New owner to breathe life into Brandon’s Watershed Building
BRANDON — To say that owning the Watershed Tavern building is a dream come true for Ellen Walter would not be an overstatement.
“For so many people in this town, this is their fantasy,” Walter said as she looked out the rear picture window at Neshobe Falls on a recent afternoon. “I’ve been in love with this building since I opened the door four years ago.”
A lot has happened in those four years. Walter moved her Blue Moon Clothing and Gifts store from Middlebury to Brandon in 2011, the same year the Neshobe River flooded downtown Brandon. The flood caused by Tropical Storm Irene sent the river around and through the Watershed building, which is cantilevered out over the river just downstream of the falls next to Kennedy Park.
The unique, two-story brick building has been empty since before the flood. Kerry and Lisa Weeks sank their life savings into buying and renovating the building in 2006. The former LaDuke’s Bar had been a fixture on Center Street for generations, and the Weekses hoped the Watershed Tavern would be as well. But the business did not pan out the way they had hoped, and by 2009, the couple closed the bar and put the building up for sale. They have since moved back to New York City.
The Preservation Trust of Vermont spent the year following the flood buying options on the Watershed to delay a possible demolition of the building. Then, Castleton contractor Chris Smith bought the Watershed in 2013. At the time, some believed that Smith should just tear down the historic building, but he felt the way Walter felt. The Watershed building was special and deserved a new life.
Smith spent the next 18 months making repairs to the foundation that were overdue even before the flood. He also renovated the first floor. Then he put it on the market and waited.
“It was so sad to see the damage in the Watershed building,” Walter said. “But then Chris started working on it and I was so happy.”
In the meantime, Walter moved her store from Middlebury to a leased space in the Conant Block at 43 Center St., just as she began chemotherapy for breast cancer. It wasn’t easy, and she credits landlords Nancy and Jim Leary for believing in her and helping her to keep going.
Time passed. The Watershed building sat empty, but Walter’s business flourished. Then one day this fall, she ran into Beth Stanway, a real estate agent with IPJ, sitting next to the old building waiting for two prospective buyers.
“She was waiting to show it to people who wanted to open a martini bar,” Walter recounted walking around the Watershed’s first floor. “I was surprised by how I felt at the idea of anyone else being in there.”
The prospective buyers never showed, and Walters mulled a move.
“I just kept thinking about it,” she said. ‘”I knew my lease was coming up.”
She and Smith came to an agreement and the closing is scheduled for this Friday.As Walter walked around the Watershed recently, the sun shone through the bank of stained glass squares over the front window. Walter was giddy, almost in a state of disbelief, but she has mixed feelings about leaving the Conant Square space.
“Jim and Nancy Leary have been amazing,” she said. “I opened the shop between chemo and radiation, and Nancy was like a cheerleader, urging me on every day.”
And Brandon itself also gets high marks from Walter, who said moving her shop here is the best decision she ever made.
“It’s been so supportive here,” she said. “I loved this town from the get go. I just believe in downtowns.”
She said Line and Robert Barral invested in the Café Provence building and Gourmet Provence, the Learys invested in Conant Square, and now, it’s her turn.
“I’ll fix up this building,” she said glancing up at the high ceilings. “It’s a risk, but everyone has been really positive. It’s going to be beautiful.”
There is more work to be done. Nancy Leary, an architectural designer, has drawn up plans for an interior stairway linking the two floors. Right now, the only way to get to the second floor is outside and up a wooden set of stairs attached to the Kennedy Park side of the building. Walter said her clothing merchandise and fitting rooms will be upstairs, and the accessories, gifts, housewares and cards will be on the first floor. She is aiming for a January 2016 opening in the new space, and said that fans of Blue Moon can look forward to “definitely some good sales for the holidays” so she has less merchandise to move.
Walter currently employs three part-time workers and said she will likely hire one more for the new store.
One slight drawback in the Watershed space is that the view out the rear picture window over Neshobe Falls will distract shoppers from what they came to do. But that’s OK with Walter. She gets it.
“I can’t believe it’s going to be mine,” she said, not able to contain a grin. “It’s the best. It’s like a postcard.”
“It’s just great to have it come alive again.”