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The interior of the Robert H. Gibson River Garden prior to its 2013 sale to Strolling of the Heifers. The nonprofit expects to sell the building, a community space since 2001.

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A new beginning for a community space

Prospective owners seek to transform the River Garden into food and event space as the future of a dormant Strolling of the Heifers is in question

BRATTLEBORO—With a closing scheduled for July 14, the River Garden, at 157 Main St., is poised to have new ownership.

The team behind the Whetstone Station Restaurant and Brewery plans to purchase the approximately-6,000-square-foot building and patio from the nonprofit Strolling of the Heifers.

Co-owner Tim Brady said the restaurant and brewery, at 36 Bridge St., has needed a space for larger events for some time since it is not configured to host celebrations such as wedding receptions.

Turning the River Garden into such as space felt like helping it “reach its destiny,” he said.

Plans for the new business, River Garden Marketplace, include installing a craft beer bar and a craft marketplace for vendors from Vermont and neighboring areas, he said.

The space would also feature live music and host functions in the building’s lower floor, which currently houses the Strolling of the Heifer’s offices.

The business also hopes to use the building’s kitchen as an incubator space for new restaurants. New chefs can highlight their creations and offer a rotating menu, Brady said.

He said the goal is to open the new craft space by Labor Day, with the doors open on Thursdays through Mondays from noon to 8 p.m. on weekdays and later on the weekends.

At its July 6 meeting, the Selectboard approved the Whetstone team’s applications for a first-class liquor license and entertainment permit.

Brady said the team expects the beer bar to help pay the bills while the food, marketplace, and live events will provide a “cool environment” for people.

According to Brady, Whetstone is partnering with Main Street Flea, a group of local makers and craftspeople.

Main Street Flea was one of the recipients in the recent round of funding from the Town Arts Fund. According to the Arts Council of Windham County’s website, the group’s members host a monthly market in Harmony Lot as part of Gallery Walk.

The collective’s Facebook page describes it as a “diverse group of artists and makers bring Harmony Lot alive” with “pottery, jewelry, fabric design, clothing, scrimshaw, woodwork, spells, herbs, vintage, and more.”

In a press release, Main Street Flea organizer KariLyn McLellan announced the Marketplace’s call for vendors for the River Garden and provided an application form.

McLellan, however, declined an interview, saying “thank you, but it’s too early” to talk.

“We are very close to being ready to speak with the press but not quite there yet,” she wrote.

Future uncertain for Strolling of the Heifers

Orly Munzing, founder of Strolling of the Heifers, also declined to provide additional information.

“It’s not a done deal until you sign the papers,” she said in a phone call.

Once the deal closes on the property, Munzing said, Strolling will hold a news conference and talk about the future of the organization, which suspended most of its operations last October.

The River Garden has been closed since March 2020.

Known for its annual downtown parade and festival celebrating local agriculture, the Strolling of the Heifers purchased the building in 2013.

The building had been operated by Building a Better Brattleboro, now the Downtown Brattleboro Alliance.

The designated downtown organization for state community economic development programs purchased the building, which a former Rite-Aid drugstore, in 1999.

Strolling of the Heifers made several improvements, including installing a new kitchen and building offices and meeting space in the basement. It kept the doors open as a public resource, providing use of bathrooms and wireless internet service, it displayed local art, and it rented the space as a venue for community events and private functions.

The pandemic forced the cancellation of the parade, which served as the organization’s primary fundraiser.

A belt tightening followed for the organization, which included letting go of the majority of its staff. It also ended its other programs, such as a small business start-up incubator program and a food service apprenticeship program.

“I think it’s going to be good,” Munzing said of Whetstone’s plans for the River Garden. “I think it’s going to be great for the town, and I wish them all the best.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #621 (Wednesday, July 14, 2021). This story appeared on page A1.

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