At 94, Developer Tony Pomerleau Still Spreading The Wealth

07/11/12 7:50AM By Steve Zind
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VPR/Steve Zind
Tony Pomerleau still goes into the office daily to manage his property and oversee his charitable fund.

Last month, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders read a statement into the Congressional Record paying tribute to developer and philanthropist Tony Pomerleau. 

Sanders said Pomerleau - quote - "has never forgotten the working families of Vermont." 

At 94 years old, Pomerleau remains active and engaged in business and in philanthropy. 

Pomerleau still visits his office daily.  But on a brilliant summer afternoon, he's on his boat docked near the Burlington ferry landing. 

Pomerleau has the ability to recall details of seemingly every transaction he's been part of since he was a teenager,   He's an energetic teller of many well-rehearsed stories. When a horn blast from the nearby ferry drowns him out in mid-sentence he barely misses a beat before picking up where he left off.   

Pomerleau got his start in Burlington 70 years ago. He borrowed $3,000 and bought a series of neighborhood grocery stores. 

Back then the stores had clerks that fetched everything for customers. Pomerleau couldn't afford that so he did something novel. He arranged the aisles and told people to serve themselves.

He says he knew his days as a grocer were numbered when he saw the chain stores move in.  So he got into the business of owning properties to rent to the national chains.  He's got about two dozen shopping centers in Vermont and New York state, along with many downtown buildings. 

Like other Burlington business leaders, Pomerleau was strongly opposed to Bernie Sanders when Sanders won the 1981 mayor's race. 

Sanders' had made his campaign all about denouncing Pomerleau's plan to build hotels, condominiums and offices on Burlington's waterfront.  "Burlington is Not for Sale," Sanders declared. 

Sanders won the mayor's office and Pomerleau lost the waterfront development battle.  But Pomerleau still thinks his plan was better.

 "But you know, people down there wanted a free hot dog stand, free boats and everything else," he says. " My plan was a nice looking plan with marinas and hotels and restaurant and a big park.  It would probably look a lot better than it does today."

Still, when Sanders was elected, Pomerleau made of point of seeking him out to congratulate him.  He says he also reminded Sanders, quote, "Burlington is still my town".  

But the two found ways to work together.  Pomerleau was police commissioner at the time and he and Sanders agreed on a series of reforms to the police department.

Sanders also tapped Pomerleau to look into the idea of building a trash burning power plant, which Pomerleau concluded would have been a disaster. Sanders agreed.

Pomerleau has been credited for collaborating with Sanders and helping Burlington move forward at a time when there was a deep divide between progressives and Burlington's political establishment.  

Pomerleau clearly has a lot of affection for Sanders, who lost many elections before he won the Burlington mayor's race.

"Because he never gives up.  And this is why he became successful.  He ran against everybody, including Pat Leahy. And he just kept on going.  He was better known each time.  My business is the same way," he observes.

Pomerleau's politics generally line up on the Republican side, but he makes exceptions.  Senator Patrick Leahy's wife, Marcelle, is Pomerleau's niece.

His father was a Quebec farmer who moved to the Newport area when Pomerleau was an infant. 

His parents were poor and Pomerleau learned his first lesson in philanthropy when a local auto dealer named Percy Lawson helped the family at a time when Pomerleau's father was dying of cancer.

"I took him to the hospital and naturally they wanted to put him in a ward.  I said, ‘I don't want a ward, I want a private room," he remembers. "  They said, ‘Do you know how much a private room costs?' I said, ‘How much?' ‘$12 a day.'  That was a week's salary.  I was probably 16 or 18 years old at the time and this Mr. Lawson vouched for me."

Pomerleau's philanthropy has grown with his wealth.  For more than 30 years he's thrown Christmas parties for low income families and for the Vermont National Guard.  He's given out scholarships and funded projects at the area's Catholic schools, including St. Michael's College, which named a building for him. 

A woman who worked for him told him residents were in danger of being kicked out of the mobile home park where she lives.  Last month, Pomerleau agreed to buy the park, improve it and turn it over to the residents.  It was an unusual move, even for him.

"This probably is the only project that I went in knowing I can't make any money," he says.

After Irene, Pomerleau came to the aid of other mobile homes owners who'd been flooded out by the storm. He established a one million dollar fund to help them.  "Their home is worth just as much as mine up on the hill," he says.

Pomerleau says his children and grandchildren are well cared for financially, so he'll continue to use some of his fortune to help Vermonters who need assistance - for a long, long time if he has his way.

"I've been very fortunate," he says.  "I've been very fortunate family wise and health wise.  I can't take it with me.  Of course, I'm not going either."

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