Ill will in the mill: Tenant infighting, money woes put Bridgewater Mill building on the block

  • ">

    Colin Buxton, left, works on a chair as Charlie Shackleton, co-owner of ShackletonThomas checks his work at the Bridgewater Mill in Bridgewater, Vt., on Thursday, Sept. 19, 2019. Buxton was working on his Masters degree in special education when he changed direction to pursue a more creative career path. "Most furniture makers are engineers," Shackleton said. "I believe we are artists." Shackleton said the furniture business suffered $250,000 in damages from Tropical Storm Irene and was closed for six months; it now only employs about half the staff it did before the storm and recession. (Rick Russell photograph) Rick Russell photographs

  • Nancy Kendall operates a loom in the Heritage Weaving Studio in Bridgewater, Vt., on Thursday, Sept. 19, 2019. Kendall and about six other volunteers make rugs from materials they recycle, which are then sold in the Bridgewater Thrift Store. (Rick Russell photograph) Picasa—

  • Dayna Astbury, of Bridgewater, Vt., tries on a hat while shopping at the Bridgewater Thrift Store in Bridgewater, Vt., on Thursday, Sept. 19, 2019. The shop, run by a non-profit, is one of the mill properties involved in a lawsuit that could lead to the shop's closure. (Rick Russell photograph) Picasa—

  • Photographed on Sept. 19, 2019, the east end of the Bridgewater mill building is owned by Leo Werner, which he hasn't occupied since purchasing it two years ago. Werner says he isn't obligated to pay his part of the sewer bill to the town of Bridgewater, Vt., which has moved to put the mill up for tax sale. He is involved in a lawsuit against the condo association which controls the mill building. (Rick Russell photograph)

  • A circa 1913 photograph of the Bridgewater mill is part of a Bridgewater Historical Society display at the complex. Picasa—

Valley News Business Writer
Published: 9/21/2019 10:29:13 PM
Modified: 9/22/2019 4:02:06 PM

The Bridgewater Mill has survived fire, the collapse of New England’s manufacturing economy, at least two devastating floods, insolvency and a misguided attempt to turn it into a shopping mall.

Now it faces a new existential threat: warring tenants who are battling each other in court and a decision by the town to put the iconic Route 4 property up for auction to cover an unpaid sewer bill.

The home of respected hand-made furniture maker and pottery studio ShackletonThomas, a small U.S. Post Office that echoes the early 20th century, a renowned contemporary painter, an AIA architect, a rug-weaving studio, crafts workers, a hair salon, a thrift store, a comedy club, writers and a Ramunto’s pizza, the Bridgewater Mill has been the locus of the town’s life for more than 280 years.

Shop Bridgewater

Built in stages beginning in the early 19th century, the three-story 69,000-square-foot wood-frame structure with shed dormers and a large louvered cupola was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976, the same year it was reborn as the Bridgewater Mill Mall with a restaurant and a dozen shops — including a Van Heusen shirt outlet — and almost immediately ran into financial trouble.

Now a legal brawl that has owners of the commercial condominiums inside the mill slugging it out in Windsor County Superior Court over disputed fees with the building’s condo association is again churning the mill, which has been beset by financial woes nearly since the day the woolen looms shut down 46 years ago.

The turbulence has involved one of Woodstock’s most storied family names — Billings — along with two of Vermont’s leading artisans, Charles Shackleton and his wife, the potter Miranda Thomas; the father of the cheesemaker at Plymouth Artisan Cheese; a Boston commercial real estate executive with family ties to the Upper Valley; and a Boston tech entrepreneur.

Weather-beaten and sorely in need of extensive repairs, the Bridgewater Mill once manufactured wool blankets for the Union army during the Civil War. A century later, in its basement, it was the birthplace of Long Trail Brewing Co., where its first batch of ale was fermented.

“It’s been a great startup kind of place,” said David Beilman, an architect of high-end homes who has his solo practice on the second floor and is head of the Old Mill Marketplace Association, which manages the building on behalf of the four owners. “It seems to have always attracted an interesting group of people.”

Interesting, perhaps, although not necessarily congenial.

In conflict are two distinctly different visions among owners of the building’s commercial condo units over what the mill’s role and future should be in the Bridgewater and surrounding communities.

One side is vocalized by Adriana Curutchet, a former New York music industry executive and self-described “environmentalist and activist” who moved to Vermont in 1999 and has assembled a hodgepodge of tenants.

She sees a vital role the thrift store on the third floor serves by promoting recycling and meeting the needs of low-income people in the community, and in the educational mission of the weaving studio with its eight antique looms on which are rugs made from ripped-up discarded cotton T-shirts.

“My whole object is to make this building sustainable and to give to the community a place where they can come and don’t have to spend a lot of money for clothes and can afford to buy a toy for their children,” she said.

Another is Shackleton and Thomas, who see an opportunity for the landmark property, if the structure could be restored, as helping to reverse the exodus of young people from the state by becoming a magnet for young artisans, skilled crafts workers and others who play to Vermont’s identity as a haven for artist-entrepreneurs.

“Much as I respect the goals of the other owners, there is no evidence that they are or have been able to achieve their goals over the last 15 years,” Shackleton said.

A house divided

Today, the old mill building is divided into four separately owned commercial spaces of varying sizes, one of which is co-owned by Jireh Billings — who with his brother Frank Billings owns the Woodstock gift shop F.H. Gillingham and Sons — and a second unit owned by a nonprofit run by Jireh Billings’ wife, Curutchet.

A third three-floor unit on the east end of the building is owned by Shackleton and Thomas and encompasses a furniture workshop, company business office and retail sales floor (Thomas has her pottery studio in a separate neighboring building that is not part of the mill complex).

A fourth unit on the east side of the building, formerly a ski equipment and apparel outlet, was purchased two years ago by a company set up by Leo Werner, of Fairfield, Vt., whose son, Jesse Werner, operates Plymouth Artisan Cheese.

Werner’s ground-level space — which is technically on the Woodstock side of the town line that divides his space from that of the other owners — has been vacant since the adjacent Ottauquechee River flooded the bottom floor of the building during Tropical Storm Irene in 2011.

Over the years tensions have strained among the various owners over everything from late payment of dues to the building’s owner’s association to the potholes in the driveway, insurance, sharing of public restrooms and maintenance of the common areas.

“It’s difficult to get everyone together,” Beilman said.

‘A huge, beautiful building’

ShackletonThomas has been in the mill for 25 years, longer than the other owners, and is a workshop where master craftsmen and apprentices alike build each chair, table cabinet or bed frame by hand, one at a time.

“Apart from all these disputes, it’s been perfect for our business,” Shackleton said of the Bridgewater Mill. “It’s a huge, beautiful post-and-beam building, a lot more beautiful than a lot of mills I’ve seen, and very much in keeping with our hand-made furniture.”

Next came Jireh Billings, who bought the center portion of the building and in which he used space for a couple of years to run a Bridgewater outpost of his family Woodstock’s store. Financial pressure led him to close the store, divide his space and sell a portion in 2015 to the Bridgewater Sustainable Earth Foundation, a nonprofit that was already renting space from him for its thrift store and was headed by Curutchet, whom Billings later married.

“I was a tenant here and my motivation was to save the building,” Curutchet said of forming the nonprofit and taking over the space from Billings, which had been facing foreclosure. “I had three tenants when I took over. Now I have 14 and a rent roll of $110,000 a year.”

Taking in no money is the building’s remaining commercial unit — the former ski shop space acquired by a company controlled by Werner in 2017 — which has been vacant for years. Werner has not paid property taxes to the town of Woodstock since the year he bought the property and is currently $8,735 in arrears, according to the Woodstock listers office.

Triggering the Bridgewater Mill’s immediate crisis was a decision earlier this month to send the building to tax sale in lieu of a $36,000 unpaid sewer bill (the tax sale would not apply to Werner’s vacant space, Werner contends, which is on the Woodstock side of the building). The sewer bill is paid by the building’s owners association from dues it collects from each of the four owners of the commercial condos in the building.

In order to avert that calamity, Curutchet, Billings and Shackleton said they have had to dig into their own pockets to make up for Werner not paying his share of the dues, which he maintains are invalid.

As of Sept. 11, the sewer delinquency has been reduced to about $11,500, but the town won’t stop a tax sale until the entire shortfall is paid off.

Unit owner disputes condo fees

Although the building’s history is pockmarked with bankruptcies and liens against various past owners — including against Billings at one time — the most recent travails began shortly after Werner purchased the vacant former ski shop space in 2017, according to records in Windsor Superior Court.

The building’s ownership association claims that Werner’s purchase came with a $60,000 lien attached for prior unpaid association dues, which subsequently has mushroomed to about $160,000 as Werner has never paid his dues to the association, according to Beilman.

Werner contends that because the space he purchased is not occupied — he’s never disclosed how he plans to utilize the space, but others surmise it’s for his son’s cheese-making business — the fees assessed on his property are in effect a subsidy from him to cover the expenses of others in the building, which he considers invalid.

“The principal and probably only user of (Bridgewater’s) sewer services have been (and) continues to be the center part of the mill and the tenants located there,” Werner said via email, referring to Curutchet’s and Billing’s space. He further said the public bathrooms used by others in the mill are on his property and he should be compensated by the owners association for their use.

Moreover, Werner asserts, the mill’s owners association, unlike the norm, leaves most of the expenses in operating the units — electricity, heat, fire system, insurance, snowblowing — to the individual members.

“Although there is (an owners) association in name only, it provides nothing,” Werner said.

When the ownership association attempted to foreclose on the lien, Werner won a preliminary injunction against the sale on the grounds that the owners association did not follow Vermont law in authorizing the sale.

More blocking and tackling between the parties ensued in court as Werner was dealt a setback when a judge vacated the earlier decision for a temporary injunction but, trying a second time, won a second temporary injunction literally minutes before the auction on his property was set to begin.

The parties are now awaiting a judge’s final decision on the association’s foreclosure on Werner’s units.

The latest development in the Bridgewater Mill is that Meredith Christensen, a Boston commercial real estate executive who grew up in Windsor County, and Brian Halligan, the CEO and co-founder of Boston tech startup HubSpot, have approached Curutchet about acquiring the foundation’s unit in the building, according to Curutchet.

Curutchet said she didn’t respond to their unsolicited offer because it was less than the value she believes the space is worth, but said the partners expressed their aim is to renovate the commercial property and turn it into a “maker space” — similar to the idea expressed by Shackleton.

Christensen did not respond to emails for comment.

Werner said the mill “used to be the beating heart of Bridgewater and now has become an eyesore,” which he ascribes to a combination of “failed businesses, economic decline (and) control issues.”

He likened the Bridgewater Mill’s allure to the same temptation faced by the mythic Greek hero Odysseus as he sailed past a mysterious and ultimately deadly island on his way home from war.

“Everyone who brushes up against the Mill has the same reaction I’ve found: Wow, this place has such amazing potential,” he said.

“It is a siren song but just as treacherous as the sirens of Homer,” Werner said.

John Lippman can be reached at jlippman@vnews.com.




Valley News

24 Interchange Drive
West Lebanon, NH 03784
603-298-8711

 

© 2021 Valley News
Terms & Conditions - Privacy Policy