New Home Depot store continues development debate

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(Host) Brattleboro is the latest town to engage in the long-running Vermont debate over national warehouse-style retail chains. There’s a Walgreens under construction and a Home Depot waiting to move in.

VPR’s Susan Keese reports.

(Keese) Brown and Roberts Hardware, with its creaky floors and wooden bolt-drawers, is a mainstay of Brattleboro’s downtown. It’s a family-owned store where people expect a little advice with their purchase.

(Putnam) “If it’s 130 volt it’s going to give a little less light but it’s going to last longer….”

(Keese)Co-owner Paul Putnam doesn’t seem too worried about Home Depot moving in to the empty Ames store in a plaza north of downtown.

(Putnam) “Initially it is going to make a difference in our business. Fortunately we’ve been conservative over the years. I think I’m more worried about some other businesses that aren’t as stable as we are.”

(Keese) Putnam weathered a similar dropoff several years ago when a Wal-Mart opened across the river in New Hampshire. He says people flocked to Wal-Mart at first. But many customers came back.

Putnam’s business has shifted away from small appliances for example, toward high-end kitchenware and tools. He expects it will shift again when Home Depot comes in. Putnam’s customers aren’t all as optimistic as he is. Recently about 70 local citizens met to organize the opposition.

(Sound from the meeting) “Where it says chamber support….”

(Keese) They talked about boycotts and petitions and protecting small, locally owned stores. They fear that retail giants will turn their unique community into Anywhere, USA.

(Speaker at meeting) “I think that we need to highlight for the people of Brattleboro and our government and these companies why we love Brattleboro so much. And the fact that Vermont is a beautiful kind of place without these huge developments and strips.”

(Keese) At the other end of the state, Williston’s Taft Corner is an example of what the Brattleboro group doesn’t want. On a cluster of former farms near the interstate, there’s a Home Depot, a Wal-Mart, a Toys ‘R’ Us, and much more.

Paul Bruhn directs the nonprofit Preservation Trust of Vermont, which is dedicated to preserving downtowns and the Vermont landscape. Bruhn began the fight against suburban sprawl in Williston in the late 1970s. Local planners had earmarked Taft Corner for economic growth. Now they’re facing traffic problems, a residential explosion, crowded schools, and a hometown some residents say they barely recognize.

(Bruhn) “We won a couple of battles in Williston but we definitely lost the war. There’s no question about that.”

(Keese) Williston has outstripped Burlington in retail sales, but Burlington has held its own, with cultural offerings and the Church Street Marketplace. Bruhn says Vermonters have done a good job keeping their downtowns alive and interesting.

(Bruhn) “What we haven’t been as good about is understanding the impacts of out of town developments.”

(Keese) Bruhn says many towns have more land than they need zoned for commercial growth. He advocates limiting the square footage of new retail stores in local zoning laws. He advises towns to incorporate support for locally owned business into their town plans, and to funnel new development into downtown centers.

One of Bruhn’s favorite success stories is the case of Rutland. Encouraged by the state, Wal-Mart moved into an existing downtown plaza.

Matthew Sternberg is Rutland’s redevelopment director. He says Wal-Mart and other retail chains, including a new mall and a Home Depot at the city’s edges, have lured back locals who were traveling out of state to shop.

(Sternberg) “The big box is a format that consumers clearly prefer. And they’re offering a product that the public wants to buy.”

(Keese) Sternberg says the increased traffic has benefited local stores as well. He says if the consumer can save money, it’s not up to public officials to deny that because of aesthetics over big box stores. Some storeowners disagree. The owner of a stationery business who says she’s been hurt by the discount chains, says the stores remind her of billboards, which the state banned decades ago.

But Ron Noble at Landon’s hardware actually bought his Rutland store knowing Home Depot was coming. Noble says competition makes other stores try harder.

(Noble) “There’s definitely a place in our culture for a smaller, service-oriented hardware store. You know, where people know you by name and you can get the kind of help you need on particular projects.”

(Keese) John Simley at Home Depot’s Atlanta headquarters has worked on the Rutland and Brattleboro stores. He says Home Depot simply goes where it’s wanted.

(Simley) “And we know now that there’s a significant and growing demand out of the Brattleboro area. We find an increasing number of people with Brattleboro ZIP codes turning up at our store in West Springfield, Massachusetts.”

(Keese) Simley says Home Depot competes with other big boxes, rather than Mom and Pop operations.

Back at Brattleboro’s Brown and Roberts Hardware, Paul Putnam says any money Home Depot makes will be money taken away from existing businesses.

(Putnam) “It’s obviously going to affect everybody a little bit, and it could put somebody out of business.”

(Keese) For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Susan Keese in Brattleboro.

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