Sam’s Outdoor Outfitters closed its landmark Main Street store on April 14.
Jim Commentucci/Special to The Commons
Sam’s Outdoor Outfitters closed its landmark Main Street store on April 14.

Brattleboro wonders about the future of its downtown

‘We’re in a bit of a trough, but I see good signs,’ says one developer amid a churn of storefronts

BRATTLEBORO-Five years ago, this community received an early Christmas present with the November 2019 news of a proposed $30 million arts and apartment block for downtown.

"This project," Brattleboro Museum & Art Center director Danny Lichtenfeld said then of the priciest Main Street plan in local history, "will encourage enduring economic and civic vitality."

Four months later, the COVID-19 pandemic upended everything. The museum and its partners at M & S Development saw funding for their seven-story building dry up as neighboring businesses struggled to stay afloat.

Visit downtown today, and you'll see the scars of ever-changing times.

At the start of 2023, the 83-year-old mom-and-pop Hotel Pharmacy was felled by chain drug stores. Then last fall, the 150-year-old former Vermont National turned Chittenden, People's United, and finally M & T Bank closed due to consolidation.

And just this month, the 92-year-old Sam's Outdoor Outfitters shut the doors to its Brattleboro store after three generations of family operation.

"What's going to fill this?" one last-day Sam's shopper wondered aloud as he browsed the town's largest, longest-operating store - deemed by former Gov. Peter Shumlin as the Brattleboro equivalent of Macy's.

The loss of a landmark whose square footage equals half a football field comes as residents continue to complain about people asking for money on Main Street and more than a half-dozen nearby landlords are seeking to rent or sell space.

"We're getting some body blows," said Robert Stevens, a local engineer and head of M & S Development, which has worked on several projects in town as well as on the $56 million renovation of Bennington's Putnam Block.

But behind the scenes, Brattleboro leaders see a flip side. The retiring founders of several longtime shops, starting with the four-decade-old Everyone's Books, have successfully sold their businesses to new owners. Main Street's Crosby Block was just purchased by a Brooklyn buyer for $1 million, while the neighboring former M & T Bank building is under contract for a similar price, according to real estate agents.

"Where we are situated is a business and cultural hub," said Kate Trzaskos, executive director of the Downtown Brattleboro Alliance, which is opening its own storefront (at 57 Elliot St., previously the site of the Artrageus 1 gallery) and teaming with the local Chamber of Commerce to hire an economic development coordinator.

So is the proverbial glass half empty or half full?

As nearly two dozen other Vermont downtowns in the Main Street America support program face the same question, Brattleboro is searching for answers.

"It does seem like we're in a bit of a trough," Stevens said of his community, "but I see good signs in terms of coming out of it."

'Public spaces that draw people together'

The first seeds of what's now downtown Brattleboro sprouted more than 250 years ago, when the banks of the Connecticut River travel corridor and Whetstone Brook tributary attracted the first gristmill in 1762, store in 1771, and tavern in 1795.

"There was no miller to the mill," the late historian Mary Cabot wrote in the Annals of Brattleboro, "but settlers themselves could go and grind as they might have occasion."

The 1800s brought the railroad, more buildings, and many blazes, leading to a switch from wooden structures to the historic brick ones that stand today, after the Great Fire of 1869 incinerated half of central downtown.

Main Street had morphed into the north-south Route 5 when national chains began to build their own standalone stores there, including the onetime household names of Montgomery Ward in 1929, A&P in 1939, and Woolworth's in 1956. But soon after the arrival of Interstate 91 in 1960, such retailers moved out to roads nearer the exit ramps.

As internet shopping opportunities have increased, multigenerational downtown businesses have closed, including the 95-year-old Mann's clothing store in 1996, the 86-year-old Baker's newsstand in 2011, and the 95-year-old Galanes sporting goods store turned souvenir shop just last month.

Stevens first witnessed the problem shortly after moving to the area nearly four decades ago. The engineer then became a part of the solution by working on downtown's two most recent developments: the $10 million Brattleboro Food Co-op and affordable housing complex that opened in 2012, and the Brooks House business and apartment block, which was gutted by a 2011 fire and revived with a $23 million restoration in 2014.

"Twenty-first-century community development must include not only housing, restaurants, retail, and offices but cultural and public spaces that draw people together," Stevens said in announcing the museum's proposed $30 million building in 2019. "We know that investing in vibrant downtowns creates jobs, increases property values, and attracts young families."

Stevens still believes that, even after the latter project fell through. But he recognizes how online ordering and video conferencing have changed the community's commercial center.

'You have to break the old to have the new'

The museum never did expand its downtown footprint, but many locals still see the area's future as tied to the creative economy.

A nonprofit now owns and operates Main Street's oldest surviving business, the 1938 Latchis Theatre, whose four-story building also features a hotel, pub, and shops.

Artists are sharing space in multiple ways. The former W. T. Grant store at 181–183 Main St. now hosts a gallery and schools for photography and dance. A nearby century-old High Street block features studios for woodworking, printmaking, and pottery. And some 30 craftspeople operate the adjacent Harmony Collective store.

"It provides an opportunity for all that none could have done alone," Trzaskos said of the latter group.

Such creativity extends to the town's former First Baptist and All Souls Unitarian Universalist buildings - now the Epsilon Spires and Stone Church performance spaces, respectively - and a coming Pliny Park mural project in which residents are donating cracked ceramics to turn into a wall-size mosaic.

"It's really symbolic in a lot of ways," Trzaskos said of the downtown mural. "You have to break the old to have the new."

An immediate need: housing

Although real estate agents report local demand for retail and office space is weak, a recent municipally sponsored housing action plan found immediate need for more than 500 residential units.

In response, the state has awarded tax credits to convert much of Main Street's TD Bank building into 14 market-rate apartments and neighboring Flat Street's century-old DeWitt Block into 15 apartments, including studios and one- and two-bedroom units.

"The more people [there are] living downtown," Stevens said, "the more people will spend money on the first floor."

The engineer rewinds back to the day after the Brooks House burned in 2011. He was hired to accompany emergency responders to determine if Main Street's biggest block was stable and salvageable.

"Everything was so wet," he recalled. "The building was literally weeping."

Stevens didn't know that months later, he would buy the smoldering shell of the five-story cornerstone, piece together a rebuilding plan, and reopen to a Vermont Life cover story headlined "Miracle on Main Street."

"We have cycles, good times and bad times," he said this month. "Downtown is in a low spot now, and it feels a little harder this time."

Then again, the Brooks House, relying on a mix of storefronts, meeting spaces, and apartments, is fully rented for the first time since its rebirth.

"With a large number of small businesses, you have diversity and that gives you some resilience," Stevens said.

"We keep getting knocked down, but we keep getting back up. People are willing to have faith, take a risk and put their sweat and equity into reinvestment," he added.

He finds that encouraging.

"When we don't get back up, that's when we have to worry," Stevens said.

This News item by Kevin O'Connor originally appeared in VtDigger and was republished in The Commons with permission.

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