Rutland optimistic about downtown redevelopment

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(Host) Several prominent stores have closed their doors recently in downtown Rutland and this year’s holiday season was not nearly as profitable as many retailers had hoped.

But as VPR’s Nina Keck reports, several new developments plus lots of renovation are keeping local officials optimistic about the long-term potential for the historic downtown district.

(Keck) Eastman’s, a long-time office supply and frame shop in Rutland closed its doors last month after 35 years. Around the corner, the once colorful windows of a popular kitchen store are now empty. A total of seven stores in downtown Rutland closed this past year, but local development officials point out that 16 new businesses opened – including Snapdragon Studios, which makes handcrafted stained and leaded glass windows.

Co-owner Megg Isaac stands at a large worktable cutting and piecing together shards of colored glass.

(Isaac) “We looked all over Vermont and we love the downtown of Rutland. It’s so cute and we think it’s up and coming.”

(Keck) Isaac says Rutland has the population density and basic amenities she wanted. She also likes how the downtown looks. Sidewalks have been repaired in the last few years and Rutland has invested in attractive old fashioned street lights.

Construction crews have also been busy over the past several years. The new courthouse is nearing completion and a number of buildings have been renovated – including a $3.5 million project going on now across from the Paramount Theater. Elizabeth Kulis, Director of the Rutland County Community Land Trust, says that project will provide new retail and office space, as well as 13 new residential apartments.

(Kulis) “Downtown developers really believe that for a downtown to be lively and successful they need a residential component. So the folks who are living downtown will utilize the commercial and retail businesses that are downtown.”

(Keck) Another project that will have a big impact on the downtown will start next week. That’s when the outdoor parking deck next to Wal-Mart will begin to come down. Matthew Sternberg, Director of the Rutland Redevelopment Authority, spreads out a conceptual drawing that shows landscape, sidewalk and parking plans for a new 13,000-square foot retail space.

(Sternberg) “It will significantly dress up Evellyn Street. The whole area will look and feel different and it will make Depot Park that much more the central focus place.”

(Keck) Heritage Realty owns the property as well as the shopping center next door which includes Wal-Mart, TJ Maxx and Price Chopper. The Boston firm isn’t saying what will move into the new retail space yet. But Matthew Sternberg says their track record is good and he’s confident the store or restaurant will generate growth.

(Sternberg) “Activity breeds activity. People get interested in doing things when they see things happening. And what we have found as we have gone out to try and recruit new investment is a much higher level of interest than we found a few years ago.”

(Keck) But Sternberg admits that in addition to recruiting new businesses it’s vital to retain the ones the city already has.

At Billy’s Takeout, a tiny storefront property on Center Street, owner Bill Davis stirs a pot of broccoli cheese soup. I ask him if morale is up or down among business owners.

(Davis) “I think it’s both. Some days I feel really good about downtown. Then other days I feel like, what do we have to do to get people down here? And it’s a nice downtown, it’s a beautiful downtown and how come nobody else sees that? I feel as if our locals, they’re just not supporting the center of their city.”

(Keck) Davis and other merchants understand that the economy is forcing many to limit spending. While long term projects to revitalize the downtown and provide more residential apartments all sound good, Davis and other independent business owners just hope they can hang on long enough to see the efforts bear fruit.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Nina Keck in Rutland.

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