Sadie Housberg/The Middlebury Campus
Stroll down Main Street this afternoon and you may find a vastly different landscape from the downtown of semesters past.
The “For Sale,” “For Lease,” and “Markdowns up to 70% off” signs, as well as unfamiliar shop windows and the conspicuous rail bridge construction project are unavoidable.
The tide of stores closing or changing hands became apparent to many last spring with the departure of The Diner on Memorial Day (purchased by The Town Hall Theater) and rumors of the now-closed Carol’s Hungry Mind Café going out of business. Over the following months this surge of changes seems to have begun flooding in full-force.
On Aug. 7, owner John Melanson permanently closed Carol’s after an involved attempt on both his part and the part of many regular customers to save the business.
“These are people’s livelihoods, these are people that have worked hard to be a part of the downtown and they’ve participated in things and they’ve given a lot of themselves,” said Karen Duguay, executive director of the Better Middlebury Partnership (BMP), an organization committed to supporting local businesses through various events and programming in order to maintain a vibrant downtown and strong community.
Replenishing the caffeine market in Middlebury is Adam Shafer of Shafer’s Market & Deli, who launched The Daily Grind at Carol’s previous location at 24 Merchant’s Row. It will doubtless be difficult to say goodbye to some of these local fixtures and gathering places, and yet, at the same time Duguay said, she can’t help being encouraged by the businesses and individuals, like Shafer, who have stepped forward to fill in the voids left as storefronts close down.
“That’s what we need right now,” she said. “We need people willing to take a shot and to fill some of those gaps and I want to support them as best we can.”
The Daily Grind hopes to build a community hub similar to that fostered by Melanson at Carol’s Hungry Mind. Shafer will also continue to operate the popular Market & Deli on 54 College St.
A staple of Middlebury’s downtown, Otter Creek Bakery, at 14 College St. is also facing changes. The owners of the bakery, Sarah and Ben Wood have been looking for a potential buyer for some time now said David Donahue ’91, who chairs the Addison County Chamber of Commerce. Donahue is also chief of staff to President Laurie Patton and the college’s director of community relations.
“Ben and Sarah feel like they have had a good long run,” explained Donahue, adding that while they loved their business, they feel “it’s time for someone new, with new ideas and fresh energy to take over.”
Another tough goodbye for residents and students alike will be Ben Franklin at 63 Main St. The general store has been an essential part of the downtown since 1943, and yet due to economic hardship, this favorite catchall store will be forced to shut down. Like many small business owners across Vermont and the country, Andy Li, the current owner of the store, cited Amazon and other online retailers as part of his decision to close the business.
Middlebury Selectboard member Lindsey Fuentes-George echoed Li, saying that many businesses in Middlebury – like elsewhere – are struggling as people choose to purchase more online. In addition to these nationwide issues, Li elaborated on some economic challenges specific to downtown Middlebury. A lack of parking in the downtown area and the rail bridge construction near Merchant’s Row have put a damper on much of the area’s foot traffic, which, he said, is key to a small business owner’s success. The future of Ben Franklin after its sale remains unclear; however, Li hopes to see a similar retail or general store fill the storefront.
Clay’s Clothing at 60 Main St. had its last day of business on June 24. The boutique, founded by Kurt and Laura Reichelt, faced strains of a period of diminishing sales and the looming rail bridge construction, as first reported by The Addison Independent.
Green Mountain Shoe & Apparel in the Hannaford shopping center at 260 Court St. followed closely on the heels of Clay’s, officially closing its doors on August 31. Angie Wade and her husband Scott, who owned and operated the store for 21 years, moved to the Court Street location in order to increase customer-parking options, according to Donahue. Donahue also named online shopping as a cause of the decline in patronizing of local retail businesses such as Clay’s and Green Mountain Shoe & Apparel; the local stores struggle to match the lower prices and the free deliveries of Amazon Prime, Zappos and other larger chains.
Other changes include the opening of Foundation Salon & Spa, owned and operated by Jennifer Stocker, replacing Curve Appeal, which was a sex positive store for women at 32 Merchant’s Row. The new spa is located right next to The Daily Grind. Shafer and Stocker are a husband and wife business team.
Adding to the list of new ventures, Matt Corrente ’07, previously the head chef of Two Brothers Tavern, will be taking over The Lobby at 7 Bakery Lane. The new ownership could bring exciting transformations and Italian cuisine. The Campus will continue to report on this change as it develops.
“I will say that I think that as a community Middlebury is as relevant, community focused, and driven as any I’ve ever seen,” Duguay said. “I think that if any community is going to withstand some of these challenges and really thrive and flourish it’s Middlebury.”
Duguay is also the co-chair of Neighbors Together, a steering committee formed in 2014 by St. Stephen’s Church with the goal of identifying values important to the town’s community and creating action items to support those values. Some of those action items include: a revamp of the experiencemiddlebury.com website, various advertising campaigns like #middhiddengems on Instagram, movie and concert events and the Midd Money Match program, which is a local shopping rewards program. Additionally, Neighbors Together hopes to work towards long-term infrastructure projects like free WiFi in town and tax-free holidays during the heaviest parts of the rail bridge construction.
“I have faith in our community that we’re not going to let our downtown go anywhere, that we will survive this and that we will come back with a very vibrant and healthy community,” said Duguay.
She stressed, however, the importance of connecting with college students, encouraging the future addition of student positions to the BMP Board in order to receive their feedback.
“The college has a huge impact on many levels,” Donahue agreed, “and we are thinking of new and different ways that we can strengthen the connection between the town and college. When students choose to shop downtown or when students and their families make a point to stay local, that can make a real difference.”
“Because this is not just a downtown thing,” Duguay emphasized. “It affects everyone.”
Neighbors Together will be hosting the last outdoor movie screening of the summer this coming Friday, Sept. 14 at 7pm. The organization will be playing the Greatest Showman at College Park, across from Shafer’s Market.