For Jacksonville store, a new way forward
Under a mural depicting the agricultural heritage of Whitingham, residents gathered at the Jacksonville Municipal Center to share ideas about the future of the Jacksonville General Store.

For Jacksonville store, a new way forward

Community members concerned about the fate of their local market get a pleasant surprise: buyers for the Jacksonville General Store who are planning a headfirst dive into stewardship of a community institution

JACKSONVILLE — The Jacksonville General Store will have new owners later this autumn - news that sparked a round of applause from the more than 50 people gathered in the Municipal Center last week for an ice-cream social and to discuss the store's future.

Heather Hebert and Jason Klump await the final paperwork to transfer the general store to their ownership as they plan to take control of the 165-year-old community institution at the end of October.

Their intent to purchase the store came as a surprise announcement at the Sept. 24 community meeting, which was originally part of a grassroots initiative to secure the future of the store, which had been on the market.

Hebert and Klump were among the audience who heard the results of a community survey compiled by a grassroots group, the Friends of the Jacksonville Store.

At the time of the meeting, rumors had started to spread around the village that the current proprietors, Pamela Pease and Jack Keefe, had found new owners - and the rumors proved true as, in its final act, the Friends group introduced Hebert and Klump.

Hebert told the audience that, “We've discussed a lot of what was said already and agreed with what was said.”

“We both think its very important for us to support the local community and for them to support us,” Hebert said. “But there's not one group that's more important in my mind, whether it's a second-home owner or a community member.”

“We're happy to take everybody's money,” Klump added in good jest.

He thanked the audience members for their feedback.

“I've lived in a lot larger towns and had not as many people at Town Meeting,” he said. “And I noticed that no one got up and left during the meeting so, obviously, there's a lot of support.”

The couple's young daughter, Catori, looked up from her toys and announced, “Mommy's going to be the boss.”

Hebert pointed to Catori saying, “There's the boss.”

In a separate interview, Hebert said one of the reasons she wants to own a business is so she can bring her daughter to work.

She said that she has always wanted to own a general store and is diving into the venture headfirst.

“I've always wanted to do it, I want to be part of the community, and I think it's going to be an adventure,” she said. “I have a thousand ideas in my head.”

Hebert said the first thing she wants to do at the store is improve the building's accessibility.

“I don't want anybody to use a separate entrance,” she said. “I want everybody to use the same front entrance.”

Hebert said she wants the general store to be a place where everyone wants to go. She said sometimes she feels that prices in the area run high because people have nowhere else to shop. She pledged the Jacksonville General Store would operate differently.

“This is not a get-rich scheme,” she said.

Making plans

After Pease and Keefe put the business on the market, citizens concerned about the fate of the store formed the Friends group.

With Pease and Keefe making plans to return to Maine to care for family, the Friends sought to gather data on what the community wanted from a general store rather than recruit potential buyers. The group started meeting in March and explored different business models, including how the store might be run as a member-owned cooperative.

Before Hebert and Klump decided to purchase the store, which they did independently of the Friends' efforts, the group reached out for support to the Preservation Trust of Vermont [see companion story, this issue].

The group also created an online survey to solicit community feedback.

More than 200 people answered the survey. Of those who responded, most lived in Whitingham. Halifax residents also called the store home, with a handful of residents from Wilmington stopping by.

Approximately 75 percent of the survey respondents identified as homeowners, with 16 percent identifying as second-home owners. A few people identified as visitors passing through town.

Of those who answered, approximately 60 percent shopped at the store at least twice a week.

Respondents said that the store's fresh meat selection, deli, and prepared food were important services. Audience members who work in town said they regularly visited the store to buy lunch.

Approximately 60 percent of the survey respondents marked the store's fresh-baked goods as important or very important. The audience members felt that percentage was too low.

Respondents showed enthusiastic support for the store's fresh bread and pies. Dairy products were also key items for those who participated in the survey and those in the audience.

Beer and wine seemed less important to the survey respondents, but audience members questioned whether those products could attract interest from visitors. Several audience members shared ideas on how to get more of the visitors passing by on the way to Mount Snow to stop and shop.

The top reasons people listed for not visiting the store included prices, selection, hours, and parking.

Some audience members discussed spiffing up the store's façade. Others suggested better marketing and extended weekend hours. Some people suggested more prepared dinners.

After the meeting, Hebert said she appreciated the audience's comments and the survey results. She appreciated hearing the community's support for the store and to have what essentially amounted to market research.

Many of the suggestions aligned with her own to-do list, said Hebert, who added that she wants to see how the business develops before exploring more complex suggestions, such as creating a buying club.

The Jacksonville General Store, which sits at the junction of Routes 100 and 112, has operated since 1854. According to a now-dormant real-estate listing on LoopNet, a marketplace for commercial and investment real estate, the present building was built in 1890 and offers just over 5,000 square feet.

The property had listed for $389,000 before it was removed as an active listing, according to the website of the Masiello Group,

In addition to the storefront, the building includes two apartments.

With the closure of the Whitingham General Store more than five years ago, the Jacksonville store is the last general store in town. People would otherwise have to travel to Wilmington, Brattleboro, Shelburne Falls, Mass., or Greenfield, Mass., for provisions.

Karen Hein, a member of the Friends committee, said she will miss working with the ad hoc group. The committee represented to her how much “community caring there is, you just need to give it ways to come out.”

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