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Downtown Bellows Falls was all aglow in this scene from last December. Merchants all over Vermont are hoping the upcoming holiday season won’t be too affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Economic bright spots shine through fog of COVID-19

Local businesses and nonprofits brace for uncertainty as pandemic moves into the winter months

BRATTLEBORO—Bartleby’s Books store manager Anna McDaniel speaks about the foliage season between waiting on customers.

“We’ve been very busy,” she said. “We’re very pleased.”

The independent book store in downtown Wilmington survived the epic flooding caused by Tropical Storm Irene in 2011. But the COVID-19 pandemic has proven to be nearly as difficult to overcome.

Bartleby’s closed its doors to in-person sales in March in accordance with the state’s “stay home, stay safe” order and relied on online sales instead.

Since the bookstore reopened in June, how have in-person sales and implementing COVID-19 safety measures gone?

“So far, so good,” McDaniel said.

She and Bartleby’s owner Lisa Sullivan are still tallying sales receipts for the three-day Indigenous Peoples’ Day weekend, but anecdotally, McDaniel said, the weekend felt as busy as last year.

In general, the store has done well during the past few months, she said.

McDaniel said the store’s online orders were very heavy from March until May, and she anticipates that from now on, online is “here to stay” for Bartleby’s.

Over the summer and fall, however, most of the sales have been conducted in person, she said.

“I’ve been impressed with the community,” she said. “It’s felt great, and people seem willing to do the right thing.”

One example: Most customers have complied with wearing masks in the store.

Despite positive sales trends, the long-term outlook is markedly fragile: “Everything hinges on the public’s willingness to be safe,” McDaniel said.

A blow to the tourist economy

The COVID-19 pandemic presented a sticky wicket for Wilmington’s economy, which relies heavily on spending by tourists who hail mainly from COVID-19 hotspots in southern New England and New York City.

That economic truth in the Deerfield River Valley created a paradox, as many business owners found themselves hoping visitors would arrive and spend money while simultaneously hoping the same customers would stay away.

If you start counting from March 13, when Gov. Phil Scott declared a state of emergency in Vermont, as the start of the state’s response to the pandemic, October represented month seven of life in the era of COVID-19.

The good news is that state’s public health statistics have stayed low compared to the rest of the country. But Vermont’s economy, comprised mostly of small businesses, has stalled.

The state’s pre-pandemic unemployment rate of 2.4 percent geysered to 15.6 percent in April.

Since March, business owners have played an uncertain seasonal game of wait-and-see. Coming out of the typically slow mud season of March and April, many people said that things would depend on the summer months.

But as spring turned to summer and with the holiday weekend of Indigenous Peoples’ Day behind us, the pandemic is grinding on, and in Wilmington, entrepreneurs who spoke with The Commons now say that the ski season will determine a lot.

For those in areas such as Brattleboro and Bellows Falls, which depend on visitors but have a more diverse economy than the western Windham County towns, they are also seeing a question mark over the retail holiday shopping season of December.

Now, however, it is still October, and several of the business owners who spoke to The Commons report a cautiously optimistic message of we’re-struggling-but-for-now-we’re-holding.

While the businesses were still tallying their numbers from the recent three-day weekend, people noted that the pandemic has resulted in a massive case of cabin fever, especially for visitors from metropolitan areas.

Susan McMahon has seen an increase in the number of people renting the Landmark Trust USA houses last minute via Airbnb.

Windham Foundation Chief Executive Officer and Chief Financial Officer Bob Donald says that most customers who booked weddings for this year at the organization’s for-profit Grafton Inn have postponed. If the inn can survive beyond the point where social distancing can be relaxed, 2021 will see nonstop weddings at the inn, he said.

In some sectors, the COVID-19 disruption worked in businesses’ favor.

Scott Farm Orchard’s fruit CSA and farm store have remained busy, says General Manager Simon Renault. He attributes the heavy traffic to the early pandemic disruptions in the supply chain, which prompted more people to seek food locally.

A cautious welcome

Meg Staloff looks out her the window of her office at Wilmington Works and eyes the line of cars traveling east and west of Route 9.

“What pandemic?” she comments.

The last few foliage weekends were busy, says Staloff, the program director of the designated downtown organization. While many people drove through town, many also left their cars to walk Main Street, shop, and eat, she observes.

“I waited in a 12-car creamee line [last weekend],” Staloff adds.

She notes that Memorial Day weekend generally represents the “soft opening” of the Deerfield Valley’s tourist season. For Wilmington’s downtown, the period between Independence Day and peak foliage in October draws throngs of visitors shopping and dining. Then, from Thanksgiving to St. Patrick’s Day, the ski season fills the local coffers with lots of tourist dollars.

Prior to Memorial Day, Wilmington Works and the Southern Vermont Deerfield Valley Chamber of Commerce convened a series of video meetings to help businesses, especially the region’s restaurants and retail establishments, to form response plans.

The business community also developed signage for wearing masks and pushed the Selectboard to pass a mask resolution (doing so “lickety split,” Staloff says).

From there, the business community turned to marketing.

Efforts included outreach to inform potential visitors with a simple message: that Wilmington was open for business. The business community also organized a summer Shop Local campaign.

“We had a very successful summer,” Staloff says.

It wasn’t without challenges, though. Not enough workers were around to meet staffing needs, so several businesses had to limit hours. Restaurants were also operating at limited capacity and pivoted to offering more takeout options, she said.

“It’s good we’re a small town; people could talk to each other,” Staloff observes.

According to Staloff, second-home owners account for 60 percent of Wilmington’s Grand List. Many fleeing their first homes arrived early in the pandemic and remain here, she says. Staloff believes they have helped add to the local population base.

An influx of people on the weekends has helped, too, she says.

While volunteering in the town’s welcome center, Staloff says she’s noticed that most visitors have wanted directions to hiking trails and to Harriman Reservoir, also known as Lake Whitingham.

With outdoor activities deemed far safer than activities taking place in indoor spaces, such recreation offerings seemed to draw people, she adds.

In her unscientific observations, Staloff notes, mostly cars with license plates from Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York pass through town.

Still, despite their contributions to full-time community and their positive impact on the local economy, the extra people in town have caused nervousness, Staloff says: When slowing the spread of a virus requires that people stay isolated, welcoming visitors is “a double-edged sword.”

“Somehow our little tourist town was okay this summer,” she observes. “There’s a lot of uncertainty about winter [ski season].”

No longer a baseline to compare to

Stephanie Bonin, executive director of the Downtown Brattleboro Alliance, asserts that any data on Brattleboro’s downtown businesses should come with an asterisk.

“We no longer have a baseline to compare things to,” she says.

With respect to their well-being and long-range economic outlook, the local businesses are all in different places with the pandemic, Bonin says. Some of those differences come as different types of businesses have different requirements to meet in their compliance with state safety measures. Other differences come because everyone maintains varying levels of comfort with being in public.

For example, restaurants and retail have reopened, albeit at limited capacity. The reopening of other in-person service businesses like salons, acupuncturists, and massage therapists is still uneven, she reports.

Bonin notes that as they adjust operations to meet pandemic safety protocols, businesses have incurred additional costs — restaurants needing to purchase more to-go containers or invest in outdoor seating, for example. And across the board, businesses are spending more on cleaning supplies in general.

Bonin would like to see the state or federal government offer “pivot grants,” which could fund business investment in new materials or infrastructure during disruptions like this pandemic.

At the Shoe Tree footwear store on Main Street, proprietor Ralph Ellis says that more people are shopping, yet business is down approximately 25 percent compared to previous years.

He resisted converting the Shoe Tree to an online store during the early part of the pandemic. During an experiment with online sales several years ago, Ellis found it difficult to maintain inventory control and deal with shipping and returns with the multiple styles and sizes that the independent store offers.

So far, public health and safety have not posed an issue, he says, ending an interview to turn his attention to customers in the store.

Erin Sprandel and her partner in business and life, Brian Ingalls, have owned Echo Restaurant & Lounge on the lower part of Main Street for four years.

After a hard look at the restaurant’s budget, “We trimmed everything,” Sprandel says. As a result, the business’ bottom line is sustainable despite a decrease of sales during the pandemic.

The early days of the state shutdown were hard until the federal and state governments released their stimulus and relief aid, Sprandel says.

She adds that Echo took advantage of the federal Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) as well as long-term loan repayment program and state grant programs. Sprandel said early in the pandemic she laid off the waitstaff and almost all the kitchen staff.

She is happy to say that beginning in May, all staff have returned to Echo, and they are working at about 95 percent of the hours they were working pre-pandemic.

In the spring, the restaurant offered takeout only. Over the summer, it opened for outdoor dining, and it now offers limited indoor dining, which she describes as a “hearty” part of the business.

Sprandel recently purchased an outdoor heater for the restaurant’s deck area to extend the outdoor eating option into the cooler days of fall.

The amount of takeout orders has increased significantly, now accounting for at least a quarter to a third of a day’s revenue, compared to the one or two orders per day prior to the pandemic.

Yet takeout has also increased the business’s expenses, including “pretty costly” compostable and recyclable containers, she says. She and Ingalls are evaluating whether to add a fee to cover the added costs associated with takeout.

Sprandel says that throughout the pandemic, the local support of Echo has been “heartwarming.”

“We’re really lucky we have a large local following,” she says. “And we’re really honored to still be here and making people smile with good food.”

Ups, and a few more downs, for farms, food, and hospitality

The Landmark Trust USA owns and operates lodging in five historic buildings around Windham County, including Naulakha, the former home of author Rudyard Kipling, and the Scott Farm in Dummerston.

Executive Director Susan McMahon said that overall the Land Trust is doing “well, but we were on a growth trend before COVID-19, so we hope we can recoup any losses.”

She has noticed more last-minute bookings for the Landmark Trust properties on short-term rental sites such as Airbnb. In some cases, the number of nights booked this summer has beat last year’s numbers, she said.

For example, in June 2019, guests booked the Trust’s properties for 75 nights. This year, that monthly tally reached 89. In August, the number of nights booked last year was 95; this August, the total reached 107.

To McMahon, it appears that “family pods” want to book a whole house, such as Dutton Farmhouse in Dummerston, so they can travel and stay together. With so many students taking classes remotely, families are also choosing to vacation and let the kids continue their online learning, she said.

“There’s a lot of this we never could have seen happening,” McMahon says.

Even the Amos Brown House in Whitingham — which usually has the fewest rentals of all the Landmark Trust properties — “is booked solid,” she reports.

The only property to see a decline in rentals is Naulakha, which McMahon said is not advertised on sites such as Airbnb.

That’s good news.

The not-so-good news? For the Landmark Trust, the health and safety protocols necessary to clean these dwellings adds two to three hours of cleaning time and increases the use of cleaning supplies.

“So it’s been added work on an extremely small staff,” she says.

Winter usually marks the start of the Trust’s slower time and McMahon feels a little nervous about what that will mean for the nonprofit’s finances. However, if the trend of last-minute bookings continues, the Trust’s rental revenue might look different, McMahon says.

“I think it’s all going to sugar off,” she predicts with cautious hope.

Scott Farm’s General Manager Simon Renault echoes McMahon’s qualified optimism.

“We’re doing okay,” he says.

The direct sales at the Scott Farm’s farm market have increased. So have shares in its 13-week fruit CSA, which blossomed from 92 in 2019 to 252 shares this season.

The number of people shopping at the Farm Market has also increased a conservative 25 percent compared to last year, he adds.

Participation in the pick-your-own apples option at Scott Farm has always been popular — even more so this year, says Renault, describing the outdoor activity as “a very safe activity” for families.

“People really want to buy direct from their farmers,” he says. “The pandemic has increased awareness around the importance of local food.”

Renault says that the farm has hired a few more staff to help with the market, including an employee who tracks the number of customers, greeting them at the door and asking them to use the outside hand-washing station.

The pandemic has also meant the farm has cancelled many of its larger events, such as Heirloom Apple Day. Weddings at the farm have either been cancelled or postponed to 2021.

“Weddings are a big loss,” Renault acknowledges. The increase in sales at the market and CSA implies that “things will even out in the wash. It’s my hope, and it’s looking like it will.”

Still, Renault hesitates to sound too cheery. The year has challenged Scott Farm, and he also realizes other businesses are hurting.

“It’s a tough year with a lot of uncertainty,” he adds.

Renault’s hesitation mirrored the caution of others who commented for this story. As if experiencing a form of survivors’ guilt, they attributed the experience of stability as much to luck as to skillful business strategy.

Donald acknowledges the Windham Foundation’s struggles, while adding “we’re not unique.”

“I have described 2020 as a survival year,” he says.

The Windham Foundation, in Grafton, is similar to the Landmark Trust in that it is the parent nonprofit for other entities. The Foundation is financially sound, Donald says. But two of its larger businesses, the Grafton Village Cheese Company and the Grafton Inn, both for-profits, have had more challenges.

Of the two, the cheese company has fared better, he reports.

Approximately a third of Grafton Village Cheese’s business comes from large buyers such as hospitals, restaurants, and schools. With the pandemic-related shutdowns, these sales suffered a 30-percent drop, he said.

Sales at the Grafton Village Cheese store on Route 30 in Brattleboro, however, have held steady since it reopened in May.

“It’s a huge success,” Donald said, adding that the store’s sales volume has already reached its 2019 level.

But the pandemic has hit the Grafton Inn very hard.

In addition to its restaurant and lodging, the inn operates as a wedding venue. Compared to the previous fiscal year, room bookings are down 79 percent, he says. Restaurant sales are down two-thirds compared to last year.

For the Inn’s employees, this means “fewer people working fewer hours,” Donald adds.

The Inn’s staff have adapted as best they can, such as adding a heated tent to the courtyard for outdoor dining.

“But that won’t last forever,” Donald says, anticipating the approaching winter temperatures.

Donald also worries about what the cold months will mean for the Inn. He’s also crossing his fingers for the new year.

As they have done at Scott Farm, couples who booked the Inn as a wedding venue have postponed to 2021.

“The Inn is holding on,” and in 2021, it will be “packed to the gills with weddings,” Donald says.

The federal stimulus funding, with its PPP program to pay staff, “saved our bacon,” he says. So have grants through the state: $50,000 grant for the cheese company and $150,000 for the inn.

Depending on how the organization progresses through the pandemic, the Windham Foundation may emerge “a smaller, more focused company in years to come,” Donald predicts.

Supporting businesses now, but keeping an eye on the future

“We prepared [early] to do more with less,” says Myles Mickle, who works at Village Square Booksellers in Bellows Falls. “So far, the numbers are good.”

Customers talk in the background as Mickle shares how the store adjusted to the pandemic.

While most of the sales now come from customers in the store, owner Pat Fowler turned to online sales and home delivery early in the pandemic, he says.

Fowler has also maintained a long relationship with the local schools and during the pandemic also filled orders for them.

Home delivery also became a popular option for customers, Mickle says, noting that the store delivered orders as far south as Dummerston and north to Springfield and Claremont, N.H.

Even with the store open again, Fowler still makes deliveries. Mickle says the option is very important to the store’s customers who are unable to come in.

Fowler also serves as treasurer for the Bellows Falls Downtown Development Alliance (BFDDA), the village’s designated downtown business organization, and has worked on several gift-card programs, Mickle says.

Publishers have warned Village Square Booksellers that the pandemic has disrupted their supply chain — for example, some book manufacturers have closed — and that quantities of some titles might be limited. Mickle suggests that book lovers not wait to do their winter or holiday shopping.

Recently elected BFDDA Board President Emmett Dunbar, who co-owns Canal Street Art Gallery with Michael Noyes, says that prior to the pandemic, the Bellows Falls economy was strong and projected to become stronger. The number of vacancies downtown had ebbed to the lowest since 2000.

“The one caveat [in that analysis] was unless the bottom falls out,” Dunbar says. “Well, COVID brought it to that reality.”

As in other regions, the businesses that have not closed permanently are still in various stages of reopening. And meanwhile, the pandemic has also brought surprises.

Dunbar says that in previous years, his gallery’s summer show with multiple artists has attracted the most visitors. This year, however, Noyes shifted to holding artist events online, and that approach also proved popular.

But during the pandemic, the artists’ solo shows have become the most popular. Dunbar attributes some of this success to the fact that, for solo shows, artists tend to activate their personal networks in addition to the gallery’s marketing.

Bellows Falls has remained active during the pandemic in its own way, Dunbar said. Thanks to the efforts of new BFDDA Executive Director Betsy Thurston, the organization received a $10,000 state grant which became a program “BF Bucks.”

Every local student received a $5 voucher to spend at participating local businesses, and families can use as many of these vouchers as they want at one time. Bellows Falls also participated in a statewide coupon program through the Agency of Commerce and Community Development.

Dunbar said the merchants are also shifting their holiday buy-local program to start earlier, encouraging people to start their holiday shopping now rather than in December.

Finally, Bellows Falls has received approximately $25,000 in state funding to revitalize “Light up BF,” its winter holiday lights program. This winter, the village will be “bright, sharp, and cheery,” he says.

“This winter is going to be tough,” he acknowledges, adding that he expects to have a fuller economic picture by Valentine’s Day.

Dunbar, however, is already looking beyond the pandemic.

Towns and their economies move through various up-and-down cycles, he said. He points out that 100 years ago, Bellows Falls was one of the wealthiest towns in Vermont. Dunbar believes it can be again, and that is the horizon he works toward.

Windham County can thrive in part because it is bordered by New Hampshire and Massachusetts, which connects it to additional economies, he said.

Dunbar is also excited about the influx of people — some new homeowners; others, second homeowners — to the area. The build-up of population will help the village, he said.

The area also has a lot of housing with more to come with the Windham & Windsor Housing Trust moving ahead with rehabilitating the former Bellows Falls Garage into a building with 26 units of mixed-income housing and commercial space on the ground floor.

“Bellows Falls is a great place with people who care,” Dunbar says.

Further financial support needed

As businesses ready for the winter, their workers share a common refrain: The economy still needs federal and state support.

Considering that not all households or businesses will recover at the same pace, another stimulus funding package in 2021 would help buffer Vermonters, they argue.

Funding from the federal CARES Act is set to expire in December, yet clear-eyed epidemiologists warn that the pandemic will last well beyond New Year’s Day.

Meanwhile, McDaniel and Bonin point out, most businesses are still operating at limited capacity.

Bonin highlights the economic and public-health duality of the pandemic — that the commercial activity to benefit one hurts the other — and how additional stimulus could help support both.

“We’re hamstringing businesses with occupancy numbers,” Bonin says.

“And we want to be a responsible part of containing this pandemic,” she says, “but numbers will tell this story, too.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #584 (Wednesday, October 21, 2020). This story appeared on page A1.

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