Bristol business park back in play

BRISTOL — The heart of the Bristol village may be pumping with a little more economic energy soon.
Local businessman Kevin Harper at Monday’s selectboard meeting rolled out the plan for Bristol Works! LLC, a project slated to redevelop the former Autumn Harp plant on Pine Street and turn it into mixed-use property that ultimately will include a health clinic, school district offices, light manufacturing and housing units.
Harper — along with partners Robert Fuller of Bobcat Café fame and David Blittersdorf of Starksboro’s NRG Systems and Williston’s AllEarth Renewables — plans to revitalize what was once the home of Autumn Harp, the cosmetics manufacturer that he founded in 1977.
After Autumn Harp completed its move to Essex Junction in 2009, the 55,000-square-feet of commercial buildings in the center of Bristol was left empty. Local workers were forced to commute to Essex Junction, or to find another job closer by.
Through the Bristol Works! project, Harper and his partners hope “to transform the series of steel and pre-cast concrete buildings into a mixed-use campus that will be home to some of the area’s most promising job-creating sectors: health care/wellness, recreation, value-add food products manufacturing and green products manufacturing,” according to a release issued Tuesday by Bristol Works.
Though the siting of the businesses in a residential area has its challenges, Harper says it’s well worth it.
“From a future planning perspective, I felt that it was important to look back on the history of the site. What pushed me over the edge is that it is Bristol’s only industrial/commercial site,” Harper said in an interview on Wednesday. “And the fact that it happens to be deep in the neighborhood isn’t a coincidence. It’s just a block from the recreation department fields, two blocks to the front door of the high school, you go down two blocks to Main street, and you’re three blocks from the heart of the downtown and it’s surrounded on all sides by homes.”
The new complex initially will feature a new office space for the Addison Northeast Supervisory Union and will also house the Five Town Health Alliance Inc.’s new Federally Qualified health Center, if all goes according to plan. The 10,000 square feet of offices that those two would occupy make up the first phase of the renovation plan, set to be complete by summer 2011.
In addition to office space, Bristol Works will encompass 25,000 square feet of “light manufacturing” space for businesses with an agricultural or green energy bent, which will come in the second phase of the project. Harper and Fuller, who are partners in the Bristol Bakery and Café, plan to expand their retail brand into a wholesale operation. The team plans to build a business out of a commercial kitchen that they hope to start work on in the spring, continuing into the fall.
“Building on the Bristol Bakery brand is a way to get the word out of quality local ingredients for distribution up and down the Champlain Valley,” Harper said.
The third phase will consist of constructing mixed-income, multi-generational housing units, both for workers and for those seeking smaller, more efficient homes.
“The partners, one by one, agreed that this was more interesting than taking a building in a (business) park somewhere and trying to find tenants,” Harper said. “What one might see as a park with great limitations, we see as a park with unusual opportunities given its proximity to key communal elements of school, play space and a vibrant downtown.”
The partners have recruited Bristol architect Tommie Thompson of Twenty4D Architects to create a design that will turn the six acres of empty, steel and pre-cast concrete Autumn Harp buildings into a multi-functional campus that will engage the surrounding community.
“If you walk along the streets that surround the property and look at the streetscape and start imagining small, cottage-style housing units along the streets’ edge, we can really begin looking at opportunities in an in-fill way — we can fill the holes in the streetscape and make the neighborhood feel more complete and more attractive and more valuable.”
Blittersdorf expressed a keen interest in helping make the housing units as energy-efficient and sustainable as possible using new technologies like the sun trackers that he produces through his company, AllEarth Renewables.
“We want to do very efficient green housing and put a lot of the new technologies to use,” he said. “That’s what I’m looking forward to — doing it in a more sustainable way.”
Blittersdorf first became excited about the Bristol Works project because he saw it as a way of giving back to the town where his first company, NRG Systems, got its start.
“The reason I’m involved in all this goes back to when I founded NRG,” he said. “We operated out of a house just north of Bristol library. I’m partial to helping the town of Bristol because that’s where we sort of grew up in the early ’80s.”
According to Blittersdorf, the alternative energy business is booming and could help bring more jobs into Bristol.
Though nothing has been decided or discussed in great detail, Blittersdorf would love to see some of his new energy product ideas become a reality in the Bristol Works space under a new company title. But this, he stressed, is all up in the air at this point.
Harper and team, who have already met with the Bristol selectboard, hope to begin renovations later this winter, and start moving tenants into spaces as soon as the spaces are ready.
According to Town Administrator Bill Bryant, members of the selectboard were “excited to see a group of enthusiastic entrepreneurs taking on the task of trying to reuse a very important property in Bristol.”
“They thought the ideas made a lot of sense and the board is pleased with the type of designs that they’re talking about trying to utilize on the property,” Bryant said. “They were also very interested to hear about the mixture of housing and office and industrial uses that were proposed.”
Bryant noted that the visit to the selectboard was simply a courtesy call on Harper’s part — until zoning comes into play, Bristol Works will not need any additional sign-off from the selectboard.
“The town could very well become involved at some point,” Bryant said. “They mentioned a lane that might cut through the property, which could become a public road, and with this kind of property, there are bound to be infrastructure needs like water and sewer service to that area. That type of thing comes up.”
Bryant also mentioned the possibility of the town teaming up with the Bristol Works partners should federal or state grants come into play that might require the involvement of the town in the project in order to procure funding.
“They had some good reasons to share their thinking with the selectboard,” Bryant said.
Harper also planned to meet with the Bristol Planning Commission on Tuesday, but the meeting was cancelled due to bad weather. Harper will need to work with the planning commission to make any new housing developments a reality.
“We’re a long way from that,” Harper said in regards to constructing housing units. “We need to work closely with the planning commission and selectboard on density and setbacks. It’s a practical matter. We need to get to a design or a couple designs that are handsome and a good fit with the community that can be built at the bottom range price-wise. They will also need to comply satisfactorily with town planners and zoning folks. I see it as something that will get traction a year from now. I wouldn’t be surprised if next year sometime we were starting our first unit.”
In the meantime, Harper said, there is plenty to get started on.
“Once we get the site active and systems fired up — we’ll need some infrastructure and waste water on the food side — if you get someone in there who is a starter and a go-getter it’s going to attract other entrepreneurs,” Harper said.
Harper has no doubts that the spaces, once completed, will fill up with energetic, young companies.
“It’s going to be a great attraction to entrepreneurial companies that want to live in a community-centered place like Bristol that’s affordable and walk-able,” he said.
Tamara Hilmes is at [email protected].

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