“Let’s think big”: Engineering funds sought for housing initiative at Winston Prouty, Delta Vermont

By Chris Mays, Brattleboro Reformer. Published September 22, 2021

BRATTLEBORO — Hundreds of additional housing units could become available in town thanks to a proposal by the Winston Prouty Center for Children and Families and Delta Vermont to explore engineering options for building about 100 to 500 housing units between the two neighboring campuses.

“It’s a very big range,” Chloe Learey, executive director of the center, said in an interview Wednesday. “We want to send a signal.”

Learey said more than 300 acres of contiguous and undeveloped land is located between the two campuses, and public water and sewer infrastructure already exists on the properties. Her group specializes in early learning and community-based services, and Delta Vermont is an organization started by entrepreneur and inventor Bob Johnson of Omega Optical.

An engineering study would assess what is needed in terms of expanding water and sewer infrastructure.

“That’s the most foundational thing you need to know for housing,” Learey said. “It’s possible. It’s just about money.”

Information from the study would help identify options for adding infrastructure, Learey said.

The center is seeking a planning grant for $50,000 from the Vermont Community Development Program. After a public hearing at Tuesday’s Select Board meeting, the town will be supporting the application, a requirement of the program.

Learey said the center would need to come up with 10 percent in matching funds and 5 percent could be via in-kind work. She expects to hear back on whether the grant is approved around early November.

The study could start in the first quarter of 2022, Learey said. Once options are proposed, developers and funding could be sought.

“In this environment, where there’s lots of infrastructure money, this is apparently a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for things to get paid for,” Learey said, noting how such costs often make housing units untenable for developers.

She said it is too early to be in contact with engineers but an advisory committee involved in the initiative includes representation from architecture/engineering group Stevens & Associates, Windham Regional Commission, Brattleboro Planning Services Department and Brattleboro Development Credit Corp. She acknowledged there will be challenges with steepness and ledge in the ground but believes creative thinking could add a significant number of housing units on the property.

“Let’s think big and see what’s possible,” she said.

She said the project received a lot of support at Tuesday’s meeting, where the board voted 4-0 in favor of the grant application. The project’s need is connected to the state’s “well-documented housing crisis, and particularly, the lack of housing options in Brattleboro,” states the application.

“According to Vermont Housing Finance Agency’s Vermont Housing Needs Assessment 2020-2024, published in 2020, the confluence of several key factors creates a profound housing challenge in the state: Vermont’s annual growth of year-round housing stock continues a long-term decline, low-income households have unmet housing needs with 36 percent of Vermont households defined as cost burdened by spending more than 30 percent of their income on housing, and the state’s housing stock is older and/or has serious quality issues,” states the application.

Housing issues have only been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. The crisis “creates a major barrier to attracting and retaining people to the state, and this population decline depletes the resources needed to create thriving communities and serves as a key factor driving the state and region’s economic challenges,” states the application.

Brattleboro town staff recommended the board support for the initiative “because the utility infrastructure in this area of Brattleboro is old and undersized for new development, while the land on these campuses is potentially ideal for new housing,” Town Manager Peter Elwell wrote in a memo. He also said Planning Director Sue Fillion, who serves on the advisory committee, would be involved in a study anticipated to take six to 12 months to complete.

Facilitating development

Construction would include maintaining the current landscape with no major tree clearing, Learey said.

“It’s going to stay a beautiful place to live, work and play,” she said.

The units would serve people of different incomes with a certain number designated as affordable housing, Learey said. She doesn’t expect all the development to happen at once.

Construction is anticipated to to be an economic driver for the area.

“One thing that’s very clear is Winston Prouty is not a housing developer,” Learey said. “In the same way that we’ve been stewarding this property, we’re going to shepherd or steward this process.”

In 2016, the center purchased the former Austine School for the Deaf campus. Since then, planning efforts have been underway to make operations more sustainable.

For the most part, leases and revenue are now covering costs of the campus. No longer is Learey’s staff looking at selling off different buildings.

“It still feels like we have a role to play,” she said, acknowledging that might be smaller in the future.

Currently, about 30 students from University of Massachusetts and University of Connecticut programs are participating in a design competition related to the project. Learey said more programs are being recruited and she expects to review submissions in December.

Between the engineering study and design ideas, Learey said the groups involved in the initiative will have a good foundation for creating a master plan. She said she’s always surprised to learn people have never visited the Prouty campus and pointed to upcoming opportunities.

Starting at 11 a.m. Saturday, the center will host Prouty Presents, a free outdoor event for families musical performances. A breakfast and presentation from 8:30 to 9:30 a.m. Tuesday at the Prouty Pavilion will include an update on the center’s impact in the community and future plans for the campus.