Photo: Music in Taylor Park. Photo: Katie Kittell
Franklin County’s business commnity fights to regain its pre-pandemic mojo
VermontBiz Billed as a wonderful spot for outdoor adventurists, Franklin County sits on the northwestern tip of the state. It borders Quebec and is less than an hour from New York state. The county has a long history of agriculture. It still produces a great deal of milk and maple syrup, but has several other industries too.
One of these is tourism. Another is manufacturing. Small retailers and specialty food establishments along with health care round out the area’s business landscape.
The largest employer is the county’s hospital, Northwestern Medical Center, followed by pharmaceutical manufacturer Viatris, Ben & Jerry’s, chocolate producer Barry Callebaut, and men’s and boys’ clothing manufacturer Peerless Clothing. All reside in the county seat, St. Albans.
In Richford, Kaytec, a building materials manufacturer, and Kent Nutrition are the largest employers. Agricultural companies Bourdeau Brothers in Sheldon and Cargill Animal Nutrition in Swanton are two other large agricultural companies in the area.
Franklin County has a diverse business landscape. Farms — both dairy and produce — are found within the 692-square-mile county. Nursing homes, auto shops, retailers and maple sugaring manufacturers intermingle among these.
Photo: Farm in Swanton. Photo: Katie Kittell
Expected Growth and New Opportunities in the County
Dotted among Main Street in St. Albans are several restaurants, retail establishments, a café and the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce. Chamber manager Lisamarie Charlesworth said that she’s encouraged by the amount of revitalization happening in area businesses.
“Redevelopment of unused space is something we are seeing across the county,” Charlesworth noted.
In St. Albans, two projects stand out. The first is the renovation of the courthouse at 45 Kingman St. into housing and business office space. The building has stood empty for two decades. Developer Jim Cameron purchased the property in 2021, with plans to create eight market-rate apartments on the upper floors and office space on the ground floor.
Photo: Downtown St. Albans. Photo: Joy Choquette
The former Fonda paper processing site at 15-21 Lower Newton St. has also been converted into office space. Formerly a brownfield site, the location now houses Genesee and Wyoming’s American Rail Dispatching Center. Additional space in the building is still available to be developed.
Chip Sawyer, director of planning and development for St. Albans, said the city last year was able to announce a slate of new or soon-to-be-open businesses.
“This year we are in talks with a comparable number of prospective new business owners to fill spaces, but nothing that is ready to announce just yet,” Sawyer said.
He added that the city continues to work on filling storefronts and commercial space. “We are still seeing a lot of interest and potential,” he said.
In Bakersfield, Charlesworth noted, plans are underway to convert the former Brigham Academy into senior housing, though this is still in the conceptualization stage.
Along the Canadian border, the small town of Highgate has created the Highgate Village Core, an ambitious project at the corner of St. Armand Road and Route 78 that may include a library, commercial establishments and small-scale outdoor gathering spaces within a pedestrian friendly environment. According to Charlesworth, new developments and businesses have also sprung up in Swanton, Enosburg, St. Albans, Alburgh and the Islands.”
The Benefits of Doing Business in Franklin County
One of the newer businesses in the Swanton area is Bees on Broadway, a gift shop and honey haven owned by Darci Benoit. Benoit said a key to her shop’s success will be keeping the merchandise fresh and contemporary.
“Our current product lineup consists of over 100 different items created in-house, starting with our Vermont honey,” Benoit said.
Infused honey with flavors like lime essence have proved popular with health-conscious customers, and the beeswax is used to create everything from skin care products and goat milk soap to uniquely designed candles.
Working with area craftspeople is important to Benoit, who says the shop regularly features arts and craft items such as greeting cards, jewelry, small furniture and more.
Photo: Darci Benoit of Bees on Broadway in Swanton. Photo: Joy Choquette
“I’m always bringing in something new,” Benoit said, adding that she’d like to see more collaboration and camaraderie between and among businesses.
“Complementing what we each do will only benefit each organization,” she said.
Richford Town Administrator Michael Olio, meanwhile, said he believes the county is uniquely positioned to prosper.
“There is a plethora of recreational opportunities in the area,” he said.
These include kayaking the Missisquoi River; walking, hiking or biking at Hard’ack; relaxing on Lake Champlain; playing golf or disk golf; camping; and exercising on the Missisquoi Valley Rail Trail.
“There is no shortage of healthy outdoor activity, and we are fortunate to have these resources,” Olio said.
Businesses are popping up and expanding to meet this growing need. Bootleggers Bikes opened a second storefront location on Main Street in St. Albans in 2022. Georgia is home to another bike store, White’s Bikes. The Great Outdoors, an outdoor sporting goods store, is still going strong in Enosburg. And planning and implementation to create more connections to area businesses along the Missisquoi Valley Rail Trail continues. Bikers and walkers can consult an interactive map on the organization’s website to find everything from restaurants to retailers.
Back in St. Albans, The Eloquent Page on Main Street is serving the needs of bibliophiles in search of new, used and rare books and book-related accessories. The shop, with its creaky wooden floors and high ceilings, evokes memories of a bygone era when book lovers could spend an entire afternoon digging through the shelves for the newest releases or hard-to-find classics.
Eloquent Page proprietor Donna Howard said there are many resources for business owners in the area.
Photo: The Eloquent Page in St. Albans. Photo: Joy Choquette
“I am a member of the Franklin Country Chamber of Commerce,” she said. “There is also a merchants committee, St. Albans for the Future, that meets once a month and discusses topics of interest to downtown businesses.”
This group helps to plan and organize an annual sidewalk sale, Spooky Saturdays and other community-wide events.
“Most of my collaboration is with the various booksellers’ organizations,” Howard added, noting she is a member of the Vermont Antiquarian Booksellers Association, New England Independent Booksellers Association and American Booksellers Association.
Sawyer explained that Franklin County is becoming a regional destination for leisure, dining and recreation, which serves to drive traffic to other businesses in the area.
“In addition to our burgeoning food scene and fun retail options, downtown St. Albans enjoys the presence of important services, such as the UPS Store, the Hampton Inn and the U.S. Passport Center,” Sawyer said. “Another strength is the wealth of local programs, organizations and volunteers that hold events and activities in our downtown, further driving visits and maintaining a sense of vibrancy.”
The city plays a supportive rather than a leading role in organizing these events, thus allowing business owners to “pour out their passions and energy” into every project.
Challenges for Businesses in Franklin County Now
While Charlesworth characterized the county’s economic prospects as “pretty good,” she said that challenges remain. Chief among these are staffing and affordable-housing shortages, food insecurity and transportation that only seemed to worsen post-pandemic.
“The new normal looks more yin-yang than it ever has,” she said. “The groups and organizations that work to ease these problems are busier than ever.”
Benoit sees issues with the support small businesses receive — or not — and how this affects their growth and stability.
“I would love to see the local and state governments support our small businesses more to help them take steps forward in growth,” she said.
For example, local governments could advertise the unique array of small businesses in their cities and town to help drive tourists to the area, Benoit said.
“I have seen some towns work hard to promote what they have, and others have almost no interaction,” she said.
For agriculturally centered businesses such as Bees on Broadway, Benoit would like to see the Vermont Department of Agriculture take a greater interest in supporting beekeepers.
“By promoting the bees and beekeepers at the state level, it could help so many in tremendous ways,” she said.
Sawyer, meanwhile, said that the region’s tight labor market remains one of the most persistent obstacles to economic growth.
“Good help is harder to come by, and wages have increased,” he said. “A share of new residents are arriving with remote jobs and are not seeking local employment.”
A worrying new trend is the temporary closing or reduction of operating hours by businesses due to staff shortages or health and wellness issues, Sawyer said. Still, he added, “If being able to close now and then helps to keep small business owners healthy and energized, then it may be a necessary part of the post-pandemic retail experience.”
Post-Pandemic Business Life in Franklin County
“Downtown St. Albans is having another busy year, and we are hearing from most businesses that customer numbers have been steady or even better than previous years,” said Sawyer. “Our assumptions are that new housing units and new community members are bolstering business, while existing residents are less likely to commute for work in the post-COVID era and are spending more time and money locally.
“All the while, regional tourism continues to bring in visitors,” he added. “We expect these positive trends to continue as the housing supply and jobs increase in the area.”
Olio echoed Sawyer’s sentiments.
“I think there is a positive economic outlook for businesses in Franklin County. It seems there is an increased demand for more local events in a post-COVID world, and that is a great benefit for everyone in the county,” he said. “It attracts people to various downtowns, it emphasizes buying locally made products and it creates a sense of community.”
Sawyer said he was pleasantly surprised by the level of support local businesses received at the peak of the pandemic
That support has “turned into a sense of appreciation of how fortunate we are to have business owners, residents and visitors that are still maintaining the momentum today,” he said.
While businesses in Franklin County work to regain their footing post-pandemic, the region’s economic outlook continues to look bright, officials said. A new marina at St Albans Bay, the presence of the Vermont Mountain Bike Association at Har’dack, where a new year-round pool is in place, and new restaurants and retail establishments throughout the county continue to welcome visitors and locals alike.
This momentum, Sawyer said, will all help to propel the county forward in the coming months.
Joy Choquette writes from the Franklin County area.