BRISTOL — The industrial park at the corner of Bristol’s Munsill Avenue and Pine Street has been freshly renovated, renamed Bristol Works and is welcoming its first tenants.
The 5.5-acre site, which has been used for industry since 1897, last hosted cosmetics manufacturer Autumn Harp Inc., which was until it left in 2009 the largest employer in Bristol.
Kevin Harper saw the space as an opportunity to sculpt a new business landscape in Addison County. He and the other Bristol Works LLC partners, who bought the park from J.P. Carrera, now hope to turn the facility’s more than 35,000 square foot of space into a hotbed for value-added agriculture products, renewable energy manufacturing and universal health care.
“For the very reasons that a conventional developer like J.P. Carrera might want to get rid of a space like this … we thought that its location, smallness and campus arrangement made it an attractive piece of commercial real estate,” Harper said.
The group is hedging its bets that the campus will attract vibrant entrepreneurs for two reasons: Bristol’s talented workforce and the town’s livability.
“We have a lot of people willing to work who are educated, trained and are now hauling up to the greater Burlington area for work, and we’re assuming that those people would rather not make that hour drive each way,” said Harper.
“Bristol is also a great place to raise kids and a great place to retire,” he added. “Everything is right here — drug stores, grocery stores, specialty stores, a vibrant downtown, great neighborhoods, and fabulous affordable housing options.”
Bristol Works — which fired up its website, www.bristolworks.org, on Tuesday — boasts several tenants. The bicycle vacation company VBT was the building’s first tenant, moving its sales team into an office space in March. The Vermont value-added food delivery service Graze was up and operating in a manufacturing space last month.
In addition, the staff from the Addison North East Supervisory Union will move into a custom-retrofitted office come September, the Bristol Bakery and Café (which Harper owns) will operate its wholesale business out of the building, and Harper is hoping that the Five Town Health Alliance (5THA) will get the federal funds needed to move its new health center into the facility.
Harper’s partners in the Bristol Works venture are well known in Vermont business circles. David Blittersdorf is president and CEO of AllEarth Renewables, Robert Fuller founded several popular restaurants as well as the Bristol Bakery and Café, and Kim Smith own the Marble Works business complex in Middlebury. Harper (who founded Autumn Harp in 1977 and moved the business in 1991 to the facility that is now Bristol Works) is leading this entrepreneurial dream team through the uncharted waters of a multifaceted business park in Bristol.
FILLING THE VOID
The four-building business campus is separated into three main components: manufacturing, warehouse and office space.
While part of the manufacturing space is already filled, Harper is leaving a well-equipped room open for what he hopes will be an energy product manufacturer, like a solar panel producer.
“This is a state-of-the-art manufacturing space,” he said. “It has a super-efficient energy management system … and it’s very flexible and adaptable.”
He’s also set aside an enormous area for the potential 5THA’s federally funded health care center.
“We’re taking a leap of faith that the 5THA behind this (new health center) is going to assure a continuous stream of funding through a new national health care initiative and the state’s single-payer system,” said Harper. “We see it as a cornerstone to the new health care revamping.”
Bristol Works, however, may have to wait another year; U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders last month said that federal funding for the 5THA might not be available this year.
“We think it’s likely that it happens this year,” said Harper optimistically.
If the center doesn’t get the funding, he admitted, “I can’t afford to wait a year to see what happens next with the health care center.”
Furthermore, the developers also hope to incorporate housing into the campus design. Harper explained that the partners would like to build 10-12 small, efficient homes that are powered by solar.
“It actually makes sense for a manufacturing campus that provides local jobs to be near where people live and work, go to school, shop and close to downtown,” he said.
FOOD PREPARATION SPACE
In recent months, some residents have expressed interest in a shared-use commercial kitchen that could be rented on an hourly basis to help startup companies produce value-added food products at an affordable cost, like the Vermont Food Venture Center in Hardwick. Harper told the Independentthat Bristol Works would not house such an operation.
“When it comes to developing a model for a ‘community kitchen,’ let’s call it, I have yet to see where that model is sustainable,” he said. “Those things could never exist if it was not for millions of dollars of federal funds … I think its sustainability is questionable even with the front-end governmental support.”
One option that the partners are open to is providing commercial kitchen space to businesses already set up in Bristol Works to prepare food or make value-added food products.
“I think that notion is easily confused with the notion of a community kitchen,” Harper said. “The fewer people in our kitchen the better, but I think the more strategic it is the more viable it will be.”
The partners are planning to lease refrigeration and freezer space by the cubic foot. Any organization or individual, such as the Addison Northeast food service cooperative or a local farm, could store food at Bristol Works — processed and unprocessed.
“I think that the high school running food through their processor and needing a place to properly store it is a great use of the space,” said Harper.
So far, Keith Williams, owner of Graze, is happy with Bristol Works.
“The facilities are great,” said Williams, who particularly likes the community feel of the setting. He explained that he sometimes borrows equipment belonging to other tenants and that other tenants are welcome to use anything of his.
VBT Chief Financial Officer Mike Stancliffe had a similar view.
“It’s great. There’s a chance that we’ll continue to grow and expand even further at Bristol Works,” he said.
Bristol Works markets itself with an exclamation point after its name — Bristol Works! Harper explained that bit of punctuation.
“It emphasizes the opportunity that Bristol represents and that this project represents for the town of Bristol,” he said.
“I feel so confident in Bristol’s future.”
Reporter Andrew Stein is at firstname.lastname@example.org