Redefining Main St.

Regional ReviewQuarter 4, 1999
by Miriam Wasserman

Randolph, Vermont, is struggling to revive its downtown. In the age of the mall, it is fighting to retain a sense of place and, in doing so, to preserve the character that sets this region apart.

The first fire units responded to the alarm in Grant’s Drug Store in the town of Randolph, Vermont, just before two o’clock in the afternoon on December 26, 1991. By the time the flames were finally squelched, 27 hours later, the whole Dubois and Gay Block — a 113-year-old landmark in the center of town — had been reduced to rubble.

The town did not have much time to recover from the shock. In the span of seven months, two more fires hit. Altogether, they destroyed 55,000 square feet of commercial and residential space, almost a third of the downtown commercial district. The people of Randolph, a working-class town with a population of fewer than 5,000 nestled in the White River Valley, felt wounded, disheartened, and shaken.

But, out of tragedy came the opportunity to revitalize a downtown that, like many city and town centers across the nation, had slowly but steadily slipped into decay. The blaze shook people from their apathy. “It is much, much harder to mobilize people when the decline has been gradual,” says Jeffrey Staudinger, who coordinated the rebuilding effort in Randolph.

Still, the process would not be easy. To begin with, town residents had to tackle a fundamental question that many other small cities also face: What is the role of downtown? The answer may seem obvious, since downtown is usually the oldest part of a city and it contains the public institutions, embodies the history and heritage of its community, and encompasses sizable public and private investment.

But over the past 40 years, downtowns have lost a good deal of their economic and even social role. With the development of the Interstate Highway System, the movement to the suburbs, and the emergence of malls, Main Street lost its monopoly over the retail and service dollars in each community. Storefronts began to be boarded up in Main Streets across America. And new threats, such as catalog retail and now Internet commerce, have continued to emerge.

Randolph itself went from being the regional center of trade — with two appliance stores, a bedding store, and a men’s clothing store — to having none of the above. Today, many of its residents prefer to drive as much as 40 minutes for even routine supermarket shopping to retail clusters in West Lebanon, New Hampshire, and Berlin, Vermont, where they can find bigger and more modern stores.

The fires forced Randolph to think about what it wanted its downtown to be. It took a lot of coordination and collective action to implement the vision. And, it will take continued oversight and coordination to ensure that the downtown’s vitality is sustained. Although Randolph’s story is in many ways unique, the town’s great effort to redefine, rebuild, and sustain a vital downtown is one shared by many other small cities around New England. Ultimately, it is a struggle to retain a sense of place and, in doing so, to preserve the New England character that distinguishes this region from others in the country.


WHAT TO BE?

After the third and largest fire struck Randolph, about 300 people showed up at the high school for a community meeting. There was an outpouring of grief and sadness, but there was also a first step forward to revitalization. One of the first actions was the formation of a community development corporation (CDC) that was to become essential in coordinating the rebuilding process. The town hired Jeffrey Staudinger, of Bootstrap Consulting Services, to lead the CDC and to help organize a group of people around a plan. “We had 20 committees working on everything … from ‘What are your crazy ideas about rebuilding the downtown?’ to finding a planning group that would work with us to develop a downtown master plan,” he says.

Deciding what to do was a difficult and very controversial process. “I’ll be clear with you,” says Staudinger emphatically, “there wasn’t a consensus in the community. Many people thought rebuilding the downtown was a waste of time and money.”

Yet, the economic future of the town was in danger. With mainstays Grant’s Drug Store and the Ben Franklin variety store burned, the area attracted fewer customers and employees. Because of this, even the small independent businesses that had survived the fires, such as the Music Shop and the King and I Gift Shop, faced bleak prospects.

The community leadership was committed to rebuilding. But, to rebuild what?

As University of Massachusetts, Amherst, Professor John Mullin likes to point out, none of the downtowns undergoing revitalization “are ever going to be like the downtowns of 1955.” For one, most downtowns are too large for today’s needs. “Many (downtowns) would work so nicely if we shrank a ten-block downtown down to five,” says Mullin. And, since downtowns no longer can be all things to all people, those who orchestrate successful revival programs look to complement rather than compete with the malls. Some towns try to specialize in products that malls seldom offer, becoming small hubs for antique shoppers, for instance, or for more unusual niche markets (see sidebar on Rutland). Others— particularly those that have natural attractions or unique history — have courted tourism’s dollars.

But its small size and faraway location limited Randolph’s options. “It is harder to revive the downtown in smaller cities unless you have (a) public that wants to be there,” says MIT Professor of Urban Development Bernard Frieden. Towns with a strong college presence, like Northampton, Massachusetts, for instance, can count on demand for downtown amenities from students seeking a place to hang out. But, although Vermont Technical College is located nearby, Randolph is not a college town. The campus is not quite walking distance, and students mostly commute home for weekends.

And Randolph’s relative isolation made it difficult to become a tourist destination. Besides, town residents did not want to have downtown dominated by gift shops and galleries. “When the revitalization process began, a lot of the old timers here objected, saying that we were going to turn this into another Woodstock, Vermont,” says downtown manager Laura Morris. “We are very much a working-class real community.”

A LOOK AT RANDOLPH
Located in Orange County, Randolph is in the middle of rural Vermont. The town was settled in 1776 and quickly grew into a commercial center, with a number of sawmills and gristmills. Vermont Technical College, founded in 1866, is one of the main employers in the region today. Other employers include: Gifford Medical Center, Ethan Allen Furniture, the Vermont Castings foundry, Vermont Pure Springs, Dubois and King (engineering firm), the Clara Martin Center (mental health), GW Plastics, and the Randolph National Bank.
  Randolph Orange County Vermont
Population 4,686 27,924 590,883
   % change, 1990-98 -1.6 6.8 5.0
Labor Force 2,578 15,569 330,292
   % change, 1990-98 2.3 10.4 8.5
Unemployment Rate 4.3 2.7 3.4
Annual Average Wage $23,900 $21,829 $26,624
Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. 1998 figures.

Some of the ideas that were proposed were fairly radical. One, for instance, would have required a serious rerouting of Main Street that would have essentially created a retail mall in the center of downtown, with parking all around it. But such drastic schemes would have stretched the town’s resources and required hefty investment from the private sector, as local tax dollars weren’t sufficient to support such a project. The plan also called for extensive demolition of surviving old structures, and there was a growing recognition that the older buildings and historic layout were real assets. Randolph’s small rural commercial center is listed in the National Register of Historic Places; and in the 1970s, University of Vermont history Professor Chester Liebs would even bring students to observe the late nineteenth century layout.

More important, however, was the real resistance to change. The community saw Randolph primarily as a hometown and that is how they felt it should be put back together. Thus a plan slowly emerged. Randolph would climb down a rung on the retail ladder and focus on becoming more of a neighborhood convenience center than a regional hub. The downtown was to be remade as the place that would meet the local community’s most immediate needs. Retail was to be anchored by a new drugstore, a supermarket, and the rebuilt Ben Franklin variety store.


COLLECTIVE ACTION

Once the basic idea was decided, getting Randolph back on its feet was like a process of completing the missing pieces in a jigsaw puzzle. But the town could not simply rely on the separate actions of private individuals. All the pieces needed to be in place in order to draw a critical mass of customers. And completing the puzzle required an enormous amount of coordination, for no piece would go back into place unless it could be sure that the other pieces would fill in the remaining gaps.

The biggest piece was replacing the Ben Franklin variety store that had burned in the third fire. The store had been located smack in the center of the main block and its absence was the architectural equivalent of a missing front tooth. Peter Winslow, the store’s owner, faced a choice between using the insurance money to buy a new building for his other business, Magee Office Supplies, or rebuilding the Ben Franklin. His advisors told him it would not be profitable to rebuild the Ben Franklin downtown. But Winslow wanted to do what he thought was good for the town. “I started here without a dime and the Randolph National Bank and Sheldon Dimick (a former president of the bank) were the ones who helped me start,” he says.

Still, he was concerned about the viability of the business without other stores around to provide extra foot traffic. Winslow set his terms. He would rebuild if the town would encourage and facilitate the expansion and modernization of the town’s Grand Union supermarket. Also, he wanted the Red Lion Inn — a surviving old building — to be fixed, so as not to constitute a fire hazard to the new Ben Franklin.

The CDC and town residents worked to accommodate Winslow. When Winslow mentioned that he was concerned he would lose all his customers during construction, people quickly huddled together to search for a solution. They set up a temporary location for the store in an 8,000 square-foot-tent, fondly known as the Ag-Bag because it resembled the structures used to store produce in the field. In the winter, recalls Winslow, “we had to wear longjohns and boots, because the heat simply wouldn’t travel that distance.”

The temporary location lasted over a year as construction was delayed because there was another problem that required coordination. The new structure needed to be three stories high in order to match adjacent buildings and preserve the downtown architecture. But the Ben Franklin would only take up the first story and, as is common in many downtowns, it was hard to find tenants for the upper stories. Winslow’s insurance money would only cover the replacement of the Ben Franklin; nobody else was willing to support the construction of the upper floors without the cash-flow guarantee of a signed-up tenant. So, after no other options seemed viable, Winslow ended up committing the entire amount to construct the whole building in the hopes that the tenancy for the upper stories would be resolved. Finally, the CDC got an assurance that the Clara Martin Center, a mental health facility, would occupy the space. With that, the Randolph National Bank and Northfield Savings were able to join together and provide loans to the CDC, allowing it to purchase the upper floors.

Aside from the Ben Franklin, other pieces needed to be in place. To encourage business owners to rebuild and repair the fire damage, the public infrastructure needed to be improved. The town chipped in with water and sewer improvements (the water mains found in the remains of one of the burned structures had been made of wood). To entice pedestrians, streets were narrowed to slow traffic, trees were planted along Main Street, and period lighting replaced the ordinary gooseneck lamps. Improvements also acknowledged the requirements of a car-dependent culture by adding new parking spaces — something most downtowns have in short supply.

The funding from all sources — federal, local, and private — also had to be coordinated and apportioned. Since Randolph already had a high property tax rate (it offers social services to smaller neighboring towns), the possibility of raising local public funds was limited. A grant of $1 million, which Senator Patrick Leahy obtained for the town, was used as seed money for many of the projects. The CDC was instrumental in receiving and administering other federal grants from a variety of sources (community development block grants and the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act, among others) that funded many of the streetscape improvements and the refurbishment of the train depot area. The Randolph National Bank offered low interest loans in 1992 to restart people. In total, 40 percent of the funds for rebuilding came from private sources.

In a few instances, obstacles proved too large to overcome. To expand and modernize the existing Grand Union grocery store, developers wanted the 10,000-square-foot store — at the very least — to double in size. Purchase agreements had to be reached with eight or nine different property owners and there even had to be a town vote, because the municipal building was involved. It took several months to solve the many complications; and when it finally seemed as if the project might actually pull through, interest rates rose and the deal fell apart, leaving the town with a small and unpopular grocery store.

In spite of this, Randolph today looks whole again. Most of the commercial space that was destroyed has been rebuilt. On the ashes of the burned-down buildings stand a new park with a gazebo, a three-story brick building housing the reopened Ben Franklin, and a brand-new Brooks Pharmacy, which replaced the old drug store.

Moreover, the impetus for reviving the downtown went beyond merely replacing what was destroyed. The town refurbished the nineteenth century freight house for the use of Stagecoach, a provider of transportation services, and convinced Amtrak to have its trains make a stop there. Main Street now sports a redone streetscape: New benches for resting and casual chat, handicap-accessible ramps, and pretty patches of flowers, maintained by the volunteer work of the town gardening club, have made Randolph’s Main Street a more beautiful place everyone can enjoy. In 1997, Time magazine even featured Randolph among a group of ten struggling small towns that had turned the tide.


LESSONS FROM THE MALL

Now that the crisis is over, people have relaxed and fewer are actively involved in pursuing the welfare of the downtown. But the threat to Randolph’s vitality from local malls and new development is as real as ever.

Both the downtowns and the malls are destinations where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. But malls have had the advantage of having one entity coordinating all the different parts with the single-minded goal of capturing retail dollars.

In malls, for instance, developers charge rents according to the particular mix of stores they want. The businesses that draw the largest number of customers to the mall are given preferential rents. Mall administrators also worry about the presentation of merchandise, knowing that a particularly unattractive display has fallout on other stores and that the reverse is also true — foot traffic to one store brings more potential customers past all the merchants’ windows. And, merchants are coordinated in their hours of operation and sometimes even in their seasonal sales and promotions, so that customers think of the mall as a destination, not a hit-or-miss shopping experience.

But, downtowns have learned a few lessons in the 40 years of competing with malls. So, Randolph’s CDC has hired Laura Morris to work part-time as a downtown manager. Morris uses the guidelines of the National Main Street Center, a nonprofit organization devoted to downtown revitalization, to coordinate downtown merchants and help them improve their businesses. She holds meetings with interested business owners every two weeks to plan promotions that bring people into town — festivals, sidewalk sales, and street fairs with live music — and also to deal with issues such as public order and street cleanliness.

Morris also hires outside consultants to help merchants improve their businesses. They have conducted market studies to improve merchants’ understanding of Randolph’s current customers as well as its potential markets. And, they have given downtown businesses technical assistance in product display and other ways of providing a better shopping experience.

But what malls can simply regulate, Laura Morris can only facilitate. Unlike malls that tend to house national chains, downtowns traditionally have a high concentration of small mom and pop operations. Getting stores to stay open late, for instance, is a major achievement. “People spend eight hours a day in front of the cash register; and when you ask that they be open past six on a Friday night, they either can’t fathom that many more hours, or can’t afford the extra help. Or they don’t feel that they do (enough) business to justify cutting into their family time,” says Morris.

And the downtown is not a mall. It serves community, religious, and civic functions and thus cannot be 100 percent driven to capturing retail dollars. “We interrupt people’s line of sight with trees or bicycle racks and other things that visually detract from the shopping,” says Morris. The gazebo Randolph set up, for instance, not only gives people an opportunity to interrupt shopping — something a mall wouldn’t want — but also can encourage loitering by people that mall developers would rather discourage.

On the other hand, the traditional functions that downtowns serve can be an advantage over malls. “You can’t revive retail with retail,” says Evan Richert, director of the Maine State Planning Office. Arts, cultural events, and entertainment draw people downtown and strengthen its role as community center. Institutions — the banks, the government offices, the post office, and the churches — underscore the importance of downtown, and retaining them is crucial. “If you can put two or three functions together, including government, from 9 to 5 and then restaurants and entertainment after hours and on weekends, then you can restore the vitality,” says Richert.


ETERNAL VIGILANCE

Randolph is like many other small cities that have been working to revive their downtowns. In a recent national survey, 68 percent of the cities that responded indicated that their downtown was more vital in 1995 than in 1985, notes Kent A. Robertson in the Journal of the American Planning Association. According to the National Main Street Center, close to $11 billion has been reinvested since 1980 in the 1,400 mostly smaller communities that follow its program.

Surely, the recent strength of the overall economy has helped. But, for the most part, the invisible hand by itself does not turn a deserted and boarded-up town center into a thriving vibrant place. A sluggish economy may deal the final blow to struggling downtown businesses, but an upturn may not restore the market share that downtowns have lost to malls and other retail centers. Improvements in Randolph and other places have been the result of ongoing, concerted efforts involving both the private and public sectors to ensure that all the pieces of the puzzle fall into place. It takes a long time and a lot of persistence to turn around a downtown.

But, the true test of whether these revitalization efforts are going to take root will ultimately depend on town residents. Although downtown is not just shopping, retail remains an important function. Boarded-up storefronts certainly put a damper on Fourth of July parades. After the work has been put in to find new niches for downtown markets and provide local businesses with management and coordination, it is still up to consumers to decide to shop there. Will they come

The question is particularly poignant in Randolph at this time. After the effort to expand and modernize the downtown Grand Union failed, developers started looking for a location outside of Randolph. As a result, a modern 35,000-square-foot supermarket is now being built one mile south of town and the town’s grocery store will close when the new one opens. Not only will Randolph have to worry about finding a new tenant for the vacated 10,000-square-foot lot, but also that the new supermarket could attract other businesses such as a bank branch, a new drug store, a video store, and other services that would directly compete with downtown.

Then again, maybe the new supermarket will have a positive impact if it retains the locals who are currently driving to West Lebanon and Berlin for their groceries — and presumably also shopping there for other items they could buy at Randolph’s downtown stores.

In Randolph’s favor, perhaps, is the heightened awareness of the downtown that it almost lost and has recovered. But there is no panacea. While every community may want to wear its Sunday best, just getting the downtown dressed up is not enough to make it lively. As Randolph’s example shows, revitalization can be a long struggle, and one that needs to be sustained with no definite moment of victory.

Randolph is rich in character and history, but can it thrive in today’s world? And, if it does, will it be at the expense of its current identity? Ultimately, the question for reviving a downtown is how to replace a lost role. Only each community can provide that answer. And, perhaps, in the process of doing so, strengthen the ties that bind it.

 

REVIVING RUTLAND

The difference between downtown Rutland, Vermont, in 1990 and 1999 is like “night and day,” says Bonnie Hawley, owner of Hawley’s Florist. In 1990, many retailers were closing and the future looked bleak, as the Diamond Run Mall was being planned a few miles south of town. “That was a horrible time. I don’t ever want to go back to that,” Hawley remarks.

With a population of 18,000, Rutland was too big to depend on stores that only served the neighborhood convenience market to revitalize its downtown — the way Randolph did. At the prompting of then Mayor Jeffrey Wennberg, a group of community, business, and civic leaders joined to develop a plan to save downtown. Instead of coming up with a single line of attack, they embarked on several overlapping market strategies. They created two organizations, the Rutland Redevelopment Authority — a city agency — and the Downtown Rutland Partnership (DRP), a private nonprofit organization, to manage and oversee the retail aspects of the downtown. To pay for these efforts, the city levied a special assessment on the approximately 280 properties in the special benefits district (a measure reconsidered by voters every three years).

The revitalization effort began by trying to develop a retail specialty that would not compete with the mall. The DRP hired a consulting firm to conduct an exhaustive market study. “We found that we had a lot of businesses servicing weddings. It was something we hadn’t thought of, but the list of businesses (caterers, florists, bakers, gown makers) was quite long,” says Dick Courcelle, director of the DRP.

Once this niche was identified, the DRP worked on creating joint marketing efforts to advertise and promote it. They publish a wedding business directory and host an elegant bridal show in Rutland every November to promote the downtown as a wedding center and to showcase wedding products. Bonnie Hawley has seen a positive impact on her flower shop. But it is hard to tell exactly how much of her new business has been generated by these efforts, because of developments that superseded them, in particular, the revamping of the Rutland Plaza.

Right in the center of the downtown, where the old railroad beds used to be, the Rutland Plaza was a rundown shopping center that had been built in the 1960s. Its design was outdated. It had a 23,000-square-foot supermarket that could not compete with the larger modern stores. And, the construction of the Diamond Run Mall seemed to signal its death knell, as K-Mart, one of the main anchors, decided to move to Diamond Run.

Encouraged in part by the changing atmosphere in the downtown, the owners of the Plaza decided to redevelop their property, which involved both a large expenditure and significant risk. The Rutland Redevelopment Authority acted as a clearinghouse to facilitate this effort. They helped all the parties involved bridge the gaps, from the architectural design to coordinating efforts with other agencies for permits.

The turning point came when Price Chopper Supermarkets made a commitment to locate a major supermarket at the Plaza. It “gave us the foundation to launch the revitalization of the shopping center,” recalls Bob Rechner, director of leasing at Heritage Realty Management Inc.

Once the Price Chopper Supermarket was in place, TJ Maxx decided to locate there, then came a nine-screen movie theater, and — since 1997 — a Wal-Mart that is unique for its downtown setting. The turnaround of the Rutland Plaza has been dramatic. The DRP estimates that the Plaza draws about 50,000 customers per week — bringing in people from the city as well as neighboring areas.

Not all of the revitalization strategies have been effective. A 590-space parking garage built to serve downtown employees stands mostly empty in the midst of criticism about the way it was built and controversy about who is to run it.

But this has not meant the end of downtown improvement efforts. The DRP is now focusing on two new niche marketing areas: restaurants and apparel.

 

USING PRESERVATION FOR REVITALIZATION

Many cities and towns are trying to make their downtowns competitive in today’s market by looking to the past. Over the past two decades, historic preservation has become an increasingly popular strategy used in downtown revitalization schemes.

One reason is that there has been a change in popular taste. Customers are reporting “mall fatigue,” according to retail experts such as Robert Gibbs, president of Gibbs Planning Group, Inc., in Birmingham, Michigan, and Carl Steidtmann, chief retail economist at PricewaterhouseCoopers. In focus groups and surveys, people say they are tired of the numbing sameness of suburban malls that have the same stores all over the country.

So, Main Street promoters have been banking on a reaction against what James Howard Kunstler calls sprawl’s “Geography of Nowhere” with a strategy in which older buildings and historical layouts are seen as a community’s greatest assets. The historic preservation strategy is based on gradual and incremental steps to refurbish, accentuate, and market Main Street’s distinctive aspects.

The strategy is not fail-safe. Older buildings can be small or badly configured for the requirements of modern businesses. Regulations that govern historic preservation can be burdensome and can even prevent the development of growth-promoting projects. Refurbishing older buildings can also be more expensive if they require the use of historically accurate materials, although requirements vary from project to project and depend on the standards that are set locally for historic preservation. However, there are some federal policies that attempt to make historic preservation a more attractive option for private investors. Under the Federal Rehabilitation Tax Credit, owners of buildings registered as National Historic Places can get a federal tax credit equal to 20 percent of building costs for revamping their property. New England has taken full advantage of this; according to The Wall Street Journal, Vermont leads the nation in the per-capita number of federally approved preservation projects.

Gentrification is another concern. Some critics worry that historic preservation can lead to the displacement of area residents as rising rents and property prices cause low-income residents and small businesses to leave. But, this problem can be mitigated, says Kennedy Smith, director of the National Main Street Center, by first focusing on helping business owners increase their businesses. Then — once the small businesses are more competitive — energies can be directed toward “making things look better,” says Smith.

And, these days, those who think using historic preservation is antithetical to economic development are in the minority. In a 1999 survey of small-city downtown revitalization strategies published in the Journal of the American Planning Association, historic revitalization was the most popular strategy, with 87 percent of the cities using it.

 

Stay Connected

contacts email alert Twitter RSS podcasts careers faqs videos
Regional Review Links