BRATTLEBORO — A cautious sense of optimism pervades downtown Brattleboro. I know. I asked. This is my report.
Optimism is good news, because during the pandemic, as Windham County residents faithfully quarantined, downtown took some heavy hits.
Most of its restaurants closed. The Strolling of the Heifers parade vaporized, as did its offices, leaving the River Garden, in the center of town, empty. Important retail stores also disappeared, leaving other empty storefronts - and empty storefronts are a harbinger of downtown decay.
Brooks Memorial Library, which had become a lively community center, closed its doors and severely restricted access, leaving lonely librarians holding conversations with one another across an open, empty floor.
The town's inordinately large population of people experiencing homelessness was housed in the town's empty motels - temporarily. And the opioid crisis, with its tragic overdose deaths, continued behind closed doors. While it was hard to get a freshly baked loaf of bread on Main Street, you did seem to be able to get a fix.
In addition, the town lost its longtime police and fire chiefs, and its deeply admired and respected town manager announced he will retire at the end of the year. When all a town's leaders leave, people tend to wonder if it can remain viable.
However, a new fire chief rose from the ranks, and the town just swore in a new police chief - an African-American woman who comes from New York City. A nationwide search is currently underway for a new town manager. The library has reopened.
And life is slowly returning to Main Street.
I should first say that I'm using the term “Main Street” as a catchall; to me, it encompasses the area that runs from the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center (BMAC), Whetstone Station Restaurant and Brewery, and the Brattleboro Food Co-op on the southern end of town, past the Latchis Theatre and Hotel, past all the stores and restaurants on Main, Elliot and High streets, and past the River Garden, Mitchell-Giddings Fine Arts, and the performance space Epsilon Spires.
It kind of ends for me at the library, where the Municipal Center, the courthouse, and Wells Fountain all meet. Beyond that is the Town Common and the confluence of the West and the Connecticut rivers.
* * *
At the “downtown” end of downtown, BMAC is expecting nothing less than a renaissance.
Just before the pandemic hit, the museum purchased two buildings on the opposite side of the Whetstone Brook and started making plans to expand. When the pandemic hit, it not only had to shut its doors but scale back fundraising.
However, things were buzzing in that slice of town before the pandemic, and they still are. Covid didn't stop the planning for the long-awaited new bridge over the Connecticut River, the one that will replace the two mouldering bridges and one bumpy road we have connecting Vermont with New Hampshire.
The museum sits at the nexus of the bridge; Vernon, Main, and Canal streets; Route 119; and the train tracks - the complex intersection often called “Malfunction Junction.” The new bridge will open a lot of this area to recreation. Plus, Amtrak is planning to build a new train station across from its current one.
All this activity makes BMAC executive director Danny Lichtenfeld very happy.
“Five years from now, with the river recreation, the new bridge, and recreational use of the old bridge, the new train station, a cleared up Malfunction Junction, and the museum expansion, this is going to be amazing down here,” he told me recently.
The museum is going ahead with fundraising for the expansion, he said, which will add gallery and exhibition space as well as housing to the area.
“It was never a given that we were [going to be] able to pull it off,” he said. “The conventional wisdom is that you don't share the dream until you're able to pull it off. But we did. Then we paused with the pandemic.”
“In the past few months, we've decided to resume our efforts to trying to make it happen,” Lichtenfeld said.
From where he's sitting, downtown seems to be opening up.
“The Co-op is a big improvement over what it was, and Whetstone Station is really thriving,” he said, despite his impression that “a lot of businesses got hit hard.”
“I see vacancies where there used to be businesses, and I imagine some are not going to come back,” he said.
But he also sees other businesses “cropping up and moving in.”
“I continue to think that some of the strengths that Brattleboro has, that its future rests upon, are still its strengths,” Lichtenfeld said.
These strengths include being a small, community-minded, arts-invested, culturally sophisticated Vermont town not too far away from the major metropolitan hubs of the Northeast.
“There are people who, because of the pandemic, have learned they don't have to live in New York City anymore,” Lichtenfeld said. “But they want to have a really vibrant downtown life in a place like Vermont.”
“There have been dramatic changes since the pandemic,” he noted. “There have been winners and losers. But I don't think Brattleboro will be left by the wayside. I feel optimistic about our neck of the woods.”
* * *
The Latchis Hotel and the Latchis Theatre, which have been downtown mainstays since the late 1930s, survived the pandemic with creative panache. But for a long time, the executive director of the two projects' umbrella nonprofit, Latchis Arts, Inc., Jon Potter was a lonely man.
“Many days, I was the only one here,” he said. “It was weird and creepy. Many days, I was just hoping for the better days that are here now.”
Money from state grants and the federal Paycheck Protection Program supported the for-profit hotel payroll, while over at the nonprofit movie theater, patrons donated money to keep the theaters afloat.
“At the worst, we lost 96 percent of our income for several months in a row,” Potter said. “And we have to take care of an old and beloved building - and that asks a lot of us.”
Things are far, far better now.
“Not unlike a lot of people in the hospitality business, we've just been booming since Memorial Day weekend,” Potter said. “It's been like a firehose. We went from light to moderate to full-on seasonal. We're ahead of pre-Covid levels in June and July. It's all rolled in, and it's wonderful to be busy again.”
During the pandemic, the Latchis's four theaters were closed. So in a brilliant stroke of marketing, Potter rented them out for private parties.
“Renting was an absolute godsend,” he said.
More than 400 people rented the theaters to celebrate family milestones like birthdays and anniversaries. There was one marriage proposal. Families showed their old home movies on the big screen. Friends got together to watch Hollywood classics. Potter offered video gaming in Latchis 4, “which turned out to be pretty perfect,” he said.
The rents are affordable - $50 for the small theater, $125 for the main theater - and this helped people see the Latchis in a new light.
“You could customize your Latchis experience and make it personal,” Potter said. “It brought us in touch with people's lives in a way that a typical movie experience might not.”
The Latchis plans to continue the rental program, “because it's very clearly a great way we can serve the public and the community,” Potter said.
* * *
It's hard not to mourn the number of empty storefronts.
RIP Dottie's, where the Co-op discounted its almost-out-of-date merchandise.
RIP the popular Amy's Bakery Arts Café (however, it may be back shortly).
RIP Delectable Mountain, whose owner, Jan Norris, in a feat of good timing, decided to retire just before the pandemic hit.
RIP Thai Bamboo, which has inexplicably sat empty for almost two years, its napkins folded, its tables set.
RIP Twin Flames Taqueria.
RIP Turquoise Grille, now consolidated into next door's Tulip Cafe.
RIP Renaissance Antiques, but its sister store, Renaissance Fine Jewelry, is still there - by appointment only, for now.
Welcome back, Gallery in the Woods!
Over on Elliot Street, the only problem faced by Everyone's Books is getting books. “Suppliers are slower than they've ever been,” said owner Nancy Braus.
Business is good and, in general, people have been pouring into downtown, Braus said.
“We'll see what happens, but we have tons of people coming in,” she said. “Americans are angry at the right wing for trying to overthrow our democracy. Brattleboro is a place where people feel that democracy is safe.”
It's good to see new places on Elliot Street, such as the Harmony Collective Artist Gallery and the Collective, a restaurant and soon-to-be bar (waiting for a liquor license) that doubles as a community space.
There's even a new gourmet take-out restaurant, NCK Community Kitchen, where chef Nicole Reisman is already a community hero. During the pandemic, she started Nicole's Community Kitchen and gave away the gourmet food she cooked.
“Then, when the donations stopped for that, I decided to open this for-profit,” Reisman said. “I fell in love with this community by feeding them, and that's why I wanted to continue to do this.”
Reisman cooks Moroccan, Korean, French, Middle Eastern, Thai, and even American food. When things calm down more, she plans to offer private dinners specializing in some of these exotic foods.
When she landed in Brattleboro, Reisman didn't even know that she longed for community. “I didn't know that was important to me,” she said. “But now that I have it, I know it means everything to me.”
Reisman's new place is in the same building as Peter Havens, Brattleboro's well-known high-end luxury restaurant. But Peter Havens is now for sale.
“I'm just looking for a change,” said owner-chef Zachary Corbin. “I've been in fine dining for the last 25 years, and I've had Peter Havens for the last nine. And I have a beautiful 5-year-old daughter I'd like to spend more time with. And I would like to simplify.”
Corbin said that people have been looking at the restaurant with an eye towards buying it, but it hasn't been on the market very long.
And in the meantime, “we're busier than we've ever been,” he said.
High Street also offers an unexpected new shopping experience. At 2 High St., you will find Blass Bidet of Brattleboro, with a row of gleaming white bidets inside.
Speaking of home furnishings, the town's several design and craft stores are reporting good business. One reason has been the active sale, during the pandemic, of expensive area homes to people who wanted a safe haven from Covid.
One store owner told me privately, “People bought all these homes; now they have to furnish them.”
* * *
Vermont Artisan Designs, which sells art and crafts, and high-end kitchenware next door at Kitchen Sync, has been a downtown mainstay for a long time. Co-owner Greg Worden is a well-known optimist.
Coming through the pandemic was difficult, Worden told me.
“We said thank you for every day,” he said. “We had to lay people off, unfortunately, because there was no work for them to do. As we gradually reopened, curbside, we had hand sanitizer and masks and plenty of room to socially distance - which is one of the nice things about the gallery.”
Worden and his wife, Susan, kept the business going for six or seven months by themselves, then gradually brought back staff.
“There's lots to be grateful for,” Worden said. “Brattleboro, overall, was pretty fortunate.”
One “big thing,” Worden said, was that the Downtown Brattleboro Alliance launched the Everyone Eats program, an innovative economic stimulus program that doubled as a way to combat food insecurity during a pandemic.
“That was a big thing,” he said. “It gave money to the local farmers and producers who provide food to the restaurants, and it gave prepared food to people who needed it.”
“Also, local people were very good about shopping locally when they could,” Worden added. “We're grateful for that.”
The pandemic was a new experience for everyone, Worden pointed out. Things could have gone either way.
“But the downtown has fared pretty well,” he said. “A few people retired just prior to the pandemic, which was insightful. The rest of us are still moving along. There aren't that many empty storefronts, and they are starting to fill up again.”
The downtown region also has its share of challenges.
People who have had a roof over their heads during the pandemic through the state's emergency motel program are now finding themselves back on the street, though the new Groundworks Collaborative's South Main Street Drop-In Center has opened and provides 24-hour shelter for up to 34 people a night, seven days a week.
“And drugs are a problem [all towns have],” Worden said. “It will be interesting to see how the new police chief takes that on. I imagine that would be something of a priority.”
But “Vermont is obviously the place to be,” Worden said. “We have water. We don't have wildfires. And the sun is shining today.”
“Sure, there are going to be bumps where you would like to see people do better, but our community addresses a lot of the problems as best we can - and probably better than a lot of places.”
* * *
Moving farther north, where High Street meets Main Street, the arts are also fermenting.
Hatchspace, a nonprofit “dedicated to sharpening an appreciation for the work of human hands through the learning, practice, and teaching of woodworking,” has moved from Frost Street to its own building on the corner of High and Green streets.
The building, which once housed the Brattleboro School of Dance, also houses 16 artist studios, Wheelhouse Clay Center, and Bario Neal Jewelry Designers, among other places. The Vermont Center for Photography is moving into expanded renovated space here from its longtime headquarters on Flat Street.
“The location is ideal,” said Amanda Kenyon, co-executive managing director of Hatchspace's finance and development. “It gives us an opportunity to bolster the makers and craftspeople in one location. Our hope is the building will have a sense of place and attract more people who want to do crafts.”
The building was bought by Hatchspace co-founders Tom Bodett and Rita Ramirez.
“Tom taking ownership of the building was what enabled Hatchspace to move here, and he is really committed to doing a lot of work to improve the building,” Kenyon said. “The really exciting thing for Hatchspace is that we've had more demand for our classes and workshops than we could keep up with.”
Across the street, the River Garden, former home of Strolling of the Heifers, has been sold.
Whetstone Station now owns the River Garden, and its people are hard at work putting a crafts market into the space, which the restaurant will also use for occasional concerts and events.
According to Roger Allbee, the acting chair of the board of Strolling of the Heifers, the nonprofit will turn its focus to creating TerraVillam, a new institute for dairy technology and innovation with the goal of “helping to advance sustainability for smaller farms.”
“Because most of the dairy farms are small to mid-sized - and as a group constitutes a critical volume of milk production - there is a unique opportunity to find and develop technologies and innovative solutions specific to the needs of the Vermont dairy farmer,” Allbee, who served as secretary of agriculture from 2007 to 2010, wrote in an email announcing the project.
A few doors down the street, Mitchell-Giddings Fine Arts made it through the pandemic and, over the summer, had two hit shows in a row.
The gallery's last two shows - two retrospectives - “did quite well, and it's really because of the artists - what they are and who they are,” said co-owner Petria Mitchell.
Mitchell-Giddings sold 60 pieces by Jackie Abrams, a Brattleboro artist who staged a show that the artist, who has a late-stage cancer diagnosis, intended as her last.
“It's very tender,” Mitchell said. “We're not just trying to sell work because it's a beautiful painting, but celebrating a life in art.”
“People came from all over the country to see her show,” she added, noting that Abrams is “known all over the world, and it's an honor to know her and her work.”
The current show is “Homer Johnson: Dappled Light,” featuring the works of Johnson, who died in 1995.
“I wanted to do this for his family,” Mitchell said. “It's gotten a lot of attention, and we've sold 29 pieces. It's work that's really affecting people.”
“It's an intimate experience to buy something and live with it because it's meaningful,” she said. “We went way beyond meeting expenses, and we're just so humbled by that. It's such a joy to know the gallery is solvent at the moment and being as relevant as it could [be].”
The building that houses the Mitchell-Giddings gallery will also soon be home to the Brattleboro School of Dance, in case you were wondering where it went.
This is just a quick snapshot of activity. While downtown Brattleboro has lost some and won some, and there's still a need for places to eat and - especially - to drink, people are certainly coming out.
Last week's Gallery Walk was full of energy. Lots of crafts vendors, food carts, live music, stores, and people, lots of people - especially lots of young people.
“We made it through,” Mitchell said. “It's scary to know people have retired, and it's hard to find people to work. But it's a very exciting time.”