BRATTLEBORO—Brattleboro has defied the recession in one respect — it has had a much lower rate of commercial vacancies than other towns in New England.
But many of the commercial spaces available in the downtown are in the Brooks House, owned by Jonathan Chase, whom Andrea Livermore, executive director of Building a Better Brattleboro, described as “really, really choosy about who he brings in.”
Chase “wants a good business plan and an assurance that they will be viable,” she said.
There are few vacancies in the downtown area. Livermore said that Main Street between Elliot and High streets is considered the prime downtown property, and that the west side of that section of Main Street is seen to be the most desirable space.
For example, Missy Galanes, owner of Galanes’ Vermont Shop, said she and her husband, Dick DeGray, took their time in finding the right tenant for the space next to her shop.
Her family ran a sporting goods store on 116 Main St. for decades. Since it closed in the late 1990s, the space has held a dollar store, an antiques store and a computer store.
Galanes said when the property became vacant last year, there was no shortage of interest.
“There were people with all sorts of ideas, but the space wasn’t right for them and we wanted to rent the whole thing as a one unit,” she said.
“Then Richard [French, president of The Works Bakery Café] came along,” Galanes said. “His business is a perfect fit and it has really helped foot traffic on our side of the street.”
As for her shop, she said that business this summer was good, even before The Works opened in early July.
But if that side of Main Street is seen as desirable, many in Brattleboro have asked why are there many vacancies in the Brooks House.
Over the past couple of years, several commercial tenants of Brooks House Realty’s buildings have moved out:
• Frankie’s Pizzeria left its space in the Harmony Lot and has since reopened on Elliot Street.
• Sundried Tomato left its space in the annex to Brooks House facing the Harmony Lot. It recently reopened in the Cocoplum Plaza on Putney Road.
• The Common Loaf Bakery, also in the Brooks House annex, closed in June.
• The Underground, on 130 Main St., moved out of its Main Street space this summer into a storefront in the Harmony Lot. It was recently replaced by a similar store, The Wasteland.
Chase has been the subject of public criticism for high rents and a lack of maintenance of the commercial spaces, most recently last November when Frankie’s Pizzeria abruptly closed.
On iBrattleboro, one pseudonymous user, “Javanyet,” alleged that the proprietors of the pizzeria, Frankie and Linda Vakaros, could no longer remain in the location because of rent increases and responsibilities for repairs, including maintaining the roof.
Chase denies such assertions,“Every year, we undertaken upgrades to the property,” he said. ”If we didn’t, the wear and tear would be very noticeable.”
As for his reputation for being particular about whom he rents to? “That’s true,” Chase said.
“I don’t like to have vacant space, but I also want to create a good mix of businesses,” he said. “If I have confidence in a business, I will consider it, but there are not a plethora of good business prospects in Brattleboro.” He added that the Brooks House curently has a 16 percent commercial vacancy rate.
Livermore said renting a space in a historic downtown area such as Brattleboro’s is vastly different from renting space in a shopping center.
“The challenges with rental properties in a place like Brattleboro is that it is what it is,” she said. “You have to take what’s available and adapt to the space, as opposed to having it custom designed for you in a mall.”
The Works is an example of this challenge. Chase said he was approached by French about locating at 124 Main St., but French ultimately chose the Galanes space.
“They had more room to build there, and I had a long and narrow space to offer,” said Chase. “Richard ultimately made the right decision for him.”
Utilities are another problem, Livermore said. Most buildings have electric heat and a few have no air conditioning.
The big question remains what, or how much, a town can do to a property owner who has prime downtown storefronts but is choosy about renting them.
“Downtowns have to think of themselves as a team,” said Livermore. “Having empty storefronts from time to time is a normal thing in a downtown. But vacancies can be contagious and having vacancies for an extended period of time doesn’t just affect property owners [of those vacant units], but the downtown as a whole.”
Chase said he is always looking for new business prospects.
“I am selective, but I’m open to working with people that have a good business plan and are willing to work to sustain a business,” he said. “I don’t want businesses opening and closing. I want tenants that are willing to stick around.”
As a landlord, Chase said he realizes that abuse come with the title. “It’s easy to make fun of property owners, and I’m a third-generation property owner,” he said.
“But I’m not as negative as people think, and I’m happily carrying on the tradition,” Chase said.