At a café on Barre’s Main Street, the lunch crowd flows in.
"Every time I come down to the coffee shop is another opportunity," says Emily Kaminsky, the co-founder of Granite City Grocery, a cooperative market that doesn’t exist yet.
Kaminsky moves from table to table, carrying a thick white binder as she signs up prospective members for the new co-op that she hopes will open soon along this recently rebuilt Main Street.
Kaminsky says Granite City Grocery wants to sign up 600 members for the co-op by next spring. She’s just found one more member in Liz Zundel, a retired nurse who lives downtown.
"Barre desperately, desperately needs a grocery store or a place where people can get food locally," Zundel tells Kaminsky.
Zundel says she’d like to see the co-op open as soon as possible because there are many people who live downtown without a car. "They can go to Price Chopper or Hannaford but they need to take a bus," Zundel says.
Barre hasn’t had a grocery store in the heart of its downtown for more than a decade. There is a locally owned market up the hill just east of downtown, but planners say residents still sense the cavity that the Grand Union supermarket left when it closed. Emily Kaminsky says that’s where Granite City Grocery would come in.
"People who live down here and people who work down here have few options," Kaminsky explains. "We’re organizing because we think it’s really important to having a vibrant, healthy community. It’s what a grocery brings to downtown."
Like many American cities, Barre’s recent economic problems are largely tied to the loss of its manufacturing base – the granite industry – and to big box stores and other retailers that have sprouted up on the outskirts of town, sapping local downtown businesses.
One solution to reviving a central business district is to make sure that customers are frequently on the street. And grocery stores certainly generate traffic.
So planners looking to boost downtowns around the state have been focusing on home grown stores that specialize in fresh produce and local products.
Noelle Mackay is the state commissioner of Economic, Housing and Community Development. She ticks off the elements that the state has found make up a healthy downtown.
"Grocery store, post office, activities are all part of that mix," Mackay says.
Some Vermonters, Mackay points out, might not be able to afford a car, so "having fresh local food downtown not only allows people to have access and stay and live in the community – it also supports our working landscape."
Barre Mayor Thom Lauzon is counting on a co-op.
Lauzon stands inside an empty building on North Main Street whose windows face "Youth Triumphant," a granite statue in City Hall Park dedicated to veterans.
Lauzon has overseen Barre’s so-called Big Dig: an $18 million federal highway reconstruction project that includes new sidewalks and fresh street paving, light fixtures and signs.
Now the mayor hopes the real estate market will absorb more than 100,000 square feet of vacant retail and office space in the next year.
"It looks beautiful like a movie set but unfortunately right now it’s a closed movie set," he says.
Lauzon worries that all this redevelopment won’t matter as long as there are no jobs in a city whose unemployment rate is well above the state average and whose population is aging.
Lauzon says Barre now has a tremendous opportunity to attract more service sector jobs, improve the lives of its neediest citizens and revitalize some of its rougher neighborhoods.
Lauzon sees a downtown co-op as a major missing piece to a complex puzzle in Barre.
"If you look at municipalities with a population of over 3,000, and keep in mind we have 10,000, every one of those municipalities has a grocery store in their city proper. We don’t."
Lauzon drives his truck slowly through Barre’s hills and back streets. Most days he wears a suit. But today he’s wearing jeans, a sweatshirt and a black hat emblazoned with a logo that says "We Dig Barre."
"This is Seminary Street," Lauzon says, turning left. "This neighborhood we really have to start focusing on."
That’s clear: Blighted homes line the street. At least one of them is in foreclosure. Hungry people line up outside a homeless shelter called Good Samaritan Haven.
"I love to show off our successes, but I’m not at all blind to the challenges," Lauzon admits. "We still have a long way to go as a community."
Back at the café, Emily Kaminsky says a co-op can solve many of Barre’s problems.
"We’re not talking about everybody having to shop downtown. We’re talking about a large number of people who will have the option to shop downtown," Kaminsky argues. "And if we all play our cards right, then it will work."
Kaminsky gazes out on Main Street and imagines lots of foot traffic on its now wide but bustle-free sidewalks. She hopes the new store will create at least 30 much-needed jobs – and a greater sense of community in Barre.
So far, nearly 300 prospective members agree.
Visit the Granite City Cooperative Web site here.