I've lived in the south end of Burlington since 1997 and like a lot of you, I rode my bike past the Blodgett plant a thousand times. Every time my eyes gazed over that fence at the enormous campus and buildings, my adrenaline would hit the roof. So much potential. I'm not sure what excited me more, the repurposing of the buildings, or the thought of launching kites and windsurfers from that huge stretch of beach.
Dan Cox was leasing building 32 at the time, the small one on the water. Dan and I had gotten to know each other through the coffee industry. I don't know how Dan knew I was interested in the property, but one very fateful day in the summer of 2014 he walked into WND&WVS and told me that Blodgett was selling. I think that was the first time Dan had ever been to WND&WVS and to this day I'm still unclear as to how he knew I might be interested.
Roxanne and I had just barely tapped into the world of commercial real estate with the purchases of 696 and 688 Pine Street in 2009 and 2012. Dave Farrington had been my landlord back in my web development days and was my inspiration for finding a way to get to the other side of the rent check transfer. The renovation of the Pine Street buildings was a far cry from the undertaking that would ensue in transforming the Blodgett plant, but that initial experience gave me just enough courage to make an offer.
I lost the initial bid on the property and lived with that disappointment for 3 years. Then one day in 2017, the opportunity came back around and I was on the phone again with Blodgett convincing them that I was the guy that could make this deal happen. In my mind it was a simple two step plan. Step one was to acquire the buildings, step two was to figure out what to do with them. The news of the closing surprised a lot of people. "The Spot guy bought Blodgett?". Bewilderment was the look on most people's faces when they learned of the news.
Shortly after the closing, I was introduced to Rob Lair. Rob and I shared many breakfasts at The Spot talking about the potential for the space. During our third or fourth meeting I looked up from my yogurt and granola (Mmmmmm The Lopez) in astonishment processing the statement I had just heard. "I wanna leave my job and do this project with you." What? Really? Rob and I didn't know each other very well at the onset, but over time we quickly realized we had a lot in common. We're both from New Jersey (Yeah Jersey), we went to the same high school (at different times), and we're quite certain that Rob's mother delivered me and my twin brother at Overlook Hospital in Summit in the early summer of 1969. Rob Lair has been the best thing that ever happened to this project. He is without a doubt my closest confidant and partner through this process and I've had a ton of fun building the vision for Hula with him at my side.
I shared a board seat with John Caulo on the BBA and had learned that John was just finishing up the St Paul Street student apartment building for Champlain College. I invited John to lunch and told him the story of how I came to be the owner of the Blodgett property. "So you're the dog that caught the car?". That comment stuck with me for a long time. He was right. I had been chasing this thing that was way bigger than anything I could handle on my own. It was time to build a team that could optimize the potential of the property to the greatest extent possible. John knows how to project manage large construction projects. He also lives two blocks from the site which made things even clearer to me that he was the right guy to see this thing through.
My good friend and surfing buddy, Todd Sarandos, had done a good job of convincing me I needed a property manager for the Pine Street properties. He came to me numerous times claiming there was too much work for me to handle in addition to everything else that was going on. I was very reluctant to give up that role and to this day have no idea why I resisted for so long. Todd took over the job part time which gave the two of us even more reason to spend time with one another (win win). Soon after the Blodgett closing I turned to Todd and asked "You ready to turn this gig into a career?" Todd was hired almost immediately and not soon enough. On a daily basis Rob would expound the words "Thank God for Todd" as a testament to the gap he had just filled and the value he brought to our new team.
The back office of WND&WVS was starting to take on a co-working vibe all of it's own. We shuffled furniture to make room for more make-shift desks as we continued to build out the Hula team. When we hired Carolyn Smith from Office Environments to design the interior office layouts at Hula, she took one look at our self-built janky desks and said "Oh this will be an easy bar to hurdle!". We were busy at work planning an eco-system for start up companies while going through the experience of being a start up ourselves. All of our initial meetings with potential tenants, advisors, vendors, and friends happened around our little lunch table in the back of WND&WVS. The look on every visitor's face after making their way across the shop floor to the back room was "Am I in the right place?" Ha ha! Yes, this is it. Welcome to WND&WVS and the temporary offices of Hula. That room really helped set the tone, vibe, and intention of what we were doing. It was often cramped and devoid of enough chairs for any given meeting, but the aire of start up and the heavy dose of surf vibe created an atmosphere that gave guests reason to smile, kick back, and let their guard down. We were delivering the unexpected from the beginning of our relationships and it was clear to all who entered that Hula was going to be something completely different than anything they had seen before.
Cassidy Petit was working part time and weekends at WND&WVS during her undergraduate days at UVM. CP always impressed me with her get-it-done attitude and self directed work ethic. She was constantly busy, hardly idle, and very bright. When it was time for us to pull in our next hire, I mentioned to Rob that CP would make an ideal candidate. I can't say enough about the professional growth I've witnessed in Cassidy since she started. That woman knows how to seize an opportunity and leave no trace of doubt in it's wake.
We initially met Aba Kalonaros through her fiancé James who was educating us on the start up company he had just launched. The two of them were moving back to Vermont from Boston to reconnect with family and the lifestyle they knew growing up. Aba was working for Trip Advisor and loved the concept of Hula. She explained that she knew plenty of 30-something's in the Boston area who would jump at an opportunity to move to Burlington knowing that something like Hula existed. Since the beginning of this effort, we've been focused on using Hula as a magnet to attract out-of-state companies and work forces. The idea of hiring Aba to help us recruit talent from Boston opened the door to our relationship. A few months later when we were ready to hire our community manager, Aba's name came up again. We were flattered to learn that she was interested in coming in house full time and we were beyond stoked to have her. Aba hit the ground running and never stopped. She hustled so much it wasn't until the team moved to building 44 that I learned I had never built her a desk at WND&WVS.
Then there's my good friend Jeff Henderson. Jeff and I have lived parellel lives in Burlington. We were both firmly planted at different web development agencies in town during the dot com days with a passion for graphic design. Jeff is an extremely talented designer from RISD and the creative director of all things under the Scully brand umbrella. Jeff first walked into WND&WVS after making the decision to go back to full time freelancing in 2013. I assumed he might drift toward working from home and encouraged him to take a desk at WND&WVS instead. I'm a big fan of having your design team in house and was hoping that putting Jeff at WND&WVS would create an opportunity to eventually hire him full time. Jeff is also an avid water sport athlete which made it even easier to pull him into the WND&WVS family. He's talented, smart, funny, and tall and helps create a culture where play time often becomes the priority for the day. He's one of my best friends and has played a lead role in crafting the brands and messaging of everything we do.
In parallel to the bricks and mortar that were going up quickly at 50 Lakeside Avenue, the Hula team was busy identifying Vermont-based companies looking for capital. From the onset Hula has been about growing jobs in Vermont. From Rob's perspective, there was no better way to do that then to help companies raise the money they needed to grow. The Fund at Hula was born and we went to work knocking on doors and making phone calls to anyone and everyone that was interested in investing in Vermont start ups. We were sharing deal flow opportunities with the angel investor network and they were learning about us in the process. It was a simple strategy - close investment rounds in state and avoid the risk that out-of-state money brings to our start up retention.
We deployed a significant amount of money in a short period of time and were building our reputation as the new comer to this exciting space of venture capital. It didn't take long before we realized that The Fund had legs of it's own and it was time to recruit some investment talent to help Rob manage the portfolio. Enter Tim Wall. Tim is a native Californian and a UVM alumni with a passion for all things Vermont. His personal network of founders and investors is immeasurable. Introduce any topic in the world and Tim will respond with "I have a really good friend that used to run a company in that field. I'll give him a call." We couldn't be more excited to have someone with his level of talent, enthusiasm, and overall good vibes on the team. Rob and Tim are working everyday to help the companies at Hula find their way to success while attracting new blood to the state via new and old contacts.
The two largest buildings on the campus are both pancaked as single story ground floor slabs that make up over 150,000 square feet of interior space. The magic of single story buildings is in the connectivity they create for our tenants. Both buildings were designed to catalyze and provoke spontaneous conversations that can only happen through the creation of purpose-built collision spaces. You just don't get that level of engagement from a multi-story building. Hula was designed from the start to open up lines of sight throughout the buildings to encourage conversations that wouldn't happen otherwise.
Our design friends at SAS Architects and our construction partners at HP Cummings executed on our design goals beautifully. Steve, Bren, Owen, and the whole team at SAS did an amazing job feeling out the vibe we were trying to create and ultimately making it look better than we could have imagined. They were incredibly valuable partners and became close friends through the process. Mike Hulbert and his crew at HP absolutely crushed the execution despite all kinds of challenges including a worldwide pandemic and ultimately a full construction shut down. Mike and his team powered through a complicated multi-phased build out and did it with style and grace. They're a super professional outfit and a pleasure to work with despite the fact that they don't allow flip flops on the job site.
And of course none of this would be at all possible without the love and support of my wife Roxanne. Rox brings humanity to the equation and is always there to remind me of the souls that are impacted by the work we do. For her it's about people first and foremost. Roxanne will be running the mindfulness side of Hula making sure we all have a place to go to feel grounded through meditation and exercise. Between the group fitness facility, the Surf Club property, and her meditation studio, there will be no shortage of ways to disconnect from work for a much needed hiatus.
We've all felt a ton of pain and frustration around the events of 2020 and I for one completely understand. 2020 was a tough one, but 2020 was also the year that the Hula vision came to life. We're finally at the starting line and the adventure is about to begin. With the buildings complete and tenants starting to take their places, the stage is now set for us to see how far and wide we can move the needle toward real job growth and long term economic sustainability for Burlington. The fun part is about to begin and I'm looking forward to sharing the ride with all of you.
Happy New Year!