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At the Preservation Trust, Paul Bruhn builds a case for saving downtowns

Published April 11, 2001 at 6:30 p.m.

Two things you should know from the start about Paul Bruhn. First, he hates the idea of this article. He says he doesn’t merit the attention, his accomplishments aren’t that great and he isn’t one of the most influential people in Vermont.

Second, you should know he is wrong.

Bruhn is executive director of the Preservation Trust of Vermont. This might conjure images of single-minded do-gooders trying to save old buildings that have long outlived their usefulness. In fact, the Preservation Trust does participate in traditional historic-preservation projects, and over the last six years has raised and distributed more than $5 million to restore significant buildings in nearly 150 Vermont communities. But it is the organization’s ability to find unorthodox solutions to problems that has made the trust a national leader in the preservation movement.

“Indirectly our work is about saving buildings,” Bruhn explains, “but it’s really about making downtown a vibrant place, which will end up saving buildings.”

As Megan Camp, vice president of the Preservation Trust and of Shelburne Farms, a historic farm and environmental education center, puts it: “Paul does not have an edifice complex.”

Bruhn doesn’t focus so much on saving old buildings as he does on maintaining Vermont’s traditional settlement patterns of compact villages surrounded by open land. To protect the state from the homogenizing effect of modern American culture and suburban sprawl, he and the Preservation Trust have taken innovative approaches to problems:

• When Wal-Mart wanted to open its first store in Vermont, the Preservation Trust surprised many by throwing its considerable weight behind the mass retailer, provided it agreed to locate in a downtown. That way, the Preservation Trust reasoned, Wal-Mart would attract business to a community’s core.

• Alarmed by the decline of small, mom-and-pop stores, the Preservation Trust started a “Smart-Mart” initiative to support locally owned downtown stores that provide such basics as clothing, food and hardware at a reasonable cost.

• In an effort to contribute to more small community projects, Bruhn and company arranged with The Burlington Free Press to sponsor a contest. The paper received 250 applications from 150 communities and donated $150,000 in small grants to 60 of them for such projects as rehabilitating a public building and landscaping a town green.

• Last month, the Preservation Trust struck a deal with the Brattleboro Arts Initiative to try to buy the downtown Latchis Hotel, an Art Deco landmark, and three connected theaters. If successful, the Preservation Trust will run the hotel while the arts group offers movies and occasional plays in the theaters.

What do these projects have in common? They all work toward making communities more vital, and none would have happened without Bruhn’s creativity and persuasive powers.

Paul Bruhn has been described as the most influential person in the state whom most people have never heard of. He doesn’t mind the anonymity. In fact, he rather craves it. But the right people know him. “People from the governor on down answer the phone for Paul,” says Pat Robins, a prominent Chittenden County businessman and a friend of Bruhn’s for more than 25 years.

But Bruhn is not just interested in conferring with politicians who would support his endeavors and the directors of foundations who might finance them; he is also well-connected with grassroots advocates.

At a working lunch earlier this winter at a restaurant in downtown Middlebury, he excuses himself several times to talk on his cell phone or to speak with local community leaders who happen to wander in. His colleagues, the Preservation Trust’s two field representatives and an architect, roll their eyes and laugh, as if to suggest these interruptions are standard operating procedure for Bruhn.

“He is the quintessential networker,” says Gerrit Kouwenhoven, president of the Preservation Trust’s board of directors and executive director of Friends of Hildene, the Robert Todd Lincoln mansion in Manchester. “He is more knowledgeable about what’s going on in every nook and cranny in this state than anyone I know.”

Ask Bruhn the names of people sparking change in local communities and he’ll mention Gerianne Smart, who has led efforts to rehabilitate the Vergennes Opera House; or Eugene Reed, a building trades teacher in Canaan who is teaching students to restore old buildings, starting with the town library; or Sherry Belknap, a Bloomfield Select Board member who fell in love with the old town hall and is helping convert it into a community center.

“His interests are seemingly eclectic,” says Chuck Ross, state director for U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, “but they come together. They are about conserving and maintaining the specialness of Vermont, while allowing it to grow and change.”

Growth and change have swept over the state in the years since Bruhn was a boy growing up in Burlington. When his family drove from its home on Shelburne Road to the family summer camp on Shelburne Bay, he remembers, “there was not much going on all the way down.” No stoplights, few cars and occasional stretches of open land.

Bruhn has since converted the camp to a year-round home, where he lives with his partner, Christine Graham. The house might be familiar to Bruhn, but getting there has sure changed. Shelburne Road is strangled by development. Giving directions to the house today, he’ll tell you to turn at the Jiffy Lube and the Chevy dealer.

After graduating from Burlington High School in 1965, Bruhn studied at Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey and at the University of Vermont. But academia couldn’t hold his attention. “I learned in a different way than most people,” Bruhn says. “I didn’t find college very stimulating and I wasn’t very good at it.”

After a little more than two years, he found himself selling ads and later writing for the Suburban List in Essex Junction, a weekly newspaper that covered town news in Chittenden County and parts of Washington County.

In 1969, with financial backing from Suburban List owners Ruth and Proctor Page, he launched Chittenden Magazine, serving as its editor and publisher. The undertaking was ambitious. The magazine’s mission was to take a more in-depth look than other media at the political and community issues confronting the greater Burlington area. “Frankly, at that point the magazine was my college education,” says Bruhn, who never returned to college.

In those days, Ruth Page recalls, Bruhn showed the same work habits he has today. “Whatever he did, he did neck-deep,” she says. “He was able to persuade people to do things for him for very little money. He was a very persuasive fellow.”

At first, Bruhn split his time between the newspaper and the magazine. But soon the demands of Chittenden Magazine forced him to work full time on it. There, he worked with writers, sold ads, helped with design and dealt with circulation issues. As publisher and a writer, Bruhn kept the magazine focused on the city concerns of the day, such as downtown redevelopment, affordable housing and the rehabilitation of existing buildings — issues that today are at the heart of historic preservation, he notes.

Despite his hard work, the magazine kept losing money. “It was a good idea from an editorial point of view,” Bruhn says, “but not necessarily from a business point of view.”

Still, Bruhn believed in it. To keep the magazine afloat, he took out a second mortgage on his home. But in 1973, he ran out of money and had to shut down the publication.

Looking for work, Bruhn turned to his friend Patrick Leahy, who was then state’s attorney for Chittenden County. Leahy needed a consumer-fraud investigator and picked Bruhn for the job. The decision would serve both men well.

A year later, Leahy tapped Bruhn to manage his first bid for statewide office. Most people considered Leahy a long shot to beat then-U.S. Rep. Richard Mallary for a seat in the U.S. Senate. But Bruhn and Leahy managed to engineer an upset, winning by a few thousand votes.

When Leahy left for Washington in the winter of 1975, he took Bruhn with him as his chief of staff. Bruhn thought he’d stay in the job for two years. But it proved fun enough that he stuck around for four. “It was a remarkable education,” he says, running a hand through his sandy-brown and graying hair.

Most of all, working with Leahy taught him that he should be working full-time on historic preservation. Leahy strived to become a leader in gaining federal funding for preservation projects, which meant Bruhn often immersed himself in the subject. Indeed, Bruhn helped secure some federal funding for Burlington’s Church Street Marketplace, converting the city’s main shopping street into a pedestrian mall.

When he returned to Vermont, Bruhn worked as a consultant helping to pass the local bond issue for the marketplace. He also worked with the Richmond Historical Society, raising money to restore that town’s famous Round Church.

His fundraising and organizational talents were recognized by a group with the unwieldy name of the Vermont Council of the Society for the Protection of New England Antiquities, which was creating a separate Vermont-based preservation organization. Thus was born the Preservation Trust of Vermont with Bruhn as its first, and still only, director. He explains his hiring this way: “I was available and wasn’t too expensive, so I was hired.”

Watching Bruhn work makes you feel like a slacker in comparison. His main tools are his telephone and his deep, reassuring voice. He works without a Rolodex, relying on an uncanny ability to remember numbers. In five minutes before a meeting, Bruhn knocks off an equal number of phone calls. His tone is friendly, but businesslike. He cuts to the chase. As he talks, telephone wedged between ear and shoulder, he shambles out of the room to hand his assistant some paperwork.

The Preservation Trust occupies several rooms on the third floor of a Church Street building in Burlington. Coincidentally, it is upstairs from where Bruhn’s parents ran an office-supply store when he was growing up. His office is sparsely furnished, with bookcases lining one wall and a simple floral couch pushed up against the other. At the far side is Bruhn’s desk, strewn with property maps and paper cups to hold the tea he always seems to be drinking. A row of windows affords a view of Church Street below.

Bruhn returns to his office, giving out his cell-phone number before hanging up. He grabs his briefcase and some papers and heads for the door. His assistant, Lynn Waller, asks if he’ll be in the next day, a Friday, and Bruhn replies that he’s not sure since he has a long meeting in Rutland planned. “I will be in Saturday,” he tells her. “Saturday is my catch-up day.”

No time seems off-limits to work. Indeed, there seems to be a semi-permeable membrane between his work and personal life. His friends are colleagues and his colleagues are friends. Dinner out can be a work meeting. And when he has free time at home, he often catches up on his reading and e-mail for work.

Bruhn’s career “is almost like a combination of work and entertainment,” says Chuck Ross, the Leahy aide.

By instilling this a similar sense of commitment in others, Bruhn has enabled the Preservation Trust and its tiny staff to take on a prodigious workload. In addition to Bruhn and Waller, who works part-time, the Preservation Trust employs two half-time field representatives, Ann Cousins and Steve Libby, who meet with community groups around the state.

Robins is amazed the Preservation Trust gets so much done with so little. But one way Bruhn works on the cheap is by consulting with a group of expert, and unpaid, advisers — especially members of his board. “He is running more than $2 million a year through that place,” Robins says. “It’s a model for nonprofits. Most people running a $2 million budget might have 10 or 12 people ‘to administer it.’”

For Bruhn, it means constant juggling. Robins remembers how he used to arrive for dinner with notes scrawled on his pack of cigarettes, reminders of the work topics he wanted to cover. But 13 years ago, Bruhn had heart bypass surgery at the age of 41 and quit smoking. Bruhn and Robins still have dinner about once a week, but the cigarettes and their helpful reminders are gone. “Thank God you don’t smoke anymore,” Robins remembers kidding him. “Now we don’t have to talk about that stuff.”

Still, Bruhn gives advice as good as he gets. That’s part of the Preservation Trust’s mission. In addition to giving grants, which range from $2000 to the tens of thousands, the Preservation Trust offers technical advice. Bruhn and the field representatives may suggest a preservation architect or contractor, or a foundation that might provide more money. The Preservation Trust intends its grants as seed money that covers a project’s initial expenses and lends it legitimacy to attract more donations.

“On average, our grants get leveraged by about 10 times [the initial amount],” Cousins says.

The Preservation Trust gets its money from various sources, and this is where Bruhn’s personal relationships and networking skills come in. Since 1994, for example, he has worked with Graeme Freeman of the Freeman Foundation in Stowe to fund preservation grants to Vermont groups. The foundation donates between $750,000 and $1 million a year to the program.

Those grants have gone to renovate such landmarks as the Park-McCullough House in North Bennington, the Paramount Theatre in Rutland and the Statehouse in Montpelier. They’ve also gone to lower-profile projects, such as the Bentley Farm in Arlington, the Langevin House in Randolph and a church in Woodbury.

In 1995, Bruhn met with Lyman Orton, owner of the Vermont Country Store, who was looking for a way to commemorate the 50th anniversary of his business. Together, they came up with The Local Storekeeper Award, which each year gives $4000 prizes to five locally owned neighborhood stores that are serving their communities well.

Bruhn also struck an innovative deal when Bob and Cindy Hoehl approached the Trust, wanting to donate a valuable property on Grand Isle — a former hotel and later a Catholic girls camp. “That was a project that was way, way, way over my head,” Bruhn says.

So he built a team of six or seven board members plus several consultants to structure the complicated deal. The trust took control of the property, now named the Grand Isle Lake House, and its 55 acres, which include a half-mile of Lake Champlain shoreline. Since the property is too much for the trust to manage on a daily basis, Bruhn arranged for Burlington businesswoman Bev Watson, who owns the Willard Street Inn, Lang House and Isabel’s restaurant, to run the place. The trust now rents the house for business meetings and special events and charges a lower rate for nonprofit groups. The arrangement is vintage Bruhn: He always seems to be getting others to buy into his ideas.

Cousins has heard him likened to a cowbird, which is known for laying its eggs in other birds’ nests so those birds raise and nurture their young.

“He is a very smart guy who works very hard and ‘noodges’ a little bit,” Cousins says, “and as a result things happen.”

It is a trait Bruhn seems to have picked up from one of his mentors, Bob Sincerbeaux of Woodstock, who was the Preservation Trust’s first benefactor and a longtime board member.

When Sincerbeaux died last December, Bruhn said in his eulogy, “When he provided funds to help some local group, he always said that it was he who was taking advantage of their passion and commitment. Bob provided a little money from the foundations he managed and a lot of encouragement, and then he watched the remarkable progress.”

While Bruhn is good at handing off some of his projects, he has been directly involved in some of the Preservation Trust’s bigger efforts, like pushing Wal-Mart to locate its stores downtown. His experience with the retail giant began in July 1994 when he was a guest on Vermont Public Radio’s Switchboard program, a call-in show. Appearing with Bruhn by telephone from Arkansas was Don Shinkle, Wal-Mart’s vice president for community affairs.

Wal-Mart was then trying to locate its first store in Vermont, which at the time was the only state that didn’t have one. The retailer had proposed mega-stores for sprawl developments outside Williston and St. Albans and was facing fierce permit fights.

“I think he was expecting an opponent on the other end of the line,” Bruhn says. “I tried to make the case that we are not opposed to Wal-Mart, any more than we are now opposed to Home Depot in Rutland. It is really just a question of location and scale.”

After the show, Bruhn and Shinkle talked for 45 minutes and agreed to tour the state together. Several weeks after the tour, Wal-Mart announced its plans for the state, which proved to be a partial victory for Bruhn. The Arkansas-based corporation agreed to occupy an existing building a short distance from Bennington’s downtown and to locate in the center of Rutland, but it would continue to seek permits for the Williston and St. Albans stores. If the Williston store were defeated, then Wal-Mart would consider a downtown Burlington site, a company executive told Bruhn.

Wal-Mart eventually won a permit for a store in Williston. But, with funding and technical support from the trust, a local community group and the Vermont Natural Resources Council defeated the store planned for St. Albans.

Despite the mixed results in dealing with Wal-Mart, Bruhn believes compromise and negotiation were the right approach. “I think if we’d been saying we absolutely oppose Wal-Mart in Vermont, we would have gotten nowhere,” he says.

In fact, Bruhn thinks Wal-Mart has had some good effects. For example, it has played a role in making Rutland what he calls “as complete a downtown as we have in Vermont right now.” He says the city has the right mix: offices, locally owned stores, movie theaters, civic and religious buildings, the Paramount Theatre and, yes, Wal-Mart. In contrast, Bruhn says, Burlington is too geared toward tourists and entertainment and not enough toward the basic needs of residents. Not surprisingly, he also worries about the effects of sprawling development on the Burlington area, and whether the planned Circumferential Highway would exacerbate them.

“Somebody needs to be paying a lot more attention to what can and cannot happen,” he says, underscoring concerns about unchecked development at the exits. Although he acknowledges the road is important to IBM, he questions whether it’s a long-term solution to the traffic problem.

Bruhn’s devotion to downtowns has brought him both praise and criticism from business leaders.

“I think he is a sort of adversarial compatriot,” says Chris Barbieri, president of the Vermont Chamber of Commerce, who disagrees with Bruhn’s position that growth should be strongly focused downtown. “He is open-minded. That’s where his strength is. When there is an ability to build consensus, he is willing to work with those who some people view as the enemy.

“Paul and I don’t necessarily agree all the time, but I have a lot of respect for him,” Barbieri adds.

Some environmentalists are frustrated that Bruhn, whose opinions can influence the governor and the legislature, has not taken a public stand on certain contentious issues.

Christopher Kilian, senior attorney for the Conservation Law Foundation, calls Bruhn “a very politically savvy advocate for his issues” and says he “preserves the relationships he needs.” And he says that probably means he’s not taking an aggressive stance in all environmental battles.

Still, Kilian says: “I would rather have Paul working on the issue he works on — which 95 percent of the time I agree with — rather than have someone in that position who is less effective, or have him on the other side.”

Robins says it is not in Bruhn’s nature to concede on an important point. “He is very competitive,” Robins says. “Paul never makes it personal, but you don’t find him compromising much if it is something he cares about.”

And what matters to Bruhn is keeping downtowns alive. “I have come to understand how important it is that downtowns be vital and vibrant places that serve the community,” he says. “Without a functioning downtown, I think you lose the sense of community.”

At their best, they are “a place where everyone can gather and bump into one another,” Bruhn continues, “a larger version of the village store.”

But in protecting downtowns, Bruhn says, he is not seeking to block progress. “I think that people may think of the environmental community or historical preservation folks wanting to pickle the state, but that’s really not what it’s about,” he says. “We really understand that there needs to be change, there needs to be growth. It is a question of how and where, and whether it is growth that really serves us.”

And how has Bruhn’s work served Vermont? How would the state be different if Paul Bruhn had chosen another profession? Gerrit Kouwenhoven, president of the Preservation Trust’s board, says it’s a tough question. It would be a disservice to the hard-working members of the historic preservation movement in Vermont to say a given project would not have happened without Bruhn. And Paul would be distressed at the suggestion.

But, without Bruhn, Kouwenhoven adds, “my sense is we would be a decade or two behind in holding the sense of Vermont community together. . . He just saved us, as I said, a decade or two of really hard homework.”

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Mark Bushnell


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