In the 1970s, the Hardwick Inn was all but abandoned. The third floor was boarded up and the structure had fallen into disrepair. Where many saw an eyesore in the center of downtown Hardwick, Larry Hamel saw opportunity. His success would be dependent on courage, skill and money.
The East Hardwick resident had two of the three.
On April 7, 2009 he came up with $150,000 to buy the 12,000-square-foot structure. His decision came on the heels of a successful renovation of another downtown Hardwick building that had fallen on hard times. With more than 30 years experience in the construction business, many spent managing large projects in his hometown Baltimore, Md., he was confident in his skill. His other local renovation afforded him a sense of confidence. The only thing missing was the finances. He is not bashful about saying the organizations with the money were not lining up to lend it.
After Cornerstone Restoration LLC, a business he owns with his wife, Lise, closed on the property, he spent the next year trying to secure financing for a massive renovation project. He approached a list of government agencies, looking for grant money, low interest loans, anything that would help. He visited five banks. Since the real estate market in 2009 was struggling, many lenders told him the structure would not appraise for enough when he was finished to justify the money it would take to renovate it. The candid Hamel believes other factors were involved.
“If you’re not a nonprofit, if you’re not building low-income housing, and if you’re not black, they don’t want to talk to you,” he says with frustration. “It’s not a racial slur. It’s just the way it is. I couldn’t figure out why I was being excluded.”
It took Larry a year to get the money he needed to delve into the project. For the most part, he spent the time alone, in the building, dismantling practically every wall down to the studs. He also noticed a 13-inch difference in the upper level between the highest point and lowest point. He had a serious foundation problem that needed to be addressed. Using 30 20-ton jacks, he raised the back of the building 10 inches and then went to work in the basement shoring up support beams and floor joists.
While many probably would not have been able or willing to do this alone, anyone who meets Larry undoubtedly leaves him with an appreciation for his straightforward personality and independent attitude. He may not be a native Vermonter, but he could pass for one easily. He stands well over six feet tall with a lean build and a long, gray beard. He thinks before he speaks, often using the time to puff on an old pipe he carries with him constantly. We met in his office, which consisted of a collection of small tables, piled high with papers on all sides. He was sitting behind one of the tables scribbling on a piece of paper when I walked in. He later told me he was making a list of all the places he went to looking for money. It was as if he knew I was going to ask him that question. I took a seat in a plastic patio chair next to him. Dressed in green Carhart pants and shirt and wearing heavy-duty work boots. He leaned back, lit his pipe and asked me what I wanted to talk about.
For a few minutes, we talked about his love of the outdoors and gun collecting, a conversation precipitated by the revolver I noticed in his briefcase.
“No, I have never had any problems here,” he said. “I have had some problems in my other buildings, but I just carry a gun in Vermont because I can.”
He went on to say his love of guns is mostly recreational, dating back to his days as an amateur shooter. He now teaches hunter safety and the Vermont Outdoorswoman Program (VOW).
As the conversation returned to the Hardwick Inn, he said he was finally able to secure enough money to put his plans into motion almost a year after he closed on the property. Loans were issued by Union Bank, Vermont Community Loan Fund and Vermont Economic Development Authority. He had to mortgage his house to make the deal work and now, more than a year later, he says he has over $1 million invested in the project.
“Yep, last year my wife and I became millionaires,” he said with a grin. “We now owe more than $1 million.”
Despite the huge capital investment, Larry said the building has turned the corner and “is covering its expenses.”
There are at least 16 businesses and organizations using space in the building, including Larry’s wife, Lise, who operates the Hardwick Inn Clothing Company on the first floor. Her business is doing well and she planned to expand into adjacent first floor space that Larry is working hard to finish renovating. His other first floor tenant is Connie’s Kitchen Bakery & Deli.
According to Larry, in 2008 the University of Vermont conducted a survey for the town of Hardwick aimed at establishing what was needed for downtown revitalization.
“The top two needs on the list were a clothing store and a bakery,” he said.
The inn’s other tenants include several therapists, a fitness club, a boxing club, a multimedia company and a yoga/dance studio, to name a few.
For Hamel, this project was purely a business decision.
“From whatever direction you drive into Hardwick, you see this building,” he said. “It has great visibility and it was important that something be done with it.”
His investment in the community has generated plenty of publicity for a man who seems completely at ease being interviewed.
“The good press is nice and we’ve had plenty of it, but community appreciation and glory don’t pay the bills,” he said.
Hardwick Town Manager Jon Jewett said the town was very supportive of Hamel’s endeavor and even contributed an economic development loan from its revolving loan fund.
“He’s helping to revitalize downtown,” said Jewett. “He’s helping local business and improving the appearance of the downtown area. So we were very supportive.”
The good press is well deserved; Larry’s project produced a “stimulus package” for Hardwick of sorts. When construction was at its peak, he employed 30 workers and subcontractors and his payroll was around $8,000 per week. A quick tour of the building shows he spared no expense. In addition to the aesthetic changes, the building required a complete overhaul of the plumbing and electrical system. A $100,000 elevator certainly added to the cost. He even installed a $75,000 sprinkler system that wasn’t even required by law.
“No one is going to die in one of my buildings because I was trying to cut a few corners,” he said. “There was really no better time to do it. We had all the walls and ceilings opened up, anyway.”
Larry’s involvement in local construction projects is a bit ironic. His arrival in the Northeast Kingdom was based on his growing distain for the widespread development in Baltimore that he was involved in for many years.
“It was just too much, you couldn’t get away from it,” he said. “I still don’t make as much here as I did down there 20 years ago, but I won’t go back, not for the money. The whole way of life up here is different.”
The contrast between working on urban sprawl projects in Baltimore and a historical renovation in northern Vermont is palpable. In Baltimore, a project such as the Hardwick Inn would have had an architect, a construction manager, an owner and several other voices trying to collaborate.
“Here, I made every decision on a daily basis,” he said proudly, with no blueprints, just a sketched floor plan in a notebook. His blueprints were in his head, where they could evolve over time and only he could modify or adapt them.
While he was doing the demolition portion of the project, he received a visit from a man who, as a child, had lived and worked in the building when it was an inn. He told Larry he used to hide money in a tin box under a floor board on the upper floor. One day the box fell down inside one of the walls. Larry found the box after removing an old cooler and tearing open a wall. His total haul was $2.85.
“I think it brings my total cash find in this building up to about $4. When he first bought the building there were rumors about more substantial amounts of hidden money dating back to a local real estate scandal involving a lawyer and a local bank. The lawyer’s office was on one of the upper floors.
Larry found the attorney’s old files tucked away, but nothing more.
“I think those guys were way too smart to hide money in the walls of this building,” he said. “I consulted the Vermont attorney general on what I should do with the old files.”
In the end, he disposed of them with a lighter and some diesel fuel.
Going forward, Larry said his plan is to put the finishing touches on the Hardwick Inn and hope it turns into a nice retirement plan someday. Then again, he has his eye on a nearbye structure in the village.
It’s doubtful his hands will stay idle for very long.