At a time of downtown business transition, conversations turn to affordability

How you define affordability depends on who is doing the defining

PUTNEY — The Aug. 14 meeting in Putney came after news hit the Facebook-sphere that multiple downtown businesses had decided to close or relocate, including Ruggles & Hunt, Candle in the Night, Windham Movement Apparel, Walking with Wolves, Traveling Treasures, ArtRAGEus1, and Twin Flames Taqueria.

Speculation around the closings has ranged from the downtown rents being too high, to shop owners catering to tourists and discounting the needs of local consumers, to people not having enough disposable income.

In reality, the stores are closing for a variety of reasons - some personal, some financial.

Candle in the Night owner Donna Simons is retiring. Windham Movement Apparel is changing its business model to eliminate a bricks-and-mortar retail presence.

In a post on its Facebook page, Twin Flames Taqueria announced the abrupt closing of the restaurant, attributing the business failure to onerous repayment terms of an unsustainable business loan.

And in a Viewpoint, Victoria Gohl, owner of Ruggles & Hunt, cited multiple instances of customers feeling uncomfortable with the overall climate downtown, with complaints ranging from older patrons being asked for money on the street to the intensity of town parking enforcement.

“In 2018, my Brattleboro business was down significantly and if the trend continues, my business will not exist in 2020,” Gohl wrote in the piece, published a few weeks before she announced the closing of her store.

But one thread that has emerged in conversations about local retailing is the issue of affordability.

When it comes to affordability, there's no one answer

Of all of Gov. Phil Scott's top three priorities [see main story] - economic development, making Vermont more affordable, and protecting the most vulnerable - the second seems to have the most working definitions.

Some lawmakers, such as Democratic Brattleboro State Rep. Tristan Toleno, have argued that the governor's definition of “affordability” centers more on making the state affordable for businesses rather than residents.

Outgoing Agency of Commerce & Community Development Secretary Michael Schirling said that the governor's office evaluates Vermont's affordability using a number of metrics, ranging from the cost of housing to electric rates to business development.

Schirling said that the governor's policy against levying new taxes or fees is one way to reduce the burden on Vermonters. Modernizing how the state delivers education and stabilizing education-tax rates are other measures to make the state more affordable.

“There's no one answer,” he said.

Vermont's economic strings knot together so that when it costs a lot to do business, those costs impinge wages. That, in turn, makes it harder to recruit workers, Schirling continued.

Economic development requires “a long view,” and lawmakers - and residents - must be prepared to make policy that has “no end result for years,” he said.

Stephanie Bonin, executive director of the Downtown Brattleboro Alliance, said that there “was no silver bullet cause” for so many downtown businesses to close at once, but she believes that a lack of marketing of the downtown played a part. Efforts are underway for the DBA and the Brattleboro Area Chamber of Commerce to retain a firm to develop a new strategy.

“That's why so much of the discussion [at the Putney meeting] was about marketing and signs,” Bonin said. “How do we get more visitors in our towns?”

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