Burlington's Mayor Peter Clavelle looks back on the events and attitudes that have shaped the Queen City and helped it to thrive.

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

With roots deep in community history, it's hardly surprising that Burlington Mayor Peter Clavelle has dedicated his life to public service.

Peter Clavelle wakes up anxious every morning. His is not the stressful kind of anxiety, though; Burlington's mayor confesses he wakes up every morning "anxious to come to work." Here is clearly a man with a passion for what he does.

Although he admits that no individual (and no one political party) can take full credit for Burlington's apparent vitality, without doubt, Clavelle deserves a good portion of the applause. With the exception of a couple of years, he has been at the helm since 1989, and before that, served six years as director of Burlington's Community and Economic Development Office under former mayor Bernie Sanders.

Clavelle can sometimes sound a bit didactic when addressing the city's issues, but his infectious enthusiasm bubbles near the surface. It's an enthusiasm he has inherited from his ancestors.

"On my mother's side the Hortons the family goes back to the early 1800s," he says. "My mom's grandfather played a predominant role in the development of Winooski in the 1800s. He was not in government, but was an entrepreneur and was a developer of the Winooski Block; he ran a brickyard located in Burlington on Riverside Avenue and was a major philanthropist in his day."

Clavelle adds that, although his mother's family was prominent, his mother was "the oldest of a family of six, and her mother was widowed when she was younger than 40. She wasn't born with a silver spoon in her mouth."

His father's side arrived more recently, from Quebec around the turn of the century "like so many Canadians, to work in the woolen mills." Both of his grandparents on his father's side spent their entire lives working in the Winooski mills.

"I grew up in Winooski," he says. "I'm not that old, but the first place we lived was an apartment without hot water
hard to imagine today. So we'd go to grandma's for the weekly bath."

Clavelle's father, Raymond Clavelle, also known as Moon, and his uncle Bob ran Clavelle Brothers Market on West Allen Street. "I stocked the shelves and sorted bottles and, as my father would say, ate the profits," he says with a chuckle.

Following graduation from Rice High School in 1967, Clavelle left for St. Anselm College in Manchester, N.H., the first in his family to go away to college. He majored in urban studies, then earned a master's in public administration from Syracuse University and shortly thereafter, "accepted a job at the tender age of 23 as town manager of Castleton."

Clavelle was in Castleton for four years before returning to his roots to become city manager in Winooski in the late '70s. "It was a tumultuous time in Winooski, a time of great rejuvenation," says Clavelle. "It was dubbed by some as the Winooski Renaissance." Old-timers still talk about one plan that would have covered the city with a dome.

"On the one hand, we were attracting millions of federal dollars to revitalize Winooski. Winooski was receiving more federal dollars per capita than any place in America, yet we were struggling to provide basic services and to fund the city's budget. I resigned that position in '79."

What followed were a couple of short-term jobs, one as a department head in state government and a couple of years working for Donald Hamlin Consulting Engineers in Essex.

Peter Clavelle, Owiso Makuku, community development specialist for housing and waterfront development, and Bruce Seifer, assistant director for economic development, look up from a meeting in the mayor's office.

By now, it was the early 1980s, and Bernie Sanders, a self-proclaimed socialist, had turned Burlington politics on its ear with his election as mayor. Clavelle's cousin, David Clavelle, introduced him to Sanders, who put him to work as a volunteer, "heading up something called the Cost Control Committee, focused on making government more efficient."

When an opening occurred, he applied and was hired for the position of personnel director, which he held for about a year. "High on the mayor's agenda was economic development, affordable housing, waterfront revitalization and citizen participation," says Clavelle, "so we proposed the creation of a Community and Economic Development Office CEDO. It was an unholy alliance of Progressives, Republicans and the business community, with a couple Democrats in there." Clavelle was hired as CEDO's first director.

"I tell people they can personally blame me if they don't like Peter for some reason, because I was one of the people that served on the committee that hired him," says Rich Feeley, president of Coburn & Feeley Property Management and Feeley Commercial Real Estate.

Feeley had met Clavelle in the Winooski Renaissance days and considers him a friend. "He and I have had our differences of opinion on things, but mainly things relating to how much money he might want me to make or not make on something." Feeley laughs. "But he really does care about the city and the people who live here."

Clavelle loved being CEDO director. "There was a great time in Burlington's evolution. We were, I think, quite creative."

Under Clavelle, CEDO started the neighborhood planning assemblies and "made great inroads in the early years of waterfront revitalization. We attracted a lot of money to the city. One program we had great success with was something called the UDAG program Urban Development Action Grants but we also put to bed the myth that the Sanders administration was anti-business. We really brought the community together," he says.

The first UDAG grant preceded the Sanders administration, says Clavelle. "The ones I was involved in included the Maltex Building, one of the first incubators, the expansion of the Radisson Hotel and construction of a major parking facility. Another was the Wells-Richardson project. We also received a UDAG way back then for a supermarket," Clavelle recalls, "but even with the availability of a large federal grant, we were unable at that time to bring a supermarket downtown."

Another federal program called HODAG Housing Development Action Grants resulted in a condominium development on Riverside Avenue called Salmon Run and a south end project called South Meadow Apartments on land purchased from the Baird Center.

Feeley developed both Wells-Richardson, a former drug company's building on College Street where his office remains, and South Meadow, a controversial 148-apartment project.

Feeley praises the city's involvement. "They were highly driven, very organized people with a social mission of providing affordable housing and very good dealing with bureaucrats HUD and those people and also not afraid to put their political careers on the line by supporting a multi-family housing development in what at the time was a single-family neighborhood. The people who lived there were concerned about what kind of neighbors South Meadow would be. We've been in that neighborhood for over 15 years now and have never had one phone call of complaint about anything."

Clavelle was thriving in his job at CEDO until 1988, when Sanders announced he would not seek a fifth term. "It became clear when Bernie opted to leave the mayor's office that one of us would have to run, or we'd all be unemployed," quips Clavelle. He resigned as CEDO director to run for mayor in 1989 and was elected and took office in April of that year. His life changed.

Michael Monte, CEDO director, holds the job Clavelle first had with the City of Burlington. "It's kind of nice to know that my boss knows the shoes I'm walking in," Monte says.

"I found myself more visible," he says. "I was no longer working behind the scenes, but I was the front man. I found myself managing an enterprise that included community and economic development, but much, much more. I also found myself as a father of a young family. It was a very interesting balancing act."

Clavelle had met Betsy Ferries in 1980 when she was working on a film project depicting local government in Vermont with her brother-in-law, a filmmaker from Washington, D.C. They married in 1982 and by '89, were the parents of three children.

Clavelle is a complex creature. Smarter than most and quick to perceive ideas, he has a head for figures, an iron-clad memory and a strong sense of fairness. Michael Monte, CEDO director, vouches for all these things. Monte appreciates having a boss who knows the challenges of the work he does.

Monte and Clavelle cite the redevelopment of Burlington's waterfront as one of the high points of Clavelle's time at City Hall. "For years, the city turned its back on the waterfront," says Clavelle. "It was the place where you put all the undesirable uses. This was begun a bit before Bernie, but we continued a process of making this waterfront once again our front yard, cleaning up not only the land on the water's edge, but also the lake itself."

When a controversial grand scheme for the waterfront called the Alden Plan did not receive the required support of two-thirds of the voters for a general obligation bond in 1985, the administration took the project back to the drawing boards. "We listened intently to the citizens and changed strategies," Clavelle says. "About this time, the railroad was asserting its right to develop the waterfront for offices and high-end condos, and we began pursuit of Public Trust Doctrine. This involved litigation, legislation in Montpelier and a lot of negotiation. One aspect even involved an act of Congress related to the Rails to Trails statute and allowing for the redevelopment of the whole railbed with a bicycle path."

Clavelle calls finalizing the agreement to buy more than 40 acres of waterfront real estate from the railroad "the deal of the century. The long and short of it is that we won the day in the Vermont Superior Court."

Developing the public realm was the initial focus: the bike path, then the boathouse, then Waterfront Park; in later years, the skate park, fishing pier and the cleanup of the urban reserve, sometimes known as the 'North 40' "a lot of oil storage tanks, a lot of pollution. Also about that time, we were mounting the largest environmental project in the history of Vermont with the upgrading and expansion of our sewage treatment facilities at a cost of $52 million."

What followed was the development of privately owned waterfront property, rehabilitating existing buildings such as Union Station, erecting new structures such as the Main Street Landing project and relocating the Naval Reserve to create the Lake Champlain Center, something Clavelle says was 20 years in the making. There were expanded marina facilities, improvements were made to the breakwater, and the Maritime Museum's Schooner Project was installed.

Inland, Pine Street has been transformed into a lively arts community over the last 20 years, says Monte, "and has gotten a lot of support from us over that time."

Clavelle is proud of the livability of Burlington's neighborhoods, adding, "I'll be the first to admit that, while I'm proud of the accomplishments, there's much more work to do, in particular, a challenge to make certain those neighborhoods with high concentrations of students are also livable for families."

Things continue to perk on the development side. The Federal Transportation Administration has just designated $3.6 million for the construction of the Burlington Multi-Modal Transportation Center, planned to provide a single, central facility for passenger, rail, bicycle, inter-city bus, ferry, pedestrian and automobile travel. The Old North End and downtown have been named a "Renewal Community," opening the door to federal tax incentives for businesses there or that employ people who live there.

Clavelle says improving service and fares at the airport have been priorities, along with "a whole host of projects, for example, the never-ending planning for the Southern Connector and our involvement in the brownfields development of the more polluted sites in the city."

"This is all from an economic development strength," says Monte. "In truth, downtown has grown. You look at the Key Bank building, the Courthouse, Burlington Square Mall, Filene's, the state office building, development on Battery Street. There's quite a bit of commercial development."

Typical of the capable team Clavelle has pulled together is Faye Lawes, administrative assistant to the mayor, whose crisp, yet friendly efficiency keeps things running smoothly.

"I think what makes Burlington different," says Clavelle, "is its focus on sustainable development. It focuses on the future, and we're trying to constantly ask ourselves what needs to be done to make this city a better place for us and our kids. An interesting piece of sustainability is an integrated approach which balances economic development with environmental protection and understands it's not a choice: because if we're smart, we can have both, and if we're real smart, we can create jobs by protecting the environment.

"Building a sustainable community is like building a sturdy table. You need four strong legs: the environment, the economy, social equity and education. It's a lifelong process of learning, being engaged and aware. Burlington has a long ways to go to be on the journey to becoming a sustainable community. We've become a model. People from around the world look at what's occurring in Burlington.

"I'm proud of accomplishments, but there's much to do. The to-do list is what keeps me going as mayor."

While he hasn't ruled out a run for the governorship in the future, Clavelle adds with a twinkle, "I don't necessarily believe that state office is a higher office."

Originally published in October 2002 Business People-Vermont