Development with Heart & Soul . . . . an interview with Melinda Louise Moulton, CEO, Main Street Landing

In 1982 Melinda Moulton and her partner, Lisa Steele, were two women on a journey to redevelop the Burlington waterfront.  They created an environmentally and socially responsible mission that guided them through 30 years and 250,000 square feet of built environment on Burlington’s Waterfront.  This is a powerful story about the courage to listen to your heart and soul to lead a business to true, lasting, as well as financial, success.

Their first attempt in the early 1980’s failed for a variety of reasons, but most compelling was the fact that it was too big to succeed and did not receive the community’s support.  Melinda remembered: “We knew it was not the right way to develop land, and we knew that there was a better, more socially responsible and sustainable way to develop the waterfront.  The failure of our first attempt allowed the phoenix to rise from the ashes which carried with it our social and environmental beliefs and a burning desire to succeed.”

Melinda and Lisa changed tactics, leading with heart and soul to create “a place for all people” with a focus on social justice and the environment.  They renamed the company Main Street Landing and created a mission that followed their beliefs and their values. “We interviewed architects and told them our simple mission: We care about people, the environment, and we need to make money. By 1988, we had written our sustainable mission. Our activist culture transformed into Main Street Landing,” Melinda reminisced.

“I still have blood on my hands from crashing through the glass ceiling.  Construction and development were primarily the work of men.  As women, we had a hard time being taken seriously.  We had to do the work and show other developers that we could do what 22 other attempts in 75 years never achieved: bring commercial development back to the blighted Waterfront.  It took two women to do it, and we did it with appeals and legal battles and disbelief. Most other developers did not believe we had what it took, we had to prove ourselves time and time again.  Fortunately, this was a driving force for us.

“Creating an environmentally sustainable development was the right thing to do. We did it with enormous emotion and drew from gut feelings and reactions.  The entire process was quite instinctive.   It was all about doing what felt right, everything was the feeling. For example, when we interviewed architectural firms our questionnaire said: Do you enjoy working for women? Are you happy? Who are you as a person? Do you care about the environment and social justice?  Do you consider yourself to have a big ego?”

Lisa and Melinda were all about focusing on the things that mirrored their values and beliefs.  They wanted to make sure that everyone would love and appreciate their work and know that they cared about how people wanted to experience the waterfront.  Melinda noted, “Everyone in Vermont has a special feeling about the Waterfront, and we wanted to tap into that and have them understand that although we owned the property, we felt more like stewards of the property.  Their opinions mattered to us.  The waterfront belongs to everyone, and we needed to be sensitive and open to that reality.”

Over the years Melinda and Lisa have been able to show that doing the right thing was also profitable.

When it came time for construction, Main Street Landing continued to follow their instincts when interviewing construction firms. Melinda remembered her thinking at the time: “We’re going to hire the sub-contractors based on trust and mutual respect, and a guarantee that they can meet our budget.  We won’t go out to bid. The architectural and engineering team is going to meet weekly with the construction subs and work on the construction drawings together in order to meet budget and create the best project possible.

“We said: ‘there is mutual love and respect between us – we all trust one another, and we want to work with you to create the best project possible and keep our numbers in line with our budget.  That’s what made it successful.” That, and the very smart, detailed business mind of Melinda Moulton checking out all ‘facts’ that any consultant, architect, builder or other consultant put forth. Working exhaustively long hours, Main Street Landing continued to do business on its own terms in order to honor their mission.

Trusting one’s gut means facing ongoing challenges and risks. After the successful redevelopment of Union Station, CornerStone, and the Wing Buildings, a mix of commercial, residential and retail buildings on the waterfront, they focused on the Lake & College building. Lake & College was developed with green construction goals for corporate, retail and a Performing Arts Center spaces.  (http://www.mainstreetlanding.com/waterfrontredevelopment/ main-street-landing/).  Main Street Landing also built a train station to support the return of rail to Burlington. Melinda lobbies for rail and is still awaiting its return.

In February 2005, however, they were still without tenants for Lake & College, and worry began to seep in. One blustery day, Jeffrey Hollander, then-CEO of Seventh Generation, called to see the space. “The wind was blowing, there was ice on the concrete floor, we walked up to the fifth floor, and the wind was just whistling and howling. Jeffrey said, ‘I think this is it. I want to rent 30,000 square feet!’” Melinda recalled her astonishment.

With Seventh Generation as a lead tenant, Main Street Landing began, in Melinda’s words, “creating a loving community that embraced and supported the tenants.  We nurture businesses to grow and succeed. We decided to allow dogs and babies, and encouraged a policy of ‘no whining’.  Our leases are mutually respectful, simple, and easy to understand, and our lease terms can be as short as month-to-month.  We also focus primarily on local businesses, start-ups, and nonprofits.”

“It’s all about the energy,” Melinda continued talking about the culture and the environment created among Main Street Landing tenants.  The Lake and College building is certified LEED Silver (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design). “Unfortunately LEED does not recognize the social mission. The Green Building Council should take into consideration points for a socially focused development agenda.”

Melinda Moulton and Lisa Steele created quite a legacy with their unorthodox development and business acumen, yet they are still pushing envelopes and ceilings. Involved in nonprofit work that supports the environment, education, the arts, and social justice, Melinda revealed, “Both Lisa and I are more radical now than we’ve ever been. My time is running out. I have maybe 20 years, 30 if I’m lucky. I want to work with people to dig deep, evolve, and understand the normal process, the ‘101 of Development in this Country’, needs to change.”

Melinda’s final advice for developers and business owners: “It’s important to make money, no doubt, but more important is doing the right thing, following your heart, and using your mind, and insuring that you care about the Earth and its inhabitants – if you do that – the bottom line will be successful – and you’ll sleep well at night.”

http://www.mainstreetlanding.com

Julie Lineberger

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