Not-for-Profit, Award-Winning Community News and Views for Windham County, Vermont • Since 2006
Voices / Viewpoint

For downtown retailers, things are bad right now

Customers who are uncomfortable, scared, or frustrated with their experience are in no hurry to return. Those of us who submitted the recent letter can’t stay in business without a community effort to address these issues.

Vicki Gohl is the proprietor of Ruggles & Hunt at 79 Main St. in Brattleboro. She is one of more than 20 agents of downtown businesses that submitted the Open Letter [“A direct negative impact on our economic sustainability”] published in the May 29 issue.

Brattleboro

I am one of the invisible signees of the published letter.

What surprises me about the response to our letter is that the means of expressing our concerns seems to be more important to this community than the message we tried to convey.

In our businesses, we hear from customers that they are uncomfortable and are in no hurry to come back to town.

Anyone who believes we do not have skin in the game needs to think again. We have all of our skin in this game.

Perhaps the readership of this paper thinks the non-signers of the letter cowardly, but when your business and livelihood are at stake — your home mortgage, your payroll, your business rent — the cost of public self-expression may just be too high.

* * *

I worked on Saturday, May 11 and heard from six different out-of-town shoppers that they were not enjoying their experience in Brattleboro.

One woman expressed how sad she was that Brattleboro had “gone down so far.”

One couple from Connecticut said they have routinely come up here four times a year on a day outing to shop and have food. They said they had always loved Brattleboro, but they would not be coming again anytime soon.

One elderly gentleman and his wife told us that day that they park and shop only if they can find a meter on Main Street. They said they were too uncomfortable to park in the lots.

Another local regular shopper expressed that she finds it harder and harder to convince herself to come to downtown Brattleboro. She complained that it is difficult to find parking, the price of parking has gone up, she gets accosted each time she visits, and now the sales tax is higher.

On a different afternoon, we had a woman come into the store shaking and in tears because she had been accosted while getting money from her purse for her parking meter.

If enough of our customers are uncomfortable or actually scared, and if all of these individuals share their experiences with others, the negative word will spread, and we as a community will have a very serious public relations problem.

* * *

I can say with certainty that things are bad for us downtown right now.

Whether the readership of this paper recognizes it or not, many downtown businesses are hanging by a thread — mine included. In 2018, my Brattleboro business was down significantly and if the trend continues, my business will not exist in 2020.

Of course, the Brattleboro street environment is only a piece of a much-larger trending problem. Small, independent retail businesses are having a hard time in the United States right now.

Business Insider reported more than 4,000 retail store closures in 2019 — and that was published in February. MoneyWise states that more stores have closed in the first half of 2019 than in all of 2018 — a year that had marked a record high for store closures.

Montpelier saw the closing of three businesses on its main street this year, businesses that had been there a long time. Northampton, Mass. has seen a number of businesses shutter just in the last few months.

* * *

The downtown Brattleboro business owners are all self-employed individuals with no spare time or money. Meetings and discussions around this issue happen before opening, via email, and on the run. We do not have the time or the means to effect any changes on this issue.

We need help — hands-on active help. We need organizers, graphics, funds, and community participation.

A neighborhood watch could form with only the commitment of local volunteers and someone to organize the effort. Receptacles for collecting money could be the result of a design or re-use competition. Graphics and a logo for the campaign “Give a Hand, Not a Handout” is another opportunity for a design competition.

This is a moment for local activism.

Residents of Brattleboro need to ask themselves what they want for their downtown and what they are prepared to do about it — and soon.

Like what we do? Help us keep doing it!

We rely on the donations and financial support of our readers to help make The Commons available to all. Please join us today.

What do you think? Leave us a comment

Editor’s note: Our terms of service require you to use your real names. We will remove anonymous or pseudonymous comments that come to our attention. We rely on our readers’ personal integrity to stand behind what they say; please do not write anything to someone that you wouldn’t say to his or her face without your needing to wear a ski mask while saying it. Thanks for doing your part to make your responses forceful, thoughtful, provocative, and civil. We also consider your comments for the letters column in the print newspaper.