WEST BRATTLEBORO—A group of West Brattleboro residents hopes to grow the village’s community, one cup of coffee at a time.
A group of eight residents is eyeing half of the first floor of the Stockwell Building as the future home of a café and art gallery. Panda West restaurant occupies the other half of the first floor.
The building, at 911 Western Ave., sits near the West Brattleboro green. Approximately five potential sites occupy the group’s list.
The group, loosely called West Brattleboro Partners, aims to create a place where residents, tourists traveling Route 9, and the arts community can meet, mingle, and build a sense of community.
The partners started meeting in late August, shortly after Gillies Seafood & Steakhouse closed.
The Stockwell building once housed a grocery store, said group members Michael Bosworth and Doug Cox.
“West Brattleboro is ready to be a little more identifiable and out there,” said group member and violinmaker Cox, who added that the café’s purpose would go beyond serving coffee and baked goods.
“What is our village?” said Cox. “What is the place we belong to?”
These questions are important, said Cox. The answers point toward the developing West Brattleboro community and identity.
West Brattleboro, a community of residents and visitors, has a complicated story to tell, he added.
West Brattleboro lacks public gathering spaces, said Cox: The area has churches and spaces such as Academy School, but is short on “neutral” or “natural” places for people to meet, gather, and allow the sense of community to “grow organically.”
Tropical Storm Irene in 2011 provided a “clear wake-up call” for West Brattleboro, said Cox.
Flooding from the storm severed portions of West Brattleboro from itself.
The Irene experience showed the village that “the sense of total community wasn’t as strong as we thought it was,” said Cox.
Overall, the partners look to build a more resilient community through projects like the café, said Cox.
As the idea for the café develops, Bosworth said, the partners remain open to other suggestions that ensure the café grows into a successful and viable gathering place and business.
The group envisions the café, at this initial stage, will provide local food and farm products, and showcase local art. Community activities such as movie and pizza nights and book groups are part of the vision.
“It seems to us as a combination that seems to work,” said Cox.
Initially, said Bosworth, the Stockwell Building owner received permission from the town to convert the commercial space into residential apartments.
The village represents the heart of West Brattleboro’s commercial zone, said Bosworth. If the village lost the Stockwell space, it would effectively halt businesses in the village.
There’s an overabundance of convenience stores and gas stations, said Bosworth, but few other forms of business in West Brattleboro.
Cox and Bosworth said the group has batted around other ideas, including founding the café as a nonprofit.
The partners have started advertising to fill a paid manager position. So far, the partners have spoken with 10 applicants.
Interest in the manager position has come from far afield. There’s been little interest from the Brattleboro area so far, said Cox.
The Southern Vermont and Brattleboro names have a cachet for the out-of-town applicants, he added.
“We still have a very salable product in southern Vermont” and Brattleboro, Cox said.
Both men said the partners sought applicants with managerial skills, and also entrepreneurs looking to launch a café.
Bosworth and Cox said capital for the project likely will come from private investment.
“[This is where] community mindedness comes in,” said Bosworth.
There is room to park behind the Stockwell Building. But the project organizers said they hope to push toward traffic-calming measures, making parking across the street and crossing Route 9 less daunting.
The town has recently received money to study traffic and pedestrian issues between Academy School and Greenleaf Street, said Bosworth.
The group has considered approximately six other sites for the café, including the former Sunny’s Deli and Bakery Café on Western Avenue, and sites further west on Marlboro Road.
The Stockwell Building holds the most central and iconic place in the village, Cox noted.
The town plan for Amherst, Mass., has provided inspiration for the group, said Cox. The town has decided to develop multiple small village units rather than pull all residents, college students, and visitors into a single town center.
Each village center in Amherst will have its own identity and serve the surrounding community’s needs, said Cox.
West Brattleboro village does not want to secede from Brattleboro, said Cox. Instead, the village hopes to build its own identity within the larger community.
Project organizers hope to open the café come spring. They will identify a manager and business model first before preparing the café space.
The café stands at the starting line. Cox said he hopes that more ideas will surface as the project progresses.