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Downtown Morristown battles setbacks

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2012-05-24

By Lisa McCormack

Last summer, it seemed downtown Morristown was about to experience a renaissance.

• Two affordable-housing agencies signed a contract to buy and renovate three empty buildings that had housed Arthur’s Department Store. Shops, restaurants and office space would be downstairs; 18 affordable apartments would fill the two upper stories. Ben and Jerrys (Medium Rectangle)

• Owners of several empty storefronts on Portland Street received state tax credits to renovate their buildings.

• The United Way bought an empty building, intending to rent the downstairs to a business that would employ tenants who would live in affordable apartments upstairs.

• Rumors flew about businesses looking to move into town: A brewery, a Vermont country store, a natural foods co-op, a Mexican restaurant.

Interest in revitalizing downtown Morrisville picked up steam last spring, when the Vermont Council on Rural Development led a series of grant-funded forums to gauge the community’s interest in a variety of projects, from recruiting downtown businesses to extending the town’s network of recreation trails.

Since then, though, there have been only a few outward signs of a transformation.

Last week, 14 wooden Adirondack-style chairs painted by local artists were placed throughout the downtown to invite passersby to sit and stay for a while.

“The chairs are like what the (painted) cows were in Burlington and the (painted) pigs were in Brandon,” said Todd Thomas, Morristown’s planning and zoning officer. “They look really nice and are going to draw people into the village.”

A Vermont Public Radio reporter, in town for a short broadcast about the chairs, noted that several storefronts were empty, so people drawn to the village had few options for lingering and spending money.

The largest property on Main Street, the former Arthur’s Department Store, has been vacant for a year and a half; a handwritten sign in the window announces that the store’s fixtures are for sale.

Plans to rehabilitate the buildings are on hold, for now.

Housing Vermont and Lamoille Housing Partnership, both nonprofits, are co-developers; the Arthur’s project is expected to cost between $4 million and $4.5 million.

However, their joint application for a federally funded community development block grant was denied last month.

What now?

A small group of Morrisville residents and business owners met with Thomas last week to discuss revitalization efforts.

The grant application “only asked for funding for the upstairs apartments,” Thomas said. “The state was worried about the viability of the project without commercial tenants.”

A few potential tenants — including Community Health Services of Lamoille Valley, Pall Spera Co. Realtors, and the Morristown town government offices — had considered buying commercial space in the building, but pulled out because of the high cost and lengthy construction process, Thomas said.

The developers will reapply for the block grant in June. While the project has secured $240,000 in federal low-income housing credits and $75,000 in state affordable-housing credits, it needs the grant money to move forward.

Portland Street

While Portland Street appears mostly unchanged from a year ago, upbeat changes could be on the way.

The price of a derelict Portland Street building known as the “Water and Wood Building” recently dropped from $229,000 to $149,000, and town officials hope an investor will buy and refurbish it.

More than a dozen local investors have looked at the property since the price dropped, Thomas said.

The building houses the Corner Pocket and Dunlavey’s Black Belt Academy. A Canadian real-estate investor owns it and has been trying to sell it for years.

The two-story building has enough square footage for 13 apartments, plus retail and commercial space.

“It has a good structure and foundation,” Thomas said. “It would have to be stripped to the bones, but the bones are good.”

Just down the street, the United Way of Lamoille County has bought the building that had housed Malarkey’s. The nonprofit plans to install transitional apartments upstairs for tenants who have had trouble finding and keeping housing in the past. Downstairs would be a commercial or retail business willing to employ and train the upstairs tenants.

The Hot Tamale Mexican restaurant in Johnson had been slated to move into the space, but pulled out of the deal. Now, the United Way is looking at opening a used furniture store, where donated items would be sold.

Nearby, the former Lamoille Valley Railway station, most recently a restaurant, remains empty, as does the Nepveu building, which has boarded-up windows and would have to be completely gutted before tenants could move in.

Heather Sargent, a member of the Morristown Alliance for Culture and Commerce, would like the town government to ask taxpayers for money to buy and refurbish one of the empty buildings along Portland Street.

The town could use it for office space, or rent it as retail or commercial space, she said.

“I think we as a community have to stand up and do something for the town,” Sargent said.

Co-op, retail study

Town officials have approved a marketing and feasibility study to see if a natural food co-op and other small businesses could be successful in downtown Morrisville.

The $28,500 study will be funded by a mix of state grants and donations from local groups.

Participants in community forums held last year chose a natural food co-op as one project they wanted to research.

The Morristown Co-op — MoCo — Committee has been researching the idea since last summer and working to raise money for a study.

Ideally, the co-op would be located downtown. Nonmembers would be able to shop there, and while the inventory would focus on locally grown and produced food, it would also sell natural food products from outside sources to keep the shelves filled.

The town is working to launch a fundraising campaign for the co-op on Kickstarter, a website that helps startup businesses raise cash. It’s asking for $200,000 to buy and refurbish an empty building. So far, Kickstarter hasn’t approved the project.

The market analysis will also look at other businesses that could fill empty storefronts.

“I’d like to know what businesses they feel would be successful in our downtown,” Sargent said.

Sargent suggested that a moderately priced restaurant, such as Five Guys Burgers and Fries, would work well in Morrisville, as would a wine bar.

It’s crucial to attract new businesses before the Morristown bypass is completed, said Marcia Marble, a local Realtor. Construction is expected to begin this summer on the new road, which will carry Route 100 north to Route 15 on the west side of the village, detouring trucks away from downtown.

“If the bypass keeps everyone away from the downtown, we are going to be where we are today,” Marble said.

Arthur Breault, who ran Arthur’s Department Store with his wife, Theresa, would like to see a shop that sells socks, underwear and basic clothing so that residents wouldn’t have to drive to Chittenden County for such things.

The market analysis will look at Morrisville’s strengths, weaknesses and opportunities, as well as local retail trends.

It will likely include a zip code survey, in which businesses in north-central Vermont ask customers for their zip codes when they check out. The results would help pinpoint where Morrisville residents spend their money.

“They’re quite revealing,” Thomas said.

Town officials will begin interviewing consulting groups shortly and the survey should be completed later this summer.

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