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Middlebury board OKs new Tractor Supply store; some merchants angry about decision

MIDDLEBURY — The Middlebury Development Review Board on Monday gave its unanimous approval to a 19,113-square-foot Tractor Supply retail store off Foote Street, to be sited on a 6.5-acre parcel located behind the A&W Restaurant.
The plan must now win an Act 250 permit in order to proceed to construction, which could happen as soon as next spring for a store opening by September or October 2018.
Monday’s approval was hailed by representatives of the 1,600-store company, but lamented by the owners and employees of smaller local enterprises with which Tractor Supply figures to compete.
“We are very pleased the DRB unanimously approved this project,” said Frank Alexander Jr., project director for Primax Properties LLC, the North Carolina-based company seeking to construct the new building and lease it to Tractor Supply. “We’ve been working with the town over the past year and went through a very thorough permitting process.”
But leaders of local stores with similar product portfolios are concerned the new Tractor Supply store will usher in “big box”-caliber competition.
Representatives of Martin’s Hardware and Agway were among around a half-dozen people who showed up on Monday to speak at the DRB’s final review of the store, which will sell such items as clothing, footwear, pet supplies, lawn and garden supplies, propane and heating equipment, tools, fencing and lawn mowers.
“It is an everyday struggle to keep business local,” reads a statement submitted to the DRB on behalf of Martin’s Hardware owners Martin and Kathleen Clark. “There are many options to buy online and the struggle has been felt hard for our business in the last two years.”
The Clarks pointed to language in the 2012 Middlebury Town Plan they believe speaks against bringing in large, competing businesses. They specifically cited page 161, section 6 that includes “goals and land use policies” for the Planned Highway District encompassing land on Route 7 South (beyond Boardman Street). That town plan language calls for supporting “the viability of existing businesses on Route 7 South.”
“To entertain to bring a business entity into the town of Middlebury that sells items that for the majority can already be purchased in Middlebury — and for that matter, right on Route 7 South — does not support the ‘viability of existing businesses,’” the Clarks wrote in their letter.
Several other people have weighed in on the Tractor Supply store through letters to the editor in the Addison Independent. Among the letter writers was Bristol resident Carolyn Knight.
“There are several local retailers already in Middlebury that provide the same service(s) and goods,” Knight wrote in her letter. “Many of these are locally owned and staffed. There is little to gain by adding to what you already have available.
“One could argue that Sears, Agway, and Aubuchon Hardware are chain stores already in Middlebury, but they have been established regionally for enough years that they have a certain clientele, and don’t largely impact their competition,” Knight added. “Why would you want to approve a store that adds nothing new or fills something that’s ‘missing’ from Middlebury or the surrounding communities?”
Scott Jacobs is co-owner of Agway located on Middlebury’s Exchange Street. Like the Clarks, he said Tractor Supply could directly affect the viability of several local businesses — primarily hardware and auto supply stores.
He called Tractor Supply “a true big box store” with substantial overlap of products that can already be found locally.
“You’ll be able to find virtually everything that store sells within a half mile of its location,” Jacobs said.
Headquartered in Brentwood, Tenn., Tractor Supply operates more than 1,600 retail stores in 49 states. There are currently six Tractor Supply stores in Vermont, including in Shelburne. There is also such a store in nearby Ticonderoga, N.Y.
He believes the Tractor Supply application took a lot of local folks by surprise.
“I feel Middlebury’s first big box store probably warranted at little more public input,” he said.
That said, Jacobs believes Agway will continue to earn its following from a loyal customer base that places a premium on personalized service.
“We will continue to do what we do well,” Jacobs said.
COMPETITIVE LANDSCAPE
Alexander of Primax believes the Middlebury market can absorb the Tractor Supply store and that it won’t place similar local retailers in peril.
“I, of course, understand that no merchant wants to see new competition, and I appreciate the various opinions expressed at the public hearings,” Alexander said. “But part of any growing community is new business investment, new jobs, new tax base.”
Alexander said he’s been working with Tractor Supply in New England for more than a decade, locating a dozen new stores in Vermont and New Hampshire during that time. He said he recently revisited the competitive landscape in the 12 towns where Tractor Supply opened, and found that only one of the 50-plus competing stores had closed since Tractor Supply arrived.
“Some of those stores have even expanded operations,” Alexander claimed. “There sure seems to be enough business for everyone across Vermont. I suspect the same will be true in Middlebury.”
Middlebury Town Planner Jennifer Murray said it is not within the DRB’s purview to consider competition when reviewing business applications.
“No matter what interpretation you take, there’s nothing in the zoning regulations or the town plan which is intended to regulate competition, or create a moratorium on new businesses coming into town,” Murray said.
“In fact, there are several goals in the Local Economy section of the plan that encourage bringing new businesses and new jobs into Middlebury. This proposal fits the definition of a retail store, which is allowed in this district, and satisfies all the other review criteria. We can’t discriminate between applicants if they are following the approval process and meeting the regulations. I know some people will be disappointed, but I support the DRB’s decision to approve the application. I remain optimistic that this new business will provide an overall benefit to the community by creating new jobs, expanding the tax base, and attracting customers from surrounding towns to shop in Middlebury.”
Middlebury’s town plan does not include an outright ban on big box retail proposals, though the community doesn’t permit franchise prototype architecture. The McDonald’s Restaurant on Court Street Extension was originally approved during the 1970s before Middlebury drafted its rules on franchise-type architecture.
The DRB began discussing the Primax application at 7 p.m. on Monday and concluded its deliberations 9:53 p.m. The application was reviewed at a total of four public meetings — two held by the DRB and two by the Middlebury Design Advisory Committee, according to Murray.
Primax, Murray said, agreed to re-design its Tractor Supply building when town officials raised concerns about the corporate look of the original plan. The current design calls for a pre-fabricated steel building with a stone-blocks exterior. The building also features an awning and some shutters.
“It is intended to blend into the landscape,” Murray said.
Primax Properties is acquiring the Foote Street property from Rollason Properties LLC. The lot has 1,092 feet of frontage along Foote Street and is located in Middlebury’s Protected Highway District. The store plans to provide 75 parking spaces in front of the store. A fenced, outdoor display area immediately west of the building is being proposed for the storage and sales of larger farm products that can’t be easily stored indoors. Additional outdoor display areas along the southern face of the building will feature seasonal retail items such as snow blowers and riding lawnmowers.
Tractor Supply Co. also sells utility trailers and small, towed farm implements, and an area of the parking lot will be set aside for their display, according to the company’s application.
Customers would be able to access the property from Foote Street, at the southern edge of the parking area.
Primax has pitched a landscaping plan calling for the planting of trees and shrubs on the property, as well as construction of a 5-foot-tall berm north of the building.
Lighting around the property would consist of LED fixtures mounted on poles at a fixture height of 24 feet above ground. “Overall, the light levels are uniform and are sufficient to provide public safety, but not bright enough to cause a nuisance,” the application states. “Light does not trespass onto adjoining properties.”
Tractor Supply stores are typically open Monday through Saturdays from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m., and Sundays from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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