Long-awaited groundbreaking kicks off City PlaceJeb Wallace-Brodeur / Staff Photo
Gov. Peter Shumlin is joined by numerous state and local officials and other dignitaries Wednesday at the groundbreaking for the City Place development in downtown Barre.
BARRE — One man’s wine-induced pipe dream was fittingly described as a coming attraction during a groundbreaking that began in a downtown theater Wednesday morning before moving outside to a nearby vacant lot that won’t be vacant much longer.
By this time next year, City Place — a four-story, 80,000-square-foot building that will bring more than 300 jobs to the heart of downtown Barre — should be nearly complete. That is a very big deal, according to those who spoke during Wednesday’s ceremonial kickoff to construction and a good many who didn’t.
It wasn’t standing room only at the Paramount, but most of the seats in one of its theaters were filled. Many of those people played a role in pulling off a project that Mayor Thomas Lauzon conceived of at his dining room table more than four years ago and then pursued with what Gov. Peter Shumlin described as dogged determination.
“It was a cabernet-induced idea,” Lauzon confessed after gleefully and repeatedly plunging one of a dozen silver shovels into a photo-ready strip of dirt that was perhaps 2 feet high.
The occasion began with Lauzon proudly welcoming those in attendance to a community that he said is dreaming big dreams and doing big things.
“I couldn’t be more proud,” he said. “Through hard work and sound investments our team is turning Barre around.”
The event ended roughly an hour later when an excavator began ripping through one of two vacant apartment houses while stragglers munched on popcorn served up courtesy of City Place developer DEW Properties LLC.
“Now that’s what I’m talking about!” chortled Lauzon as the excavator shredded one end of one of the buildings that are the last things standing in the way of City Place.
Those who attended the ceremony were told there have been far more daunting obstacles — some of which seriously threatened to derail the project.
“City Place is a testament to what happens when people check self-interest at the door and just work together,” Lauzon said, describing the project as a team effort that received a welcome boost when Shumlin dangled the prospect of moving the state Department of Education to Barre in his budget address a year ago.
“I admire people who swing at a breaking curveball,” he said of Shumlin. “Anyone can hit a softball.”
Shumlin returned the praise.
“Mayor Thom Lauzon, like a dog on a bone, is making things happen,” he said, pointing to Barre’s newly reconstructed Main Street and several other downtown redevelopment projects that are either under way or in the works.
“This is the most extraordinary transformation of a downtown in recent history for the state of Vermont, and (City Place) is a critical piece of the puzzle,” Shumlin said.
Don Wells, president of DEW, praised Lauzon for his vision and Shumlin for his cooperation and support, while thanking everyone from the development company’s design team and its banks to the tenants lined up for the building.
“Everybody worked hard to make this happen,” he said, noting that it nearly didn’t.
According to Wells, the company almost threw in the towel on City Place when an appraisal of the proposed structure came in $6 million less than the company anticipated. That forced DEW to persuade the state to take additional space, as well as renegotiate its lease with Central Vermont Medical Center and commit more of its own money to the project.
However, he said, even those moves wouldn’t have been enough if the project hadn’t secured nearly $5 million in working capital through a federal program designed to encourage investment in low-income communities.
Wells said that before a census-driven adjustment was made last year, the project wouldn’t even have been eligible to take advantage of “new markets tax credits” and it would have been game over for what local officials have described as a game-changing project for Barre’s historic downtown.
“If we didn’t have those new markets tax credits we wouldn’t be here today,” Wells said, noting the project barely beat a Dec. 31, 2012, deadline that could have cost it $400,000 in working capital.
“It was a pretty intense couple of months,” he said.
That was echoed by DEW’s chief financial officer, Mike Francis, who described the push to beat the deadline as a “mad dash” that involved several lending institutions, more than a dozen lawyers from around the country and the U.S. Bank.
“(The U.S. Bank) bought the tax credits that sealed the deal,” Francis said.
Now comes the easy part, according to Wells, who said construction will begin today with the demolition of what remains of the two apartment buildings.
When work is finished, Wells said, the state Department of Education and its nearly 200 employees will occupy the building’s top two floors and the state Agency of Human Services will split the second floor with CVMC. He said the medical center will be creating administrative offices for roughly 45 employees and the Human Services Agency plans to move 50 members of its staff to City Place.
DEW has locked down one ground-floor tenant — the RehabGYM — but roughly 8,000 square feet of North Main Street retail space is still available.
Wells said he is hopeful a push to create a cooperatively owned grocery store will be successful and was encouraged by word that Shumlin’s pledge to join pushed organizers over the 350-member mark. The group is hoping to identify 600 members by this spring and is poised to evaluate potential locations — including City Place — for Granite City Grocery.
Wells said he isn’t concerned about finding someone to lease a storefront in a new building on a newly reconstructed Main Street in a historic Vermont downtown.
Neither is Lauzon.
“Great space sells, whether it’s in Barre, Burlington or Montpelier, and this is going to be great space,” he said after everyone had headed for home and the excavator was idle again.
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