By Chris Mays, Brattleboro Reformer, May 10, 2022
BRATTLEBORO — A project combining the powers of two neighboring campuses envisions adding hundreds of housing units to their properties.
“It’s not just affordable housing or low-income housing,” said Chloe Learey, executive director of the Winston Prouty Center for Child and Family Development. “It has to be meeting a lot of different kinds of housing and our goal for making it be walkable, bikeable and sustainable in lots of other ways, and encourage other development.”
At the Select Board meeting last Tuesday, Learey outlined initial steps being taken to bring new housing between the Prouty center and Delta Vermont campuses in a project dubbed the Prouty Delta Development Initiative. She encouraged people to reach out to her if they have ideas or want to point out resources.
To complete a feasibility study exploring infrastructure needs for the project, the groups received $50,000 in Community Development Block Grant funding through the state. However, they were denied funds requested from Vermont’s Capital Investment Grant Program and federal earmarks.
“We’re just putting out a lot of feelers and requests for money to start getting resources for master planning, thinking about permitting, engineering, so some of that foundational work and even some of the hard costs that are going to be the underlying foundational needs going forward,” Learey said.
A design competition among students from colleges, including University of Southern Maine, resulted in some ideas for the groups to chew on.
Learey recounted how her group purchased the former Austine School for the Deaf in 2016, aware that the organization didn’t need 180 acres or 130,000 square feet of building space to care for “but knowing this is an incredible asset to the community. It certainly met our needs for expansion.”
In 2019, a campus planning process aimed at sustainability led to several recommendations including the addition of housing. The center connected with Delta Vermont, an organization started by entrepreneur and inventor Bob Johnson of Omega Optical with a campus to the south.
Learey said Johnson owned the property for a long time and had ideas about creating “a better place to live and work.” The two groups found “some synergy” and signed a memorandum of understanding for the project, she added.
“We’re neighbors. We have like priorities and similar goals, sustainable development,” said David McManus, project planner and administrator for Delta Campus development. “It just made sense to us to keep pursuing this partnership. And we’re thrilled and honored to be working with the Prouty folks.”
Delta Vermont has housing units anticipated to be constructed soon. McManus said the project has been in the pipeline for a while “but the stars didn’t quite align. But we think that’s going to happen this summer.”
McManus said before planning more construction of housing, infrastructure needs will have to be addressed.
“We’re trying to catch up a little bit to Delta in their master planning,” Learey said. “We’re looking for money for master planning so that we can really make this concept translate to something that will work.”
Brattleboro recently completed a housing needs assessment, which determined 500 housing units of varying types are needed right away. Learey called the figure “overwhelming in some ways.”
“But this is the reality,” she said, bringing up the need for more people in the area as the population declines and ages out of the workforce.
Housing is very much on the minds of board members, Select Board Chairman Ian Goodnow said. Board member Elizabeth McLoughlin wished the groups the best.
“I find this very exciting,” board member Tim Wessel said. “I’m trying to balance my excitement with knowing these things take time.”
Having recently watched prefabricated log cabin houses being driven past him, Wessel suggested the potential for adding such homes or similar ones to “provide some early experiments in rental homes up on that campus.” He said the town needs to aid in efforts to increase the volume of housing stock. He has proposed using federal American Rescue Plan Act funds for the purpose.
“Imagining new possibilities is really difficult work,” Board Vice Chairman Daniel Quipp said. “I hope we can continue checking in on this project and where appropriate, I hope that we can support you.”