Renovated St. Johnsbury Welcome Center Unveiled

Taylor Reed Staff Writer

ST. JOHNSBURY - More than 200 people, including the state's three elected delegates to Washington, D.C., turned out Monday morning to officially open the newly renovated St. Johnsbury Welcome Center.

Festivities included speeches, the St. Johnsbury Town Band, a harpist, a violinist, Celtic music, square dancers, building tours, and a free barbecue.

Attendees from politicians to town officials to residents raved about the welcome center and new offices for the Northeast Chamber of Commerce upstairs.

"It's a very nice building," resident Stan Wilkins said. "It brings back memories of when the trains used to come into town."

Wilkins used to ferry tourist luggage from the depot, now the welcome center, to the Avenue Hotel on Railroad Street.

The politicians Monday couldn't say enough about the welcome center.

"We all applaud what you've done in St. Johnsbury, U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said. "This is a real gem for downtown. Look at the architecture. You're not going to see anything like this again."

U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., said the welcome center is a statement about the future. It represents community hope and confidence for things to come, he said.

U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., said the welcome center is a landmark for St. Johnsbury and Vermont. He applauded the people who made the renovation project possible.

"Something as extraordinary as this does not happen unless a lot of people come together," Sanders said. "I just want to thank everybody."

Sanders also honored businessman and philanthropist Tony Pomerleau, who donated the welcome center to St. Johnsbury in 2003. Sanders doesn't know of any other businessman who has given more to Vermont than Pomerleau.

"He has been extraordinarily generous, and made our state a much better place to live," Sanders said.

Pomerleau also addressed the crowd, and cut the ceremonial ribbon along with the politicians. Pomerleau was impressed with turnout at the ceremony as well as the transformation the welcome center has gone through.

Pomerleau decided to donate the building to St. Johnsbury when the town was in the midst of turning down a Wal-Mart store.

"St. J. needed a little help," he said. Wal-Mart would have been a gold mine for the town, Pomerleau said.

Nat Tripp, a welcome center supporter and railroad buff, said the St. Johnsbury welcome center can't be matched when it comes to location and grandeur. It's a landmark of culture honoring the past and looking to the future, he said.

"We can say we are proud of who we are, and what we can do," Tripp said. "This building is a monument to all of you. It's about rediscovering community, quality of life, and community values."

Tripp thanked a host of people involved in the project, initiated in 2006. He applauded the Caledonia County Work Camp for work on the project, including demolition and structural improvements.

"I hope we did as much for them, as they did for us," Tripp said.

He said the opening ceremony Monday was almost 125 years to the day after the building was originally dedicated.

St. Johnsbury Town Manager Mike Welch said Tripp was a "tremendous, tremendous," supporter of the renovation. He also said Joel Schwartz, St. Johnsbury director of economic development, was critical to the project.

"Joel had this vision for a beautiful welcome center," Welch said.

"I want to particularly thank Joel Schwartz for his vision and his commitment," Welch said. "He's the type of dedicated municipal employee we need." The welcome center provides an excellent asset for the town, he said.

"This is really a great day for the town of St. Johnsbury," Welch said.

Darcie McCann, executive director of the Northeast Kingdom Chamber of Commerce, said the project was a true team effort.

"We could not do what we do without our boards and our volunteers," she said.

The chamber was located in the welcome center before renovations began in 2006, but moved to office space in a local bank while work was under way.

For space in the welcome center, the chamber pays $1,750 a month, or $12 a square foot. Rural Community Transportation is also set to place a dispatcher in the welcome center, and the St. Johnsbury Police Department will maintain a satellite office there.

A Retrospective

The renovation project started in 2006. It included gutting and rebuilding the first floor, rebuilding the stationmaster's office, installation of an elevator, new mechanical systems, a new fire alarm, new sprinklers, and remodeling on the second floor. The project cost about $800,000, with $700,000 coming from grants, Schwartz has said in the past.

West Barnet based Ruggco Inc. served as general contractor.

In the future, town officials hope to lease out space in the welcome center. There should be three offices available for lease this fall, with room to add four more, in addition to space already occupied by the chamber, Schwartz said.

Rural Community Transportation has expressed interest in leasing space.