Action Figure

This woman makes the term ‘high energy’ seem wimpy

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

bba_lead_DSC7956_DARKSKYAfter two years managing the construction of Champlain Valley Cohousing, Kelly Devine joined Burlington Business Association as executive director in 2007.

Kelly Devine compares her work to maintaining a rose garden. “When you have something that’s wonderful, you have to work to hold onto it.”

As executive director of the Burlington Business Association, Devine claims the responsibility for leading that effort. She knows that, here, her job is easier than that of many of her peers across the country.

“An interesting statistic,” she says. “In the 1960s and ’70s, the heyday of urban redevelopment, one of the plans — especially in a lot of communities whose downtowns were suffering the upsurge of suburban malls — was to put in pedestrian malls. And we did that.

“Folks like Bill Truex and Pat Robins and Hertzel Pasackow and Nate Harris formed the Burlington Business Association, called then the Downtown Burlington Development Association, to drive forward the initiative.”

Seven hundred and fifty of these pedestrian malls were put in across the United States, says Devine, adding, “Want to take a guess at how many are left? Between 15 and 20. Ours is considered among the top five most successful pedestrian walkways in the country.”

The organization’s definition of “downtown,” and therefore its reach, has evolved since those days 30-plus years ago when the Church Street Marketplace was created. Devine cites a recent in-depth study of the Burlington retail market, funded by part of a Burlington HUD grant and conducted by a hired consultant, which inventoried all the retail space in a 15-block area, “consisting of the downtown core, a short spur down Pine Street, and down to the waterfront.”

The study found that one-third of all this so-called downtown retail space is along Church Street and the adjoining blocks, another third in the Burlington Town Center (which some people think of as part of Church Street, Devine explains, but which extends back several blocks), and the remaining third distributed throughout the rest of downtown and the waterfront.

BBA’s stated mission is to “improve the city’s standing as the cultural, social, political, economic, and educational center of northwestern Vermont,” says Devine. “It’s been around for 30 years, and we want it to be around for the next 30, so the issue is to keep it in the forefront of the community.”

This is a garden that Devine seems perfectly suited to tend. A native of Cambridge, Mass., she grew up in Marshfield, about 30 miles south of Boston. She earned a bachelor of science from the Boston University College of Communications and a master of business administration from Babson College in Wellesley, Mass.

Out of college, she went to work for Demand Management Co., a contract provider to the energy conservation industry that implemented residential and commercial products such as fluorescent lighting retrofits and changes to HVAC systems.

“I landed on a special project with MIT engineers to develop a software product that did an analysis of residential energy use, and took that product to utilities throughout the United States,” Devine says.

She was there four years before moving to a similar company, whose work aimed more at commercial projects. It eventually merged with Boston Edison Co.

“Being a good steward of the environment has always been a really important focus for me,” says Devine. That focus was the impetus for her move to Vermont in August 2005.

By then she was married to Rick Devine, whom she had met at his 15-year high school reunion, which she attended with a friend.

They became interested in cohousing, then a new form of residential development. “We had decided that when our second child was born, we were going to make the leap and get involved in a cohousing project.”

After a three-year search of projects in the Northeast, they settled on Champlain Valley Cohousing in Charlotte.

“I came up here with a 1-year-old in tow along with my husband and 5-year-old, thinking I was going to live in Burlington a bit and then move into my new house in cohousing,” she says with a laugh that is typical of her style.

“What happened was that this group — basically a group of excited and enthusiastic individuals — needed a manager. We had shovels in the ground, had a contract with Neagley & Chase Construction — Mark Neagley was project manager — and had road and site work going on in Charlotte,” says Devine.

She laughs again. “It took about a week and a half to be elected president of the development company and get my hands wrapped around helping to lead that project.”

Lead it, she did, for the next two years, becoming close friends with Neagley in the process. “She was my go-to person, who represented the community with the contractor,” says Neagley. “When you’re doing a project of that nature, it’s wonderful to have somebody who knows how to drive the thing.”

Devine was very good at understanding the community as a whole and taking that to the contractors so they could deliver a product they wanted in the end, says Neagley. “Kelly knew how to ask for it. She’s very bright — understands the business end of business and the passionate side of sustainability. She probably walks that line better than anybody I’ve ever met.”

When the last of the 14 townhomes were finished in September 2007, Devine says, “I started looking for another job and ended up at the Burlington Business Association.”

One of her most important duties is to connect with members — “the folks on the ground working and running businesses or being part of businesses here in the downtown,” she says.

“Then I have two important roles. One is to hear from the business community about what is important to them: their concerns, what they’re excited about, opportunities, and challenges. The second is to be their eyes, ears, and voice when speaking with folks from the city government, local interest groups, and other entities trying to make changes in Burlington. And there’s room for all of our voices in the conversation.”

Working from a tiny office on the third floor of 110 Main St., Devine and her assistant, Russ Elek, who also serves as communications specialist, focus on four key areas in delivering that mission: information, events, advocacy, and special projects.

Special projects might be city-initiated, private, or joint efforts. “Sometimes I’m directly involved in moving things forward, and sometimes I serve as a liaison between the community and whoever is running a project.”

She mentions, for an example, the improvements that have been made on lower Church Street and St. Paul Street. “We served as a liaison between businesses and the Department of Public Works to get information out and keep the dialogue moving forward. We want those things to move as smoothly and quickly as possible.”

BBA is also working in partnership with Burlington City Arts and others on a taskforce using a $50,000 “Our Town” grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to make improvements to City Hall Park. Through an online survey, the public is invited to offer suggestions for changes they would like to see.

“We are a boots-on-the-ground organization, giving our members an opportunity to network and continue to focus on things of importance like City Hall Park,” she says.

She mentions the bike path and its importance in attracting several million dollars a year of tourism money to the region; she cites the importance to continue the safety and security of downtown, ensuring that services are available to help those requiring them; she mentions connecting the waterfront to downtown, and the Wayfinding sign program.

“We have some exciting things happening,” she continues. “There’s a brand new Class A office building going up on Battery Street. That project is led by ICV. A new hotel is coming in, the Hotel Vermont on Cherry Street — a locally owned, small boutique hotel.”

All of this is supported by what Devine calls “an amazing board of directors,” of which Al Gobeille, the owner of Shanty on the Shore and Burlington Bay Market, is chair.

Her life away from the office is as active as it is at work. She has continued her leadership position in the cohousing community, where she lives with Rick and their two children, Kevin, 12, and Aidan, 7.

“I love the outdoors,” she says. “I hike, ski both cross-country and downhill, love to swim and kayak, love live music, like the theater, love to cook, like good food and wine together, like being out and about and seeing the many faces of the people I know in the community and being reminded of what a wonderful community I’m now a part of. And I love to bicycle.”

Asked what the interview hadn’t brought up that readers might find interesting, she laughs. “Probably quite a lot,” she says, and launches in.

“I love show tunes and have sung with a chorus, but not now. For many years I was an avid motorcyclist and used to commute on a motorcycle in and around Boston every day. Also took a two-week tour of the European Alps — and I wasn’t on the back! I’m a big believer in local food, so much so that this past year, I raised 100 chickens for meat.

“It was a 12-week project I did on our land in cohousing. I had a mobile processor come in, and we ended up with 500 pounds of chicken and bones. Five families participated in the project, so almost all of the chickens went into our freezers; a few we traded or gave to friends and family.”

Whew! •