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Robert DuGrenier, board president for West River Community Project, speaks Dec. 7 in a new community kitchen built in the basement of West Townshend Country Store.

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West River Community Project celebrates grand opening of commercial kitchen

Kickoff is final piece in effort to turn old general store into thriving village center

TOWNSHEND—Five years ago, the West Townshend Country Store was a mostly empty shell in need of repair.

On Dec. 7, it was bustling with activity inside and out as West River Community Project — the nonprofit that has revitalized the building — celebrated the official opening of a community kitchen meant to serve farmers, entrepreneurs, and others.

The kitchen is the culmination of a project that also has brought a cafe, thrift shop, farmers’ market, and outdoor oven to the 168-year-old building. But some say the most important improvements during the past five years have little to do with bricks and mortar.

“The biggest accomplishment is not really what we’ve done in the space or the facility,” said Robert DuGrenier, West River Community Project board president. “It’s really how it has energized a community. This place has given a wonderful atmosphere for people to come together and really become a family.”

Saving a landmark

The West River Community Project was born out of a fear that the country store building would shut entirely, forcing out the last remaining tenant — the West Townshend post office.

In a community that already had lost much property and vitality after the construction of the Townshend Dam in 1961, some neighbors couldn’t stand to watch a landmark and gathering space vanish.

“We didn’t know where to turn, so we were advised by [preservation experts] to start a nonprofit — to see if we could put a group together to do something about it,” said resident Clare Adams, one of the community project’s founders.

The group grew steadily via “lots of donations, and lots of goodwill,” Adams recalled.

The West River Community Project secured a 20-year lease on the building, and momentum has built steadily.

Small community gatherings led to incremental improvements: For instance, DuGrenier said the cafe, which now operates seven days a week, was an outgrowth of Friday night potluck and music events.

The post office stayed and moved to a new space within the building to make way for the cafe. A thrift store operates on the second floor, and the Townshend Farmers Market has put down roots outside during warm-weather months.

The latest addition is a community commercial-grade kitchen in the building’s lower level. The idea was to give farmers a space to create value-added agricultural products, and to allow small businesses and residents to access culinary equipment that would be too expensive for them to purchase on their own.

A $50,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture played a big role in making that happen. “That was utilized for purchasing a lot of the processing equipment we have down there,” DuGrenier said.

Range of resources

The kitchen features multiple ovens, a five-gallon steam kettle, a 20-quart mixer, commercial dishwasher, food processor, immersion blender, walk-in cooler and other equipment.

“It was built as a processing community kitchen from the get-go ... so we really designed the space around that use,” DuGrenier said.

But DuGrenier also said the kitchen was, in many ways, the most challenging aspect of the country store revitalization project. There were setbacks during construction, and transforming the space wasn’t easy.

“It was a five-foot crawlspace down there previously,” DuGrenier recalled. “We had to excavate three feet of ground underneath the building. We didn’t want it to look like a basement. We really wanted to make it look like a regular space, and with the windows now, I think it really has a great feeling.”

The kitchen is used for the West River Community Project’s Friday night pizza events, and it has been used for educational events like safe food-handling classes and cooking workshops.

But it’s primary purpose is as a workspace: The facility is available for rent to those who have completed a one-hour orientation and training session. More information is available at www.westtownshend.org.

’Perfect for a start-up’

So far, business has been “slower than we anticipated,” DuGrenier said. “Really, the key is marketing to get a diverse group of people who need the facility and don’t want to travel.”

“I think people just don’t know about it,” he added.

The Dec. 7 event was designed both to acknowledge the federal grant and to raise the kitchen project’s profile. Among those attesting to the facility’s importance was Nan Stefanik, owner of Newfane-based Vermont Quince.

Vermont Quince has used the West Townshend kitchen for product development, and Stefanik said the scale of the facility, flexible scheduling, and cost “is perfect for a start-up business.”

“There’s definitely a lot of opportunity here,” she said.

Sarah Schuldenfrei can attest to that. She started out by cooking bread in the country store’s outdoor oven; became an employee of the cafe; and then founded her own business, Bread from the Earth.

“I wouldn’t have done any of that if this wasn’t available,” she said as visitors milled around the community kitchen.

Schuldenfrei now is ready to strike out on her own, and she’s finishing work on a wood-fired oven bakery nearby.

“I’ve done the thing that this place was made for, which was to outgrow it,” she said.

DuGrenier said the West River Community Project’s work is “never finished.” For example, he’s hoping to add more kitchen equipment as the need arises.

He’s also hoping the West Townshend project can serve as a model for other such efforts.

“There are communities around Vermont now that are coming here and saying, ‘How did you do that?’” DuGrenier said.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #387 (Wednesday, December 14, 2016). This story appeared on page C1.

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