Is Montpelier Alive? Downtown Players React to Changing Times

Corner of State and Main, Photo by Michael Jermyn

If change is the law of life, then we’ve been experiencing both a lot of change and a lot of life in Montpelier over the past two years.

Gone with the wind are several downtown businesses: First in Fitness, One More Time, Vermont Trading Company, The Coffee Corner, Angeleno’s, and unless things change dramatically, Onion River Sports, a fixture on Langdon Street for more than 40 years.

But change has also brought a slew of new businesses to Montpelier in the same period, including Down Home Kitchen, Birchgrove Bakery, Bohemian Bakery, Beau Butchery + Bar, Buddy’s Famous, and Bear Naked Growler on River Street. And there’s more on the way, including Caledonian Spirits’ 30,000-square-foot riverfront distillery, which has commenced “initial infrastructure work” on Barre Street.

Factor in the November 14 announcement by the Bashara family of plans to construct a new 80-room hotel to be owned and operated by the Basharas, but under the “Hampton Inn & Suites” brand, part of the Hilton Hotel chain, and Montpelier could soon be attracting new streams of upscale tourists and business travelers to State and Main.

Into this dynamic will come a new executive director of Montpelier Alive, the local non-profit that has worked to develop and support the city’s business climate and cultural life since 1999. According to a November 26 press release from Montpelier Alive’s board president David Markow, Ashley Witzenberger, who has served as executive director since 2014, “has left the position to devote full-time to her event business.”

In a subsequent meeting at The Bridge, Markow praised Witzenberger, saying, “Ashley was strong in marketing, social media, and a range of ways. Markow said that Montpelier Alive will continue to promote such events as the Third of July, Flannel Friday, Cider Monday, the Cabin Fever Sale Day, and the First Friday Art Walk. “We’ll continue to do that. But we won’t add more events,” he said.

Markow said that a job posting for the next executive director of Montpelier Alive would go out no later than Friday, December 22. “In the best case,” he said, “we would hope to have someone in the position at the end of February.

Naturally, with so much in flux, particularly after the loss of Onion River, many people who live or work in the capital city, or who visit from time to time, have been expressing concerns at the general health of downtown and its future direction. In response, The Bridge sat down with several downtown business players for their take on the situation.

Willis Backus, owner of Cool Jewels

The Bridge: What’s your reaction to the closing of Onion River Sports?

Backus: Any time anybody goes out of business, it’s like the loss of a puppy. You’ve got to have the litter. If more businesses go out, it’s going to feel like moving toward a more forlorn downtown.

The Bridge:  Are you feeling apprehension about downtown?

Backus: “Apprehension” is too strong a word. If another store would go out, it would cause me apprehension. It’s almost there.

The Bridge: Are you hearing anything from customers?

Backus:  People are really bothered about Onion River Sports, but not as a symbol of a crack in downtown strength.

The Bridge: Is Amazon changing the way you do business?

Backus: We were worried about Walmart for all those years putting small town America out of business, but really Amazon is way worse. As a retailer, Amazon makes me stronger because I’ve got one-of-a-kind items, things that people want to touch, see, and feel. It makes people realize they want to put their hands on things.

The Bridge: What would you like to see Montpelier Alive focus on in the new year?

Backus: When I was in high school, I thought being in business would be the pits. If they were going to promote something, promote the idea that being a retailer and merchant is an honorable, intellectual endeavor. It would be good to promote shopkeepers as warriors providing something the community wants

Jill Pralle (manager) and Maggie Neale (board member and fiber artist) of Artisans Hand

The Bridge: How did you react to the closing of Onion River Sports?

Pralle: Certainly, when you first hear news like that, you don’t feel good about it. It hit me in the gut for sure. We are going to sorely miss them. But I think the tendency is maybe to panic and make it this big thing about, “Oh, brick-and-mortar stores, they’re going down.” I don’t think that’s the case in Montpelier. I think we are an example of a downtown that is really thriving. Change is inevitable. We are well-supported here. We are going to celebrate 40 years of being in business next year. That says something. I can’t say enough times how important that we don’t take this for granted and how important it is for people to shop local.

The Bridge: What about competition from Amazon?

Pralle: We aren’t really in competition. We are a unique business and have handmade Vermont products. You’re not going to find those on Amazon and Target.

Neale: Each piece is individual so you need to come and see it and hold it. Yes, I’m sure many people shop online for handmade articles. Many of our items are one-of-a-kind, so it’s harder to sell that online.

Pralle: We did sell online for a while but frankly didn’t do that much business. Some businesses feel they have to go online. But with our business, it’s the reverse.

The Bridge:  What about the Basharas’ proposal for a Hampton Inn & Suites?

Pralle: I think the Basharas are a good family that’s been here a long time. If it’s integrated in a good way, I don’t see it as a negative. It’s a positive. They’re willing to invest in our town and think they can fill those rooms and draw more people here.

The Bridge: About Montpelier Alive, They’re looking for a new executive director. Should that person be from Montpelier?

Neale:  Not if they were happy to move here and could bring some fresh, new perspectives.

The Bridge: What would you like to see Montpelier Alive focus on in the new year?

Neale: Social media is something that definitely needs to be addressed. I think we could put more energy into it.

Pralle: I think continuing to market Montpelier to other places and cities, giving people really specific ideas about the wonderful things you can do; a guidebook would be really great. Perhaps Montpelier Alive could also focus on certain things, like getting the word out to other communities and selling it to younger people, too, letting them know this is a young, hip place to come.

If we can attract more young people to Montpelier, and they come back year after year and start envisioning when they are ready to leave the bigger cities, which a lot of them are when they are ready to have kids, then Montpelier becomes a place where they might want to live. And if they are entrepreneurs, they might start a business. I feel like that is the way to go forward.

Claire Benedict, co-Owner of Bear Pond Books

The Bridge: What is your reaction to the news that Onion River Sports is closing?

Benedict: There’s definitely a little bit of transition going on. Nothing stays the same in life or in retail. We are certainly upset to see some businesses going out, but I am not particularly worried about Montpelier right now. The Montpelier Development Corporation is bringing new and more diverse businesses to town, like the new hotel and Caledonia Spirits. There are exciting things like that going on that say to me downtown is thriving and has a lot of room for growth.

The Bridge: Do you see the new hotel as a positive?

Benedict: I think it’s a positive. It’s something that downtown needs. I don’t know if people realize how much business downtown Montpelier loses by people going out of town to go to chain hotels. We lose a lot of people who come to Montpelier to do business and then sleep in Waterbury or Burlington because they can’t use their loyalty cards at any local hotels. I think this is really a great solution to find local people to run a hotel that is accommodating to business travelers, and at the same time, we didn’t have to put a local business out to get this. The more people who stay here, the more who shop, eat dinner, and go to the bars here—and buy books.

The Bridge: Can you talk about Amazon?

Benedict: Amazon is our biggest competitor. It definitely affects our business. But we also have a lot of strong support from the community and people who understand the importance of buying local.

The Bridge: What advice would you offer to other brick-and-mortar downtown stores?

Benedict: Focus on what we do best. Provide a welcoming place to shop with great customer service, a local feeling. That’s what we can do that an online retailer can’t do. I don’t think that Amazon is going to go away. We just have to do what we do best, and they can do what they do best.

The Bridge: As Montpelier Alive looks for a new executive director, what are some of your thoughts?

Benedict: I’ve been on the Montpelier Alive board for 8 to 10 years. Montpelier Alive does a pretty good job. It is asked to do a really wide range of things downtown and fulfill a lot of different roles. It does everything such as hanging the Christmas decorations, planting the flowers, marketing and advertising out-of-state—every big and every little thing. At times, it’s more than the capacity of the organization. It’s not a big organization, with one paid employee. Probably what it needs to do is focus on its core mission and maybe not be able to serve everybody’s requests from all over.

Mary Alice Proffitt, owner of Down Home Kitchen

The Bridge: As a business owner do you see Montpelier as “up” and “thriving”?

Proffitt: One hundred percent, Montpelier is alive. Because the people who live here are on the sidewalks, walking, shopping, and they are out and about in their community. We not only have that, we have 20,000 people driving into Montpelier for work each day. I would never in a million years take on loans and invest in this space if I didn’t strongly believe that Montpelier was an excellent investment.

The Bridge: Why are these businesses closing?

Proffitt:  It has to do with payroll. Take the minimum wage increase that’s about to happen and the proposed $15/hour. I’ve already experimented on paying my kitchen staff— most of them—at that level to see if it’s sustainable. And I can tell you now, absolutely not. You can look around at these businesses closing, and if people are really honest with you, it’s the cost of labor. You are paying three people to do the job of one person because of the labor market. If I had a better environment when it comes to labor and taxes, I would already be into three meals a day, catering, “to-go,” events, and deliveries. But the labor and tax issues holds you back here.

The Bridge: Do you have an opinion on the Hampton Inn project?

Proffitt: The town needs the rooms for sure. Tourists often drive to other towns to stay after they visit the restaurant because they don’t have anywhere to stay.

The Bridge: What would you like to see in the next person who becomes executive director of Montpelier Alive? What would you like this person to focus on?

Proffitt: That’s easy for me to answer. My work at Yale was in community development, and I believe Montpelier Alive needs to look at cities that are doing a good job and see if they can borrow a model from them on outreach to the community, and not be an insular board of people talking to each other, but develop a process that’s interactive. Montpelier Alive needs to reach out and find really creative ways to ask the community what the community wants.

So the question for Montpelier Alive needs to be, “What do Montpelier residents want to see in Montpelier?” and not some cookie-cutter plan that would fit into Stowe or any generic place in New England.

Montpelier is doing a lot right now. Kids can walk around downtown safely. They can cross the road by themselves. They can go to the library. Where in America can you find a place like that? It’s really unique. There are a lot of eyes on the street. People know each other’s names. That’s very special. I think we’re in a really good place for growth.

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