More tenants, shoppers sparking optimism in Vergennes

VERGENNES — Challenges remain for the vitality of the Vergennes economy, said several downtown merchants and board members of the Vergennes Partnership, but there are reasons for at least cautious optimism.
A number of empty downtown spaces are now being filled, some after long periods of vacancy, and shopkeepers said after a summer of weather-related setbacks business seems to be picking up.
“Things are going well here,” said EveryWear for EveryBody clothing storeowner Michelle Tisbert. “We’re definitely seeing a turnaround as far as business goes … That’s sort of the talk.”
Addison Outfitters owner and partnership board member Tim Hodson said Tropical Storm Irene put a damper on business, but the numbers since then have made up for the losses during and after the storm. And now he and the other storeowners he chats with are seeing better foot traffic and bottom lines than in 2010.
“I don’t know if you want to call it consumer confidence, but I think there may be some optimism … People seem to be out and shopping,” Hodson said. “Certainly, it seems to be better than last fall. We definitely seem to have more engaged tourists.”
Tisbert is also a tenant of a Main Street fixture, the Basin Block. That building’s renovation became an early success story in the 1990s downtown revitalization movement in Vergennes, but more recently one of its storefronts and two of its upstairs office spaces have sat empty.
Now, they are full. Two tenants have signed on upstairs — MacroLogic Inc., a show business, and Edward Jones, an investment office — and RD Studio Gallery, a home design business, has taken over the basement storefront.
Tisbert is happy to have the company.
“It’s so nice to have this building full,” she said. “That has to some indication how things are going.”
Three other significant spaces will soon also be open for business. Graze, a year-old-company founded by Monkton resident Julianna Doherty, is moving its base of operations from Bristol to the Green Street space most recently occupied by the Fat Hen grocery. That store closed in April 2009.
Graze primarily allows customers in and out of Vermont to order deliveries of Addison County and Vermont food products from its website, grazedelivered.com. Its menu includes cheeses from Leicester’s Blue Ledge Farm, milk from Monument Farms, baked goods from Bristol Bakery, greens from Bristol’s Rockydale Farm, and prepared foods from Sugarsnap in Burlington. In an email, Doherty said Graze would have a retail component on Green Street.
Life will also almost certainly return soon to the former Park Squeeze restaurant on Main Street. City Manager Mel Hawley said Crackers, Crepes and Crisps owner Nancy DeBona was on the Vergennes Development Review Board docket this week seeking a permit to open her wholesale and restaurant business there.
Her venture (more information is available at cccinvt.com) is moving from Dorset. Hawley said the application includes returning the building’s second floor to a residence, as was the case before the Park Squeeze ownership converted the former Park Restaurant a few years back. Hawley said he could not speak for the DRB, but that the application appeared straightforward.
And sometime this fall another Main Street restaurant, The Hungry Bear, will re-open, according to its owner. Luigi’s Italian Specialties owner Bruce Leachman and his family partners bought the Hungry Bear building, the restaurant and the small, related ice cream business this past March.
Leachman said original plans called for the restaurant to remain open, but the former owner closed it before the sale. That move mandated a health inspection that uncovered code problems, forcing the new owners to rebuild the kitchen.
Leachman said perhaps that was just as well.
“Once the doors got shut, the health inspector said no way,” he said. “I would have had to make some improvements, anyway.”
Some other structural, wiring and plumbing problems cropped up, and Leachman said he and his family decided to tackle those issues themselves. Meanwhile, the fact that Luigi’s has been busy and that his daughter had an out-of-state wedding meant everything at the Hungry Bear moved forward at less than full speed.
“We’ve been working on it, slow but sure,” Leachman said. “I’m getting closer and closer.”
He expects to open sometime this fall and then eventually expand into the ice cream shop, maybe with a new venture, even a sports bar.
At least for now, Leachman plans to operate both Luigi’s, which has a strong take-out pizza component, and the Hungry Bear, starting with breakfast and lunch. He believes there is unmet demand for a reasonably priced, sit-down family restaurant in the Vergennes area.
“There’s a need for that here,” he said.
One who agrees with that assessment is Kevin Rooney, a commercial real estate consultant and Vergennes Partnership board member who serves as the chairman of the partnership’s economic development committee.
“There really isn’t a place like that,” Rooney said. “I think if a family restaurant is run properly … it will do fine.”
Rooney and Hodson said there remain prominent vacancies in Vergennes. Both cited much of the Kennedy Brothers building on North Main Street, the building at 1 Alden Place that until last year housed a nursing home, and a Main Street building that once leased space to Alley Cuts, a hair salon, some of which is now empty.
Rooney also said as he has gone about his economic development duties he learned a number of second-floor office spaces and some less-visible storefronts off Main Street, like the home of a former antique shop on School Street, remain in search of tenants.
“The more I talked to folks the more I found out about vacancies I didn’t know existed,” he said.
On the other hand, Rooney views Kennedy Brothers and 1 Alden Place not as problems, but as possible economic engines.
“They are all under-utilized assets in my mind, and they have potential and could help turn things around,” he said.
Rooney, an area native who returned with his family to Vergennes in 2006 and now telecommutes, said he is working with one potential tenant for at least some of the Kennedy Brothers building. He has also rekindled the effort to establish a childcare center in Vergennes.
Having that service available, for which surveys have shown considerable demand, would be attractive to employers and employees alike, he said.
“A childcare center can boost the economy,” Rooney said.
Hodson believes the partnership can also play a role. The partnership helped spark the 1990s turnaround, but its leaders acknowledge the organization did slip for a few years.
With the economic downturn, Hodson said members have been more active, with its economic development, promotion and design committees all meeting regularly. For example, as well as Rooney’s efforts, the design committee has made a series of recommendations to city officials about park upgrades and downtown plantings.
“I think we’re headed in the right direction,” Hodson said. “We’re not slipping, which is nice.”
Hodson also appreciates Rooney’s efforts.
“He’s been really involved, and hopefully he’ll be able to do more on the economic development side of things,” he said.
Rooney said the partnership would welcome more members and input.
“We’re trying to get things kick-started again,” he said. “We’re looking for new blood and some fresh ideas.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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