BRATTLEBORO — Efforts to repurpose a dairy barn at the Retreat Farm took a step forward with an Act 250 application to the state, but major funding for the $6 million project is on hold due to an impasse in the U.S. Senate.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, in what might have been his last visit to Brattleboro as a sitting senator, visited the Retreat Farm last year to talk about the project, which is slated to receive $3 million in funding in congressionally designated spending, historically called earmarks.
However, said David Carle, Leahy’s communications director, the 12 appropriations bills for fiscal year 2022 submitted by each of the subcommittees of the Senate Appropriations Committee, are being held up due to the intransigence of the Republicans in the Senate.
“The Democrats have finished up work on all those bills,” said Carle. “But Republicans refuse to negotiate with us across the finish line.”
Carle said Leahy will continue to work with ranking member Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Alabama, to get them passed.
Until then, the Retreat Farm is counting on donations from the community and organizations around the state.
The Retreat Farm recently received $350,000 from the Northern Border Regional Commission and has raised another $1 million in private philanthropy toward the $6 million project.
It also received a commitment for a $2 million loan from the USDA to develop workforce training and community educational outreach, as well as create the event space.
“We still have a long way to go,” said Lindsay Fahey, managing director of community and impact.
However, she said that she and others at the Retreat Farm are excited to be moving into the last stages of the permitting process.
“We are looking forward to the barn becoming a resource for the community,” she said.
“The North Barn is proposed to be fully renovated, including interior and exterior improvements …” states the Act 250 application. “Improvements will be made for the North Barn to be used as a gathering space (5,200 square feet) and catering kitchen and bar (644 square feet) plus a 750 square foot building-adjacent terrace and performance stage in the Farmhouse Square.”
When completed the barn and the campus of the Retreat Farm could become a beehive of activity of lectures, conferences, fairs, galas, expositions, concerts and “community-advancing activities” just a short walk from downtown Brattleboro.
The application details the renovation of the barn as “a keystone project” for the campus, essential to “the sequential growth of the expansive 500-acre Farm.”
The barn’s 240-seat gathering space, catering kitchen and bar would be available for weddings and other events as well.
When construction starts, it’s expected to take nine months.
That’s not all that’s planned for the campus of the farm. Though it still produces cheese in Grafton, the Windham Foundation and its Grafton Village Cheese Company no longer do so at its facility at the Retreat Farm.
During Leahy’s visit last August, Jeremy Stephenson, cheese program director at Spring Brook Farm in Reading, said he hopes to use the equipment to expand production in Brattleboro.
Plans for another barn on the campus include a café and small-batch brewery.
The Retreat Farm was founded in the 1830s to provide food and work therapy for the patients at what was then known as the Vermont Asylum for the Insane, established in 1834 with a $10,000 bequest from Anna Hunt Marsh. The hospital was renamed the Brattleboro Retreat in the late 1800s.
The Windham Foundation took over the property in 2001, but didn’t have “the institutional wherewithal to address the rest of the property and to restore and maintain the historic parts,” said Buzz Schmidt, the Retreat Farm’s executive director, during Leahy’s visit.
In 2015, Retreat Farm Ltd., stepped in to develop “a land-based anchor institution to help advance the community,” said Schmidt, who described the program areas the institution is focused on: restoration and conservation of the land, water, farmland, trails, wetlands and the historic structures; education in the local schools; family services; a food system advancement program; community gatherings; and the arts.
Retreat Farm is also home to the SUSU commUNITY Farm, which provides free food and supplies to many families in the BIPOC community, and the Atowi Project, a collaboration with the Elnu Abenaki community.
“A gathering place of this size and scale will bring people, organizations, and businesses together to help build the connections needed for this region to thrive,” wrote Fahey in the Act 250 permit application. “It will shine a light on our proud historic architecture, talented craftspeople and artists, delicious local food and beverages, and provide a place that inspires us to learn, celebrate, engage, and work together to ensure a healthy, vibrant future.”
To donate to the Retreat Farm, visit www.retreatfarm.org/donate or send a check to the Retreat Farm at 45 Farmhouse Square, Brattleboro, VT 05301.