Remembering Tony Pomerleau
copyright the Chronicle February 14, 2018
Antonio Pomerleau, known by all as Tony, was an Orleans County boy who achieved success in the big city, but never forgot his Kingdom roots.
Mr. Pomerleau, who marked his own centennial on September 28 of last year, died on February 8, about a month before Newport, the city where he grew up, marks its own hundredth birthday.
In honor of his years of generosity to the people of the city, Mr. Pomerleau was named last year as the grand marshal of Newport’s celebration. He accepted the honor with his customary good humor and promised to join in the celebration. It was the very rare promise he failed to keep.
Mr. Pomerleau was born in Marbleton, Quebec, the third child of Ernest and Alma Pomerleau. Before he was a year old the family moved to Barton and not long after to Newport.
“I came up the hard way, so I know what it’s like,” Mr. Pomerleau said in 2009. “We weren’t poor, we just had no money. My parents provided a good home for us and did what they could, and we were happy.”
Mr. Pomerleau showed entrepreneurial talent early. He sold popcorn for a penny a bag, washed cars, cut hair, ushered at a Main Street theater, and sold shoes.
At a ceremony last June, Mr. Pomerleau recalled the business acumen he displayed early on.
In his youth, he said, he got a job lugging sacks of potatoes.
“I got paid one dollar, but at 9 o’clock pastries were marked down 50 percent so I got two dollars out of it,” he said.
Last year Mr. Pomerleau also participated in a press conference to announce construction of a recreational path along the lake behind his Waterfront Plaza stores. He seized the opportunity to regale the crowd with an account of how he got his start in business.
At age 13, he was strolling down Main Street when he stopped and knocked on the window of the J.J. Newberry store. The manager, a Mr. Miller, invited the youngster in and asked if he wanted to help dress the window.
Mr. Pomerleau said he pitched in and did a great job.
“Where did you learn that?” he recalled Mr. Miller asking. Mr. Pomerleau, it turned out, just knew how to display things in a way that made people want to buy them.
He was soon hired to work after school and on Saturdays at the princely salary of $10 a week, a very decent amount of money for a youngster in 1930.
After he graduated high school Mr. Pomerleau took a window-decorating job with Endicott Johnson, a company with 59 stores.
“I knew you had to see something to buy it,” he said.
The Newport branch of Endicott Johnson saw a big jump in business after Mr. Pomerleau put his marketing know-how to work. The company sent him to another store where he produced the same results.
Endicott Johnson was about to close one of its Connecticut stores for poor sales. Instead they dispatched Mr. Pomerleau to see what he could do.
Mr. Pomerleau said he turned the place around, and in a matter of months it was the best-performing store in the chain.
From then on, he recalled, he was sent from store to store to show managers how to lure customers through their doors.
Mr. Pomerleau brought along a large photograph of Main Street taken in the city’s early days, which were his as well.
In those days, Mr. Pomerleau said, Newport was the most successful city in Vermont because it was a railroad town, and it attracted farmers who couldn’t take the time to go to Burlington.
Easier motor travel and the decline of the railroads hit Newport hard, but Mr. Pomerleau said he is confident that Newport will do well despite its recent difficulties. He compared the city to himself.
“I never take a licking. I get up and start working,” he told his audience.
Mr. Pomerleau left Orleans County in 1938 looking to make his fortune elsewhere.
He took a chance by selling his car and borrowing some money. Soon he owned four stores and, later, an insurance company.
Business was not the only thing occupying Mr. Pomerleau’s time. He married Rita Murphy in 1946, and the couple had ten children.
Ernie, Patricia, Elizabeth, Susan, Dennis, Alice, Rosemary and Grace survive him. Two daughters, Anne Marie and Ellen, predeceased him.
Mr. Pomerleau’s knack for business eventually made him one of Vermont’s most prominent real estate developers.
After achieving success in Chittenden County, he turned his attention back to his hometown, purchasing Waterfront Plaza on the Causeway in 1980.
Nearly 20 years later he bought the J.J. Newberry building and restored it.
Among other benefits, success afforded him the opportunity to indulge his generous nature.
He donated large sums to organizations such as the Burlington YMCA, and in 2016 offered to match contributions to St. Paul’s School in Barton up to $120,000.
Newport has its Pomerleau Park, a gift from the developer, and he gave the city $82,000 to hold its hundredth birthday party.
Thirty-seven years ago he began a tradition of holding an annual Christmas party in Chittenden County to be sure every child can enjoy a happy holiday.
In 2009 he started a Newport edition of the signature event. At the time, Mr. Pomerleau explained his philosophy of philanthropy.
“I don’t want to be the richest guy in the ground,” he said. “I wanted to give something back to the community because it feels good. It lets these kids know that someone cares.”
“I’m not sure why more people don’t do this,” Mr. Pomerleau said. “I know that around the state there are people just as well-off as I am that could do this.”
At this year’s party, Ernie Pomerleau, who has headed Mr. Pomerleau’s company for several years, said his family intends to continue the tradition established by his father.
Mr. Pomerleau believed business has to change with the times or they will fail. His vision was unusually sharp.
When he bought Waterfront Plaza, Mr. Pomerleau was well aware the lakeside location was wasted on stores. He thought Newport needed a hotel on the shores of Lake Memphremagog, but understood it would cost too much for a major chain to consider building in Newport.
In 2007 he unveiled a plan to build a hotel on the Waterfront Plaza site. Mr. Pomerleau promised to build new homes for his tenants, who he said were also his friends.
He warned people it would take time to build the hotel.
“If everything is hunky-dory with no objections, it will take ten years,” Mr. Pomerleau said. “It takes a long time and you always get people who are against it.”
Lake Memphremagog is the most beautiful lake in the world, he declared and said there are plenty of customers nearby.
“There are 200,000 to 300,000 people within a 50-mile area from the Canadian side,” Mr. Pomerleau said. “If you give them something to come to, they’ll come.”
A few months later Bill Stenger, then the president of Jay Peak, said he would join forces with Mr. Pomerleau to see the project through.
Five years later Mr. Pomerleau was part of the crowd that greeted plans to revamp Newport using EB-5 visa money from foreign investors, but it was clear he was becoming hesitant.
He was slated to be a partner when the project was first mentioned, but the new plans called for him simply to sell Waterfront Plaza for the hotel. Soon after the announcement, Mr. Pomerleau extended his tenants’ leases.
He apparently saw problems coming long before anyone else became suspicious of the Jay Peak projects. He called off the deal for Waterfront Plaza in 2014. Mr. Stenger and his partners failed to pay several million dollars as required by their handshake agreement.
When Newport’s share of the EB-5 projects crumbled two years later, Mr. Pomerleau looked like a prophet.
For him it may just have been a question of going with his instinct. His gut often steered him in the right direction.
For instance Yvan Parenteau ran Waterfront Lanes for 15 years after a chance encounter with Mr. Pomerleau.
A short while before his business closed to make way for a store expansion, Mr. Parenteau recalled how he got into the bowling business.
“I saw Mr. Pomerleau outside 15 and a half years ago,” he said. “He stopped me and asked me if I wanted to run a bowling center.”
When Mr. Parenteau hesitated, Mr. Pomerleau said he would wait two weeks to get his answer.
“That was in April,” Mr. Parenteau recalled. “I saw him again in October. He asked, ‘Are you ready?” I took over in December 2001.”
Mr. Pomerleau’s death brought an outpouring of tributes from around the state.
Senator Patrick Leahy, who is married to Mr. Pomerleau’s niece Marcelle, recalled how “Marcelle introduced me to her Uncle Tony nearly sixty years ago when I was a young college student. Within a very short time, he was making me feel like a member of the family, and he became Uncle Tony to me also. Our children, and then our grandchildren, always saw him as Uncle Tony when we would visit him and his wife, Rita.”
Senator Bernie Sanders, a socialist who worked with Mr. Pomerleau, a skillful capitalist, to create the Church Street Marketplace during his time as mayor of Burlington, called him “a friend for over 35 years,” and “one of the most remarkable men I have ever met.”
Newport City Manager Laura Dolgin said she treasures getting to know and work with Mr. Pomerleau as one of her most cherished experiences.
Mr. Pomerleau was old enough to remember the way Newport was in his youth, but urged city residents to look forward rather than backward in their attempts to revive the community he considered his hometown.
“Yesterday’s gone by,” he said in 1999, “Today’s gone by, think about tomorrow.”
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