Middlebury shops tough it out
MIDDLEBURY — Downtown Middlebury is taking some uppercuts during its summer-long battle with a once-in-a-lifetime construction project.
But those on the front lines — the downtown merchants, residents and shoppers — continue to pick themselves off the canvass and remain committed to going the full 15 rounds.
That’s the general takeaway from a series of interviews with property owners, residents and local officials who are literally living with the cacophony of noise, dust, nighttime lighting, detours and other inconveniences of a $72 million rail tunnel installation project that is now in its most aggressive phase.
We’re now in the midst of a 10-week shutdown of both Main Street and Merchants Row, while Kubricky Construction workers and a variety of subcontractors install a 360-foot concrete tunnel that will supplant two 1920s-era rail bridges.
Freight train traffic through Middlebury is being detoured during this period of around-the-clock construction that’s scheduled to stretch into mid-September.
All the construction commotion has understandably stemmed the usual summer splash of locals and tourists who visit the shops and restaurants adorning Main Street and its side streets. Those who make their livelihood from downtown commerce had been anticipating this disruption for a long time.
Then came a sucker punch from the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We knew this construction was happening and we planned for it,” Megan Mandigo, one of the owners of Parlour at 57 Main St., said while preparing her shop for customers on Monday morning. “It’s the COVID that caught us a little off-guard.”
Suddenly, Parlour and other area businesses this spring had to deal with a variety of customer service restrictions imposed by the state of Vermont and the Centers for Disease Control. Parlour closed March 16 and reopened June 1.
If there’s a silver lining, according to Mandigo, it’s that the pandemic and the downtown construction have occurred almost simultaneously.
“If we were going to have limited capacity for health reasons for COVID, I’m glad that construction is happening at the same time,” she said.
No Middlebury College summer school and reduced tourism have both reduced customer flow, Mandigo acknowledged. Again, looking at the brighter side, she said fewer visitors has meant closer parking opportunities for clients who are coming for services.
“In general, things are going fine,” she said. “It’s kind of what we anticipated with this construction — that (Main Street) would be closed.
“We’ll be excited when it’s finished,” Mandigo concluded.
She praised the town of Middlebury, the Better Middlebury Partnership (BMP) and other downtown stakeholders for their efforts in putting up way-finding signs, maps and other info that emphatically states shops, businesses and inns remain open for business. It just takes a little more effort to get to where you want to go.
TAKEOUT HAS BEEN BRISK
Nicole Green is a manager/chef at the Haymaker Bun Co. & The Arcadian, located at 7 Bakery Lane. She said takeout orders have been brisk, as have been Saturday dinner reservations. Other than Saturdays, there’s been little predictability when it comes to the dine-in scene.
“There’s been a lot of ebb and flow,” she said. “I think overall everyone is going through a difficult time.”
Haymaker/The Arcadian resumed lunch service on Tuesday, Aug. 4. Indoor dining, at limited capacity, is now allowed. The Arcadian is fortunate to also have an outdoor patio, where folks can dine in a socially-distanced manner while enjoying the views and sounds of the Otter Creek below.
“Things have been picking up,” Green said. “We’ve been running out of baked goods.”
John Wallace is owner of the Autumn Gold jewelry store at 61 Main St. He said his store, like others, is navigating through a challenging business atmosphere. And it’s doing so through stepped-up customer service.
“We’re still doing curbside deliveries, just because some people don’t want to go through town,” Wallace said. “We’ll meet (customers) at remote locations. We’ve even made some house calls.”
Customers, Wallace noted, have choices. And he wants them to make his store their top choice for all things jewelry.
“In order to keep them coming into Middlebury, we really need to be on our ‘A’ game, as far as customer service and accommodating them as best we can,” he said, adding, “This is all going to pass; we realize that. It’s going to be killer once the project is completed and the virus is eradicated.”
He praised Middlebury shoppers for responding to the needs of their local merchants.
“The people of Addison County have been amazing,” he said. “There have been several people going out of their way to say, ‘We need to shop here.’ They are realizing the hardship. It is so immensely appreciated, and I have heard that from other (local store-keeps).”
Abbey LeMay-West acquired the Vermont’s Own Products shop at 64 Main St. around two weeks ago. She made the investment based on the future, as opposed to the current COVID-construction climate.
“We know the construction is going to end,” she said, adding her business plan includes expanding her online sales of maple syrup, candies, crafts and other Vermont products.
“And we know once the construction ends, stores are going to be back up and Middlebury is going to be vibrant. It’s been a destination. It’s going to come back.”
Vermont’s Own reopened this past Saturday for the first time in four months. The store remained closed during the height of the pandemic, which had forced the exit of a big chunk of Vermont’s Own’s customer base: Middlebury College students and their families. LeMay-West was pleased to hear the college campus will be reopening this fall.
In the meantime, Vermont’s Own will cater to locals and tourists who don’t mind an eyeful and an earful of construction as they hop from shop to shop.
“I’ve been surprised by the number of out-of-state people I’ve seen,” LeMay-West said. “That, for us, has been hopeful.”
AT GROUND ZERO
It should be noted that not all downtown stakeholders have taken a grin-and-bear-it attitude toward the construction.
A few businesses have remained closed rather than try to gut it out amid the project turmoil.
Nedde Real Estate owns the sprawling Battell Block, a residential/retail/dining hub at the nexus of Merchants Row and Main Street. It’s a ground zero of the tunnel construction.
“It’s a disaster,” Doug Nedde said through an email exchange with the Independent.
“Our 29 residential tenants are suffering with 24/7 construction and even lack the basic access to the front door for moving purposes.”
He blasted the town of Middlebury’s leadership for “letting this project proceed.” He said problems for the Battell Block began during “prime business time” in the summer of 2017, when the two deteriorating rail bridges were removed and replaced with temporary spans.
Nedde called the project “ill-conceived,” resulting in the departure of seven business tenants since 2017, including two salons, two cafés, one retail store and two restaurants.
“My last standing restaurant, Sabai Sabai, is paying a much-reduced rent,” Nedde said, adding one of his tenants is suing Nedde Real Estate over the construction impacts.
“The current shutdown of downtown was again scheduled for the most profitable time of the year for the businesses — summer. As we have learned in 2017, most businesses cannot recover from two to three months of a closed downtown. In the meantime, the town has increased the Battell Block property taxes 35%, which puts more financial pressure on the commercial tenants and landlord.”
Nedde said the town was asked, but declined, to clean construction debris off Battell Block windows. And added he currently has “a claim, soon to be a suit, against the contractor for damaging the Battell Block from blasting and other infractions.”
Claire Cousineau resides in one of the Battell Block apartments. She agreed to stop for a quick interview Monday morning as she exited the building.
“The biggest pain is Main Street being closed, but everyone is kind of dealing with that,” she said.
She wears a mask at night to negate the glare of the project floodlighting. She said the nighttime noise “hasn’t been that bad.”
RETURN OF STUDENTS
Krystal Stocker is a manager at Shafer’s Market & Deli at 54 College St. She said business took a hit when Middlebury College students left campus last spring. She’s looking forward to their return. Meanwhile, she and her colleagues are appreciating continued support from locals, occasional tourists and construction workers.
Like other businesses, Shafer’s is going the extra mile to attract customers, through deliveries and other accommodations.
Jim Gish is Middlebury’s community liaison for the rail bridges project. He spends a lot of time walking through the construction zone and responding to community concerns about the project impacts. He updates the work through an almost-daily blog.
“There’s no question that central downtown is the major construction zone that we expected,” Gish said in an email to the Independent. “I think the project team and town officials have done a good job of preparing the community for this phase of construction and in keeping everyone informed. The steady and very visible progress toward a new downtown landscape I think has given the town confidence that the work will get done safely and on schedule. And the fact that this once-in-a-lifetime project is taking place right in front of us has brought many people downtown to watch and to imagine what downtown will look like at project end.”
He praised the Middlebury community for weathering the storm.
“It’s human nature to adapt to new situations and new challenges but I think our community has shown a remarkable resilience in weathering this project,” Gish said. “That’s especially true of the Water Street, South Pleasant Street and Seymour Street neighborhoods, the residents of the Battell Block and the Marble Works, our downtown business community, and our churches and cultural organizations.”
Mary Cullinane is co-owner of the Stone Mill in Frog Hollow, a building that hosts a variety of retail, office and lodging businesses.
“As a new business, comparisons are hard,” she said through an email. “However, we have been pleased with the number of people who have enjoyed the Stone Mill. It is becoming more than just a place to shop. With CSA flower and Vermont Book Shop online order pick-ups, along with the decks, picnic tables and our Saturday Public Markets, it is really becoming a place where the community can see their neighbors, have some fun, and do it all in a safe, beautiful, setting. We have greatly appreciated all the support and it has been fun collaborating with other local businesses as we all work through this.”
The BMP has sought to draw more people downtown with a series of promotions. Karen Duguay, executive director of the BMP, said those promotions have been paying off to the tune of $44,000 thus far, through a “Hidden Gems” contest, the “Great Middlebury Pig-Out” restaurants program, a “Gift Card Challenge,” and the “Love Middlebury” social media campaign. In all cases, participants are eligible for Middlebury Money as rewards that can be spent at local stores.
Check out the ExperienceMiddlebury.com website for more info on these and other upcoming promotions — including an “Addison County Fair Food Week,” from Aug. 11-15. During this time, participating local restaurants in Bristol, Vergennes and Middlebury will be serving up their most decadent spins on fair food — in light of the fact that the Addison County Fair & Field Days has been canceled this year due to COVID-19.
Reporter John Flowers is at email@example.com.