The Marketplace was still in the planning stage, and we were working on getting a grant from the NEA that was going to help with the design and development,” Bruhn said. “We got a call from the NEA and they said, 'We love the idea. It's really cool. It could be a really important step for Burlington and a great model for other cities. We're prepared to make the grant, but we're not sure they have the matching grants in hand. We really need to know they have the match in hand.' I said, 'I'm sure they do.' And unfortunately, they didn't. They had just done a week-long demonstration on Church Street by closing off the street and having musicians and craft shows and entertainment. They had tapped a lot of people for contributions. And I didn't think we could go back to those people to cover the match.'”
Bruhn had heard of Sincerbeaux, who was responsible for running several small foundations.
“I had heard about this wonderful guy,” Bruhn said. “I called him cold with great trepidation and explained who I was. I said I knew he was interested in historic preservation and he might be interested in downtown revitalization as well. He said he absolutely was. I told him where we were and he said he'd help. I was like. 'Whoa! This is amazing.' We talked a little more and then I said, 'I guess I should ask you how much you'll be able to help with, and he said, 'You indicated that you need $15,000. We'll do $15,000 and fully match it.' I thought, 'Wow, this is a wonderful special guy, and these are very important foundations in Vermont, and I'd like to work for them.'”
Bruhn and Sincerbeaux became great friends.
“He said his foundations were too small to have staff, and he wasn't being paid, but the Richmond Historical Society was trying to rehabilitate the Round Church,” Bruhn said. “He said, 'They're having real trouble and the project isn't moving along the way we want. I'd like to give them a grant so they can hire you to organize the project.' So he did, and I did, and I worked with a great group of volunteers from the historical society and we got the project done.”
Bruhn also had a half-time contract to do historic preservation for the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
“I did a lot of work for what was then the University Heath Center and Mary Fletcher Hospital, among lots of others,” Bruhn said. “I ran the two campaigns for the Marketplace. So I was doing a variety of things in those early years when I came back.”
Ron Redmond, the director of the Church Street Marketplace, calls Bruhn “a mentor.”
“I've known him since 1998,” Redmond said. “He was involved in helping to start the Vermont Downtown Program as a way to manage downtown spaces and revitalize them. Church Street was one of those programs. It's a business improvement district. There are 1,000 business improvement districts in the United States and we're one of them. It means property owners in a certain area agree to pay an additional tax to go to programs to make it safe, clean and fun.”
Bruhn's work evolved into the Preservation Trust of Vermont, which he helped found in 1980. He became its first executive director.
“Before that they had no executive director,” Bruhn said. “It was started by a whole group of people interested in the subject, led in part by Bob Sincerbeaux. I was available and they hired me to be executive director. At first I worked for them 25 percent of my time, and that expanded over time.”
Sincerbeaux, who died in 2000, has been so important to the Trust that they have created a special grant fund in his name.
“Robert Sincerbeaux was Preservation Trust’s first benefactor,” says the PTV's description of the fund. “We’ve named our project development grants after Bob as a way to honor his approach to Preservation. Bob understood that people all around Vermont are passionate about their communities, countryside, and special places. Through the foundations he managed, he was able to provide a little seed money and a lot of encouragement, and then he watched the remarkable progress.”
From there, Bruhn went on a roll. It's not just the small foundations that help him now. The Freeman Foundation has given Bruhn over $12 million for historical preservation projects.
“Mansfield Freeman and his wife lived in Greensboro,” Bruhn said. “When he passed away, he set aside $300 million to start the Freeman Foundation. It was run by his son, Houghton 'Buck' Freeman, and the staff person was his grandson, Graeme Freeman. I happened to have a little time one day and I called Graeme cold. I explained who I was and asked him what they were going to be doing. He talked about protecting the character of Vermont and about land conservation. I said, 'Our working landscape is really important, but we think what is equally important is the built environment. Shelburne Farms is great example. It's an extraordinary landscape, but what makes it really special is the punctuation provided by the buildings.' He said 'Hmmm. Why don't you send me some materials.'”
Of course, Bruhn soon did. Then one day he got an unexpected visit.
“He arrives unannounced, sits down, looks around, sees we're not spending a lot of money on our office, and says, 'We don't like to support organizations. We like to support specific projects. Do you have some projects worthy of funding?'”
Bruhn and his staff put together a long letter outlining about a dozen projects. Next, he was invited to have lunch with the Freemans, father and son.
“It was clearly an interview,” Bruhn said. “We got to the end of the lunch and Graeme pulls out the letter. He said, 'So we like this project, this project, this one, we're already involved in this one, you want $160,000? We'll send you a check. Furthermore, we meet four times a year and we'd be happy to entertain a proposal at each of our meetings.' So over time, they have given us over $12 million and it's played a key role in over $140 million worth of preservation work. It's enormous.”
The Walmart Connection
Back in the early 1990s, Walmart started looking seriously at Walmart-free Vermont. Across the nation, big box stores and sprawl had become controversial issues. Walmart, especially, was considered a villain, first because it drew business away from downtowns, and then because it often opened a store on both ends of town and let them cannibalize each other. Professional experts flew from state to state, making a living teaching downtown businesses how to compete with Walmarts.
As you would expect, Bruhn got into the middle of the debate.
“We had a very interesting conversation at our board,” Bruhn said. “What would we do? Some people wanted to keep Vermont Walmart-free. Others made the case that there are a lot of people who need that kind of shopping experience. So as the conversation evolved, it became clear our position would be we're going to fight Walmart when they want to locate outside of towns in a sprawl location, but if they're willing to come downtown and build stores that fit in, we're going to be very supportive. We want it to happen in a way that protects the essential character of Vermont, strengthens our downtowns, and makes sure that downtowns serve everybody, not just a certain segment of the population. That is our basic position and it continues today.”
The first Walmart in Vermont was installed in an existing retail location in Bennington. Since then, Walmarts have come to downtown Rutland and the Berlin Mall.
The first Walmart attempt at an undeveloped location came in Williston, where the PTV supported the Williston Citizens for Responsible Growth. Eventually Walmart built a store in Williston and at undeveloped locations in St Albans Town and Derby.
“We helped raise a lot of money for them and helped them with strategy,” Bruhn said. “There was an amazing group of volunteers in Williston that stuck with that battle for eight years. In part, that was why the National Trust declared Vermont one of the 11 most endangered places — because of this threat of sprawl. It was a very powerful story and got coverage all over the country. It was a very big story here. Governor Dean called it a big heads-up for Vermont.”
Thus began the process of trying to talk with Walmart. One night on Bob Kinzel's call-in show “Switchboard” on Vermont Public Radio, Bruhn shared the microphone with Walmart's vice president for corporate and community affairs. He was expecting an opponent, but Bruhn disarmed him with his description of the PTV's thoughtful position.
“I told him we love our state and we love our downtowns and we love our countryside and we would like them to build stores downtown,” Bruhn said. “It was an hour show, and then we talked for another 45 minutes. Bob Kinzel's eyes were bulging out. The guy said, 'I'll bring the right people to Vermont and we will take a look at Vermont downtowns'.”
He was as good as his word. Soon came a visit from corporate headquarters. The vice president in charge of Walmart's real estate came, and also its regional director.
“They were going to be here for two days, and we set up a meeting with the governor for the second day,” Bruhn said. “We went to St. Albans and showed them where we thought it was possible to build a Walmart. We went to Burlington, Rutland and Montpelier. We put them up at Shelburne Farms. And we had dinner on the porch at Shelburne Farms. It was our way of nice-ing them into submission.”
At that point in Walmart's history, the company had no experience with multilevel stores and parking designs. All their plans called for big one-level stores surrounded by acres of parking.
“They were later forced to learn when they tried to go to England and the folks in the UK said, 'You're not going to have acres and acres of parking. You're going to have to learn how to incorporate the parking into the building,'” Bruhn said. “They began to learn how to move goods and parts and customers from one level to another. But back when we were doing this, they just had this mindset to get 10 acres of land, put a big building on it and have a lot of parking on the ground. The proposal we made to them about St Albans involved a multi-floor arrangement. They saw there was a lot of business being done in downtown Burlington. In Rutland, they looked at the Kmart location.”
In Rutland, the downtown Kmart had already made a commitment to move outside of town. The Walmart vice president looked at the spot and thought it would work for the company.
“One of the things I like to tell, for those who think that Act 250 is hard and complicated and bad for business, is that from the time Walmart signed the agreement to lease in Rutland, got the local permits, got an Act 250 permit, rebuilt the store, stocked the store and opened the store – it was nine months,” Bruhn said. “When you think about the years and years they spent fighting in St Albans and Williston, it was amazing. And it also clearly showed that when you can get all the parties to agree, you can move through that process quickly and efficiently. They did. But when you have a project that's controversial or where you haven't pulled together all the interests to figure out if there is a good compromise solution, the battles go on for years and years.”
The Walmart in Rutland opened on the same day as the one in Williston.
“The Williston had been a six-to-eight year battle and the Rutland one took nine months,” Bruhn said. “Walmart started thinking about other locations. We continued to battle with them. A lot of citizens groups opposed them.”
Bruhn was nothing if not ingenious. At one point he took out a full-page ad in Walmart's home-town newspaper in Bentonville, Ark.
“It was an open letter saying, 'Please Stop,'” Bruhn said. “We said, 'We're happy to have you coming to Vermont, but do it in a way that fits into our communities.' We had well over 1,000 individual signers. So that kind of got their attention.”
It also helped that Walmart had a new vice president for corporate affairs who had once worked for Pat Leahy in the Senate.
“He went to Patrick and said, 'We want to sit down and have a conversation with these guys,'” Bruhn said. “So he helped us arrange a meeting in Bentonville. On our side, it included Dick Moe, the President of the National Trust for Historic Preservation; Henry Jordan, who was the chair of the board of the National Trust and who would later become chairman of our board; Peter Brink, who was vice president for programs at the National Trust, who would later move to Norwich Vermont and join our board; and Emily Wadhams, who grew up in Burlington and was vice president for policy at the National Trust. And we all fit into Henry's private plane, and we flew to Bentonville and we had the most amazing meeting I've ever had.”
The preservationists didn't know who they were going to meet, so they were surprised when it turned out to be the CEO of the company, H Lee Scott, Jr, plus the vice-president for community relations, the vice president for real estate and the president of Walmart Stores USA.
“We sat around and talked for three hours,” Bruhn said. “It was a fascinating conversation. In the plane we were having a discussion of how we were going to handle this meeting. And Dick said, 'I just have to beat on them about the terrible things they've done to communities all over the country.' And Emily and I said, 'We don't think that's the best way to start the meeting.' He said, 'I know, but I've just got to do it.' And he did. I could see Scott seething. Then I told this story about how the company had visited Burlington.”
He told them the delegation didn't get to Burlington until late in the day.
“At noontime in Burlington, the marketplace was just full of people,” Bruhn said. “It was one of those fabulous marketplace days when the cafes were full and the streets were full of people. But by the time we got back to Burlington, it was 4 pm, and usually no one is there. So we're walking up the street and there are these rough-looking guys sitting on one of the rocks in front of Burlington Square. One of the guys didn't have a shirt on, but he had a python wrapped around him. And I saw it and thought, 'Oh my God, these guys are going to stop, look at us, say 'What are you thinking? We're out of here. We're not going to stay overnight. We're going to head back to Bentonville.' But they looked around and saw that there was a lot of business being done.”
Perhaps because of the python, the funny story broke the ice.
“We then got engaged in this conversation about Walmarts and downtowns and why we were concerned,” Bruhn said. “We said we were hoping they would develop a prototype that would be a smaller-scale store that would fit in downtowns. We knew the four stores they had in Vermont were the most profitable stores, as a group, in any state. And it was in part because they hadn't cannibalized themselves. At the end, we got an agreement from Eduardo Castro-Wright, who was then president of Walmart Stores USA and who later became the CEO. He said he would come to Vermont and take a look at downtown, and furthermore, we were exactly right, they needed to develop a prototype that would fit in to downtowns and that was a whole new market for them.”
Castro-Wright eventually resigned from Walmart, but the ideas had been planted.
Emily Wadhams, who is now on PTV's board of directors, was at that Bentonville meeting. She says the seeds were not only planted, they took root.
“What we proposed to Walmart was that they think differently,” Wadhams told me. “Rather than fighting to build on the outskirts of town, maybe they could consider a smaller Main Street downtown model that would act to support existing downtown retail rather than draw the retail out of town? They were interested. They listened. But they said that their goal was to keep the prices down as low as possible, and said, 'We don't know how your model would do that.' And we said this would only be in communities that wanted a smaller model. We said, 'There may be communities that welcome the Walmart you've already developed, but for communities that don't, would you consider a different model?'”
Bruhn and Wadhams were invited back to Bentonville a second time to meet with Walmart's real estate team.
“By then they were also looking at smaller formats, 40,000-square-foot neighborhood markets,” Wadhams said. “So we did have a dialogue. And the head of Walmart USA came to Vermont and drove around with us looking at towns. We were ahead of our time. We were saying to Walmart, 'How many can you build of these big stores before you're cannibalizing yourself?' Walmart engendered sprawl. We were telling them it make economic and environmental sense to do it our way. Our argument always was — and Paul was very clear about this — we're not against Walmart. We wanted to support them by building stores appropriate in size and scale.”
Today Walmart is doing exactly what the Vermonters told them to do so long ago. They're building smaller-scale stores downtown in urban areas.
“Target is doing the same thing,” Bruhn said. “It's a big shift and we like to think we and our partners had a little something to do with planting the seed. Now we're in point in our history where downtowns are hot. For years, at Ace Hardware — a co-op owned by all the Ace hardware stores — the leadership told their members they needed to be in strip shopping centers outside of town, next to a pharmacy or post office. Now they are saying, 'Downtown is where you need to be. Downtown is hot for hardware stores.' Isn't that amazing?”
Downtowns Are Hot
One of the most common criticisms of Bruhn's work is that it creates the idea of a “Vermont Under Glass” — perhaps of a state mired in its past. Bruhn disagrees.
“It's not about pickling the state or turning it into a museum,” he said. “If you go to Brandon, for example, you'll find a downtown that has a wide range of goods and services. There's a hardware store, a grocery store, a pharmacy, a great upscale French restaurant, two or three other small restaurants and diners that serve the whole spectrum of the community. There's the Artists' Guild. It's a place that concentrates a wide variety of services and activities into their downtown. That's our goal – to have that happen in other places.”
It happened in Wilmington, which was destroyed by Tropical Storm Irene.
“This was a crossroads town in the middle of a tourist economy,” Bruhn said. “They've really met the challenge in the aftermath of Irene. They've really come back, and one of the most important places in the middle is Dot's Restaurant, because that's where everybody goes. We worked very hard to help them rebuild.”
It happened in Brookfield.
“Paul is one of our favorite people,” said Curtis Koren of the Brookfield Community Partnership.
“We worked with him really closely. We have a town hall that was owned privately. When it went up for auction, some people in town wanted to tear it down. Then everybody got together and decided we had to save this building. Someone suggested we call Paul Bruhn. This is back in 2002. He came down and met with us in our back yard and he was absolutely adamant about saving it. He was saving us, because he made us realize it was possible. We can all put in a little money to show the bank we're serious and we'll get a loan to buy this thing at auction. He came to the auction and when the price went up to $90,000 and we were fainting, he said, 'Keep going.'”
The partnership won the building for $102,000.
“It's been a huge community resource ever since,” Koren said. “He was just such a shepherd for us, and he's done the same thing for so many places. Paul's made Vermont the beautiful place it is. I think he should be designated a Vermont State Treasure. What he's really good at is bringing the community together around these buildings. Brookfield has been divided over taxes and things, but a community center makes for a cohesive community, and that's the reason why we're in Vermont. You know your neighbors and pull together and we all benefit. He's amazing.”
It's happening right now in Bennington.
“Over its history, Bennington has been a little schizophrenic and neglected,” Bruhn said. “There was a feeling they could have a lot of development out of town and still have a great downtown. It doesn't work very often. It works in Burlington, but Burlington has a lot more resources. In Bennington, it didn't. But it's amazing where we are now: local government and all the large community institutions are fully involved in trying to rebuild and revitalize downtown Bennington. That means Bennington College, Southern Vermont College, the hospital, the Bank of Bennington. They're all committed to contributing in a significant way. And more important than the financial aspect, they say, 'If we're going to be successful, we need a great downtown.' It's a fabulous story.”
It didn't happen in Randolph after that famous long and drawn-out fight.
“Exit 4 is a story of great teamwork and a story of how mediation can work,” Bruhn said. “It started with Sam Sammis' million-plus-square-feet of stuff at the interchange. The opposition in Randolph was fierce. The Conservation Law Foundation, the Vermont Natural Resources Council and other folks all participated. We funded a lot of the work and participated in the strategy. Our group put together a powerful case and Sam wisely pulled his application. We went into mediation, had many, many meetings and talked and talked and talked a lot. We arm wrestled a lot, and we joked some. It wasn't just beating up on each other. We had some fun. We got to a point where Sam understood that while it wasn't his dream, this other dream we had – of having that land protected – was as legitimate a point of view as his point of view. It was an enormous step for him and I think he then was willing to try and negotiate the solution we have now.”
Bruhn appears to be tireless. He has no plans to quit.
“Retire?” he said. “I don't think so. I love what I do. Most days I feel I have the best job in Vermont. It's a lot of fun. I was just up in Swanton, meeting with people, talking about rehabbing a great downtown building. People who really care about their communities are very passionate. Sometimes they are feeling scared because it's a big commitment. I love trying to inspire people in communities. But the inspiring I do is really about showing people what other communities have done. We're very lucky to have a lot of examples in Vermont of communities that have taken on hard projects. Most of the time I feel like I've been blessed. I've had a really wonderful life.”
Joyce Marcel is a journalist who lives in southern Vermont. She is currently writing a memoir covering six generations of her family caught in the sweep of history across the 20th Century. She is writing another book about Vermont businesses. More of her work appears at her Web site, joycemarcel.com.