by Joy Choquette, Vermont Business Magazine
At the Franklin County Regional Chamber of Commerce, Lisamarie Charlesworth, chamber manager, said that while she recognized the challenges faced in the current economy in Franklin County, she was also excited by the potential for growth.
Photo: Lisamarie Charlesworth, Franklin County Chamber of Commerce Manager. Courtesy photo.
Charlesworth said that she has definitely seen an increase in tourist traffic to the downtown St Albans area.
The small Chamber office is run by Charlesworth and one other part-time employee.
“I’ve sent the most relocation packets ever this year,” Charlesworth said.
She’s continually getting phone and online requests that say, “We’ve just moved to St. Albans, tell us about your town,” Charlesworth noted.
Director of Planning & Development for the City of St Albans, Chip Sawyer, stated in email correspondence that The Hampton Inn at St Albans, opened in 2017, has been a boon to the city.
Sawyer called it, “One of the most significant things that has happened to downtown St Albans in the last few decades. Previously, it was unthinkable to have a nationally-branded hotel in our downtown, and yet now it provides lodging options for visitors and businesses. That has had a recognized effect on economic activity in the area.”
The development of the hotel was paired with the erection of a new Vermont State building, moving hundreds of state employees to the downtown area. This has also increased both foot traffic and activity, said Sawyer.
Charlesworth agreed that the hotel has helped to create a true destination experience. It’s also sent a number of people to the Chamber’s office, looking for pamphlets on things to do or discussing the possibility of moving to the area.
Photo: Hampton Inn Hotel, Lake Street, St. Albans. Photo by Katie Kittell.
And of course, the beautiful and historic Taylor Park, located in the heart of downtown St Albans offers visitors and locals alike a place to be entertained, to rest or to people watch.
“We’re seeing a lot of interest and movement and a lot of people acting on that interest,” Charlesworth stated.
The interest and movement Charlesworth described came from intentional planning.
“We’re seeing that we can actually market our downtown as a place to come and spend an afternoon, evening, or a weekend,” said Charlesworth.
Efforts are made to make sure that Taylor Park is in use most of the time. Between the farmers’ market on Saturdays, the free music concerts on Wednesday evenings and a variety of other events, the park is rarely empty.
Other activities such as the Sunflower Festival, Kingman Street Klassic, and the annual Taylor Park Fine Wine, Beer & Food Festival all help draw visitors to the area and are enjoyed by locals alike. “We can advertise these as ‘come for this, stay for that’,” said Charlesworth.
And more improvement plans are in the works.
“The big positive development looming in the future is Congress and Main redevelopment project,” said Sawyer. “This will include the creation of 25,000 square-feet of new commercial space on Main Street and the location of offices for Northwestern Medical Center and Community College of Vermont right in the heart of the downtown.”
Additionally, the project will include 40 new apartments in the center of the city, a mix of subsidized and full-market rentals, Sawyer said.
Charlesworth noted that St Albans Town, too, is hard at work with a new marina, the St Albans Bay area and the park there, which are all undergoing improvements.
“It’s this nice kind of compatibility happening in the Town and City to keep people occupied and keep people here,” said Charlesworth. “That’s a key thing: to keep people engaged and here.”
Franklin County Vermont is made up of 16 towns: Bakersfield, Berkshire, East Berkshire, Enosburg Falls, Fairfax, Fairfield, Fletcher, Franklin, Georgia, Highgate, Highgate Springs, Montgomery, Richford, Sheldon, St. Albans Town and Swanton. The seat of Franklin County lies in St. Albans City.
Located in the bucolic upper western part of the state, Franklin County is comprised of a diverse landscape: from mountainous regions to flat farmlands with rich soil, vistas along Lake Champlain to hilly terrain, the county is varied in its appearance.
That diversity extends to its demographic and financial picture as well. There were approximately 49,421 residents in the county in 2018 according to the United States Census Bureau, an increase of 3.5 percent since the census was conducted in 2010. The median household income between 2013-2017 was $62,214 and the percentage of people in poverty was 8.9 percent.
Census data further shows that there were 4,479 places of employment (business and nonprofits) in 2016, and the majority of individuals travel just over 25 minutes to arrive at work. That’s impressive, considering the county is spread over 633 square miles.
The top five largest employers in the county are: Northwestern Medical Center, Inc, in St Albans and outlying towns (678 employees), Mylan Technologies Inc, in St Albans (550 employees), Peerless Clothing in St Albans (400 employees), Perrigo Nutritionals in Georgia (350 employees), and Vermont Precision Tools, Inc, in Swanton (240 employees).
Revitalizing Downtowns in Franklin County
That’s also the focus on the new revitalization project going on in three other Franklin County towns: Swanton, Highgate and Enosburg Falls.
While the area is still known for its agriculture, new businesses and employment opportunities are on the rise. It’s not unusual to pass through acres of beautiful, bright-green corn fields and into a town with a bustling coffee shop and natural food store, as is the case in Enosburg Falls.
Spurred by the recent streetscapes project that St Albans City underwent a few years ago, Enosburg Falls is on a quest to not only beautify its downtown, but bring in new businesses and improve the local economy.
It is also working to make the transition from one end of the town to the other more cohesive.
Driving along Main Street, it’s easy to see the difference in walkability and beautification along the central section of the downtown, where wide sidewalks and easy access to shops and restaurants abound.
South of this central part of the street though populated with businesses is not as visually appealing nor as easy to access for those on foot or bicycle due to more automotive traffic. Driving further along Main Street the walkability and streetscape again fall away as the street turns into mostly residential dwellings.
These are some of the key issues that the Enosburg Falls Vital Village Project is working to address: how to keep businesses easy-to-access, provide pedestrians and bicyclists with safer places to travel and add further beautification and a cohesive look to the downtown area.
The town began with a series of open-forum events, where residents and business owners could come and share their thoughts and ideas.
A group of consultants from SE Group, the design firm working with the town to revitalize its aging downtown, spoke with residents and business owners at length at these events.
Greta Brunswick, a senior planner with Northwest Regional Planning Commission, has been working with Enosburg Falls citizens and the consultants to be certain that everyone is on the same page and that priority needs are being addressed.
Though the revitalization actually began with a group of 50 or so citizens in 2017, it has grown to encompass numerous community organizations along with efforts by both the Town and Village of Enosburg, said Brunswick via email correspondence.
It all began, stated Brunswick, with a master plan, one similar to the one which started the large streetscapes project in St Albans City.
“The goals of the Enosburg Falls Master Plan at the outset were to promote economic development and community health through wayfinding, marketing and recreation opportunities,” Brunswick wrote.
A decision was made to apply to the Vermont Better Connections Program for funds to go toward this plan.
“Northwest Regional Planning Commission agreed to provide grant writing and project management assistance,” Brunswick said. “This service was free of charge to the community and covered by Northwest Regional Planning Commission’s Transportation Planning Initiative.”
The grant was eventually secured in March of 2018 and the work with SE Group, called the Enosburg Vital Village Program, was completed in August of this year.
Brunswick said that the Village of Enosburg is still awaiting a further grant announcement for a scoping study on the streetscape improvements.
It is currently working on installing a kiosk at the Missisquoi Valley Rail Trail intersection with Main Street with monies from the Vermont Department of Health Quick Build for Health program.
Future plans also include developing a brand for the village and offering enticing opportunities for more Canadian tourism.
The hope is that these initiatives will result in a more attractive and user-friendly downtown area, as well as increase revenues for area businesses.
This will, of course, require many more hours of work, further planning and ongoing discussion.
While Brunswick is optimistic about the way that things have been going, she also notes two big challenges for business owners and employees in the county: gaps in childcare and the need for skilled workers.
“There is a shortage of childcare spaces in the region and currently no center-based options,” said Brunswick. This, she noted, impacts both workforce recruitment and stability.
“Communities are talking about this issue and taking action. Local government, private and community partnerships are behind a proposed St Albans City childcare center and also a facility in the planning stages in Alburgh,” Brunswick said.
While the Workforce Development Board, Community College of Vermont and technical high school programs are working hard to improve the skills of the workforce in the region, Brunswick noted, there is still a lack in skilled manufacturing laborers and tradespeople such as plumbers and carpenters.
Still, Brunswick is hopeful. “When brick and mortar improvements and business development are slow to develop, time spent on strengthening social capital goes a long way,” she said. “We are seeing this in communities throughout the region.”
Real Life as a Business Owner in the County
For Rick Green and Liz Jackson, partners in the Green’s Ace Hardware located on 6 Railroad Street in the center of Enosburg, the ability to morph and innovate have been keys in keeping their business not only afloat, but financially viable.
Despite the struggle that many centrally-located small businesses in the county face, the pair has discovered a way to meet the needs of customers in a way that brings both new and repeat business to their hardware store.
Green and Jackson have owned Green’s Ace Hardware for the past 24 years. Yet in all that time, Green noted, the business has continued to grow and prosper.
“We’re on course for another record year sales-wise this year,” said Green. “We’ve been up for basically the past 24 years.”
The owners’ recipe for success?
“Making sure that customers are getting what they need and want,” Green said.
Jackson agreed and stated that innovation has also played an important role in the store’s success.
“We’ve diversified. From the very beginning when we expanded the store our goal was to maintain a level of diversification and to be a one-stop shop,” said Jackson.
Since a significant renovation several years ago, the store grew from 4,200 square-feet to its existing 18,000 square-foot size. There are 18 full- and part-time employees and Jackson noted that there is a real push to make certain that every associate is customer-focused.
The merchandise too, has changed over time.
Though Green is quick to point out that you can still have glass cut, pick up plumbing supplies and the regular nails and screws that customers expect, it offers other items, too. Holiday trims, gift options and even a “paint destination,” where customers can relax in cozy chairs and talk over their paint project with a store associate, are a few of these extras.
“We made it more like a country, general store in appearance,” Jackson said. “We sell everything from home appliances to nuts and bolts.”
Wisely, the owners recognized needs customers had and catered to those. Paying attention to who their customers are and where they’re from have been essential pieces of information, Jackson said.
“We’re well aware of the diversity of our customers, and we try to offer anything they might need.”
She noted that the store serves everyone from local farmers to Canadian tourists to busy mothers and more. Green’s Ace Hardware offers each customer what they need so that they won’t have to travel and shop elsewhere.
Another innovative stream of revenue to the store is its business-to-business service.
For the past six years, Green’s Ace Hardware has employed a salesperson who travels around the county, taking orders and making deliveries.
“That’s where our focus is for the moment,” said Jackson about this initiative, which the partners plan to grow further.
“We typically say ‘no’ to nothing here,” Green said. “We get our customers what they need and want.” Jackson agreed. “We try to be a service to our local community. If we keep focused on our community members and filling a need for them, then I think we’ll always be successful.”
Joy Choquette is a freelance writer from Franklin County.