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The Commons
Town and Village

A new community store for Marlboro?

Residents look at what it would take to buy former Sweetie's and open for business

Tax-deductible donations may be sent to Marlboro Alliance (please write “Community Store Fund” in the memo line), c/o Pam Burke, Box 42, Marlboro, VT 05344. Funds used to remove the property from the market will be applied to its purchase.

Originally published in The Commons issue #180 (Wednesday, November 28, 2012).

MARLBORO—In Vermont, a key element to a successful village center is having a place where the community can gather.

In many towns, that place is usually a general store — a place to get coffee, a newspaper, and any last-minute ingredients for dinner, along with a helping of town gossip.

And Sweetie’s Deli and Market, the town’s only store, about a mile south of the town’s center on Route 9, closed in September, leaving Marlboro without its only market and gas station.

That void has led residents to explore the possibility of forming a community store and initial efforts to raise $5,000 for a commercial appraisal, legal fees, and what organizers describe as “a nominal amount to remove the property from the market.”

On Nov. 5, about 75 people turned out for a meeting at Marlboro Elementary School.

Attendees heard from representatives of three other community store projects in Vermont, as well as from Paul Bruhn, head of the Preservation Trust of Vermont.

“It was made clear at the meeting that if there wasn’t enough support to move forward, the effort would end that night,” said Marlboro resident Gail MacArthur.

But that didn’t happen.

“Many people stepped forward and signed on to one or more lists of ways in which they might help,” MacArthur said. “It was enough of a show of support for the original group of interested townspeople to agree to take it forward to the next level with the help of those who had signed up.”

Marlboro resident Ani Schaeffer agreed. She has been one of the biggest backers of the proposal.

“There is definitely community support around the project, from ‘Yes, I’ll shop there’ to ‘I’ll help do what it takes to make it happen,’” Schaeffer said.

“People seem very positive about the idea of maintaining our local gas station and having a small grocery,” she added. “In addition, people are also really excited about the possibility of having something there that serves the community in more comprehensive ways.”

She said those ideas range from a small library to a space for poetry readings, “pop-up” restaurants, or other community-oriented events.

The store was started as Sweet Briar General Store, run by Bob and Jerome Gutt, who came up from Connecticut in 1993. It later became Sweetie’s Deli & Market, when Amy Taliaferro and Joyce St. Jean purchased the market in 2005.

Schaeffer said she realizes that the former Sweetie’s space, as a modern building with little historical significance, “is not ideal in terms of location or layout, but it is what we have available to us, and is grandfathered in under current zoning restrictions.”

“In addition, because it is on Route 9, it will be guaranteed a baseline income that it otherwise would not have were it located more centrally to our community,” she said.

The 3,600-square-foot building, with 310 acres of land, is listed for $439,000, and “all reasonable offers [will be] considered,” according to a listing for the property in the Commercial Investment Multiple Listing Service database.

Next steps

Schaeffer said two committees have been formed, both of which will begin meeting regularly this week.

One is working primarily on finances, which includes securing the building in the short term as well as establishing the best business model for the space going forward. Those wishing to help on this committee should contact her by email.

The other she calls a “vision committee,” which is focused on “exploring both what the community wants the space to be and what it can be, given the particular limitations of the space, location, and character of our particular community.”

Those wishing to participate on the vision committee should contact Rose Watson.

The Marlboro Alliance, a nonprofit civic organization, will act as the group’s fiscal agent, which allows contributions to the cause to be tax-deductible.

Schaeffer said she has been speaking “at length” with Bruhn and the Preservation Trust since the first meeting.

Bruhn has been an advocate for the preservation of general stores in Vermont, and the trust has often pointed out that the narrow margins and other realities of modern retail make it highly challenging for these iconic aspects of the Vermont landscape to survive.

The Trust has advocated a model of nonprofit ownership of a building, which is subsequently leased to a for-profit business to manage the general store business.

The organization has been instrumental in the Putney Historical Society’s purchase of the Putney General Store in 2008 and in the store’s ultimate rebuilding after a fire destroyed the structure the following year.

It is also consulting with Friends of Algiers, a civic organization that is following the same model for the Guilford Country Store in that town.

Bruhn “has been extremely helpful in providing guidance, common sense, and inspiration,” Schaeffer said.

“However, the building is not historic under the typical guidelines, so the Trust is only able to be helpful in a relatively informal way,” she said. “This help is invaluable in terms of the connections it has already provided us to other community store groups, as well as grant ideas and legal know-how.”

Schaeffer said the Trust won’t be a source of funding for the project. Nor will the state or town, “except in the instance of any state-based grants open to projects such as this that we may be able to secure,” she said.

“This project is in no way a municipal, tax-based endeavor,” she emphasized.

But considering the recent success that residents have had in raising money to buy the former Hogback Ski Area to preserve it for conservation and recreational uses, she is confident there is money available to buy the property and launch the store.

She said that a number of people in the community have offered both financial help and in-kind donations, and they have kicked off their first small-scale fundraising campaign to raise initial funds to appraise and secure the property.

The bigger fundraising effort will have to wait, she said, until “we know the precise nature of the project.”

The prospect of the community store concept coming to Marlboro is an exciting one for Schaeffer. She is a native of Marlboro, but she said she had been living outside the area for quite a while.

“I returned with my young family because Marlboro is such a wonderful community,” she said. “If we want more young families like ours to live here, it is essential that we provide the kind of service and community gathering place that general stores offer.”

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