Building Block

The Basin Block has served as a sign of what Vergennes can become and what a 28-member syndication can achieve.

by Sean Toussaint

The Otter Creek Investment Fund used $300,000 in investments and a loan from the Chittenden Bank to transform 229 Main St. in Vergennes from an eyesore to an attraction. Eight businesses occupy the building that was almost turned into Section 8 housing five years ago.

For the tenants and investors of the Basin Block at 229 Main St. in Vergennes, the historic building that has come back to life over the past two years mirrors the resurrection of Vermont's oldest city.

Throughout the 1990s, while the commercial vitality of downtown Vergennes continued its steep decline, so did 229 Main St. The building was condemned, and in the late-'90s the city was exploring the possibility of using it for Section 8 housing.

A group of residents began meeting to discuss strategies to spark an economic revitalization for Vergennes with a focus on the downtown area, which consists for the most part of storefronts along Vermont 22A.

Cultural efforts had been undertaken to restore the Vergennes Opera House at the north end of Main Street and the Bixby Library to the south, and many community members thought it time for the city to turn its attention toward commercial development.

About 28 residents and business owners formed a syndication known as the Otter Creek Investment Fund in May 1998 and invested more than $300,000 to go toward the group's first purchase.

Most community members didn't have too look far since they passed the decaying building at 229 Main St. every time they headed into Middlebury to buy groceries or drove toward U.S. 7 on their way to work in Burlington.

Paul Vachon is director of the Vergennes Partnership, a nonprofit group set up to implement the city's two-year-old revitalization plan. The partnership did not play a direct role in the building's resurrection, but it supported the investment fund's efforts and has a poster board in the office decorated with pictures of before- and after-shots of 229 Main St. "This couch came to symbolize what we were trying to do," says Vachon, pointing to a picture of the building when a couch was against one of its wall. "It sat on the side of the building for years, through snow and rain, just rotting away." The couch is no longer there; neither are the broken windows or the depressing appearance.

For about four months, the group discussed the building's resurrection. Architects, contractors and business experts who had invested in the building helped decide what various spaces should be used for, assessed the demand for the location, and designed the facade.

Today, the fully occupied building blends with the rest of the Main Street. Three retail spots at sidewalk level attract passers-by, and a building directory lists five offices.

"The Basin Block is the Vergennes version of modern commercial space with all the amenities a business owner could want," says Jeffry Glassberg, an independent project development council and spokesperson for the Otter Creek Investment Fund. "It clearly illustrates the potential inherent in a revitalized downtown."

The city chipped in $20,000 to improve the sidewalk and beautify the landscape, and the building is now wheel chair accessible.

Jane Garbose is co-owner of the Vergennes Counseling Service at the end of the hallway on the second floor. "Handicapped ramps and accessibility broaden our referrals," Garbose says. "It's not something you think about until you have a patient in a wheelchair tell you how great it is that they had no problem getting up to your office."

Garbose worked with her partner, Kristin Park, at Addison County's counseling services in Middlebury. They had talked about the lack of adequate mental health clinics in Vergennes and started looking for space to open one in 1999.

They found a house by Otter Creek that was being refinished but decided they would rather be in a building with other tenants. Garbose says this affords their clients a certain degree of privacy. "When someone comes in here, they can come into our office without anyone knowing."

Michael Dipalermo and Jason Fitzgerald of Long Trail Physical Therapy on the first floor of the Basin Block recently moved into Vergennes when they determined there was an untapped market in the area for physical therapists.

Mary Kinson (left) is the president of the board of directors and co-manager of the Otter Creek Food Co-Op, which was established after the city went without a grocery store for eight years. Using the money raised during a year-long fundraiser along with a survey generated by the city that listed a grocery store as one of the conveniences the city needs most, the co-op received two start-up loans. The biggest was $80,000 from the Chittenden Bank.

They continue to see patients in their 3,500-square-foot office in Burlington but say they see more patients in their 800-square-feet Vergennes location about four patients an hour, up to 12 hours a day, four days a week. That number is boosted by workers from warehouse facilities for the Goodrich Co. and Country Home Products. Once a month, Dipalermo goes to the Goodrich location at 5:30 am to demonstrate some preventive exercises employees can use to stave off repetitive motion injuries.

"Then there are the weekend warriors, the high school kids, which is good because once we see them we often get to see their parents," Dipalermo says. The high school's athletic trainer, Amy Pudvar, works part-time in the office and helps direct students there for therapy.

Because his office is independent, Dipalermo says he can spend as much time with his patients as he sees fit, some
times up to an hour and a half. The down side is that he has to compete against hospitals that are buying doctors' practices one of his biggest sources for referrals and installing physical therapists within those offices.

"It's the same old story of trying to fight a big business in a small town," Dipalermo says, "but we can't complain. We've had a great experience here so far, and you can really feel a sense of community and camaraderie. I think we see our company continuing to go into smaller towns, hopefully with bigger locations."

"The building is unique in the sense that some of the folks whose businesses are located here are also very involved in the revitalization of Vergennes," Glassberg says. "The private sector's effort to undertake that revitalization along with the public effort to enhance Vergennes' image is an example of what can happen throughout the city if the two continue working together. If that wasn't happening as well as it is, I probably would not have become involved with the Basin Block project."

Gerianne Smart, owner of Smart Communication, was one of the first tenants in the Basin Block. Before the move, she worked out of a loft in the Kennedy Brother Factory Store. Her company sells advertising for magazines like Vermont Life, Vermont Life Explorer and Middlebury College's alumni magazine. Its other services include public relations and marketing design. She says 95 percent of her clients are in Vermont, with a few New York businesses advertising in Vermont Life because of their proximity to the Green Mountain State.

Smart volunteers as the head of the Vergennes Opera House revitalization effort, which had its headquarters in her office for a while before moving to the opera house. "When the Basin Block came up for lease, I knew I wanted to be a part of it," Smart says. "I liked the idea of being involved in another notch of the restoration project."

In addition to Smart Communication's four employees, one of whom works out of southern Vermont, the company takes on high school interns, teaching them business skills as simple as how to dress and as complex as the nature of the printing process.

"There's a certain climate in doing business in a downtown area that you don't get in a rural one," Smart says. "Not a day goes by that I don't run into someone from another company."

None of the businesses have more than four full-time employees, and It seems that everyone is involved in some
effort to make the city a better place to live and work.

That connection is what City Manager Randy Friday says is so contagious about the Basin Block. He says the 28 members who came together to purchase the building were a catalyst for the city to see what it could do to make the downtown area more attractive to residents and businesses.

"The Basin Block is very much a reflection of the city," Friday says. "All of the businesses are stable. I'm hearing that at least one is looking to expand, which shows that the building is spawning even more growth. And these are people who are connected to the city and the outlying agricultural areas.

"Vergennes is not attractive to a Wal-Mart or a Sears, and that's all right with us. We would rather see a place like the Basin Block with seven or eight businesses who are involved with the community."

Though nearly all of the business owners and their employees express the same ideas, there are inherent challenges in the small business climate.

Marcia Chase owns Thomas Business Agency Inc. in the Basin Block. The company focuses on taxes for businesses, individuals, farms and estates. Chase has two full-time employees and one part-time employee, except for tax season when the payroll jumps to five. She says she will start adding employees at the beginning of January when companies finish their last payrolls and she can start processing W-2s.

Chase says she has many small business clients between Burlington and Middlebury and enjoys working in that type of atmospher. On the down side, however, Chase says her biggest challenge is getting paid. "They need to pay the electric bill and rent before they get to me," Chase says. Still, Thomas Business Agency is committed to working with small businesses, many of which are located along Main Street.

One floor down from Thomas Business, Mary Kinson is struggling with her own challenges. Kinson is the president of the board of directors and co-manager of the Otter Creek Food Co-Op, which was established after the city went without a grocery store for eight years.

Abby Hummel (left), Gerianne Smart and Nancy Lindberg of Smart Communication display magazines for which they sell advertising. Smart, who owns of the company, says, "When the Basin Block came up for lease, I knew I wanted to be a part of it. I liked the idea of being involved in another notch of the restoration project."

The co-op has about 150 members who pay $20 a year to help with operating costs. Another 100 members signed up the first year as a good will gesture to help the store get on its feet. Using the money raised that first year along with a survey generated by the city that listed a grocery store as one of the conveniences the city needs most, the co-op was able to receive two start-up loans. The biggest was $80,000 from the Chittenden Bank.

The co-op has seven years to pay back the loans, which cuts down on the immediate possibility of profit, but Kinson says the short-term loan helps the store chip away at the principal. If the store does turn a profit, the money will go to its members.

Between 10 and 15 volunteers help out each week, stocking pantries, breaking down bulk and sorting through mail. Most of the food comes from the Northeast Cooperative in Brattleboro. Produce, honey and syrup comes from local farmers. Bread is from the Vermont Bread Co.

"Being a small co-op, obviously people are going to want to see more," says Kinson as she stands over a notebook with suggestions from customers. "It's always difficult to meet everyone's needs."

As treasurer and accountant for the Vergennes Partnership, Maureen Greenhaus of Greenhaus Financial Services Inc. wants to see all the businesses in the Basin Block succeed, not the least being her own.

Greenhaus worked for a Middlebury accounting firm before opening a financial services company with her husband, David. She has about 150 clients, many of whom came with her from Middlebury. "It seems funny because it's only 12 miles away,
but there was a time when people from Middlebury would never come to Vergennes."

When she was moving to Waltham, two miles south of Vergennes, Greenhaus says her coworkers couldn't understand why she wanted to move closer to a city that was defined by a juvenile detention center, The Weeks School, when she could live in a town with the illustrious Middlebury College.

That perception has changed over the years, Greenhaus says. "There's an economy here. People from Middlebury are coming up to shop that never used to happen before. But the only way it's going to survive is if we support it. The more you make an effort to make a vital economy, the more people are going to want to come here."

Originally published in November 2001 Business People-Vermont