In the Works

A crucial mix of flexible management, ingenious tenants and prime location create a relaxed and productive atmosphere at the Marble Works Partnership in Middlebury

by Sean Toussaint

Netaka White, owner of Artisan Gear, says the Marble Works is "a dream place to work."

The workweek leading up to a sunny Friday afternoon at Land·Works in Middlebury was a bit hectic. The staff had run itself ragged working on projects the environmental consulting and landscape firm has looming on the horizon, from design work for the City Center in South Burlington to helping design products for the public works department in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Hoping a quick break in the routine would serve as a refresher, Land·Works owner David Raphael decided to join the March weather as it took a respite from the tense monotony of winter. After convincing a few employees there would be plenty of time for work, Raphael persuaded three of them to join him in a game of Foosball.

Taking advantage of the weather, two women who hadn't participated in the Foosball match offered to pick up lunch for a birthday party later in the day. Leaving their jackets and car keys in the office, they walked into the sunshine, beside the thawing Otter Creek and along the sidewalks of the Marble Works Partnership a mixed-use commercial district with approximately 80,000 square feet of retail, office and service business space in downtown Middlebury.

Situated on the Otter Creek and connected to downtown Middlebury by an historic footbridge, the Marble Works Partnership continues to grow as a vital part of the town's business community.

"We love Middlebury," Raphael exclaims as though the thought had just occurred to him, "and Marble Works is so convenient. We can run down to Noonie's Deli for lunch, and it's great to have Middlebury Print (and Copy) within walking distance although I don't know how much they appreciate it when we walk in with a huge print order at 4 p.m. on a Friday."

Once a hotbed of marble manufacturing throughout the 1800s and into the 1900s, the Marble Works has been transformed into an eclectic mix of offices and retail shops. They include a wide range of environments from a national advertising company with just under 20 employees to a piano teacher and her mahogany grand piano tucked away in a crimson-carpeted, jagged marble basement of one of the oldest buildings in the Marble Works Partnership.

Many of the offices are decorated in the feel of a prosperous business. Some are painted in bright hues and furnished with the latest computer networks that let people view each other's work without ever having to look over anyone's shoulder.

Karen Phelps (left), owner of Noonie Deli, and her daughter Genny Zecher busy in the kitchen. Zecher says she likes the location off the beaten path and the abundant parking of the Marble Works Partnership.

"My daughter came in the other day," says Raphael, who recently remodeled and expanded his office. "She said the office looked like an up-and-coming dotcom I told her we're not up-and-coming. I'd like to think we're already there."

While each business runs according to its own cycle, the quality of life that surrounds each tenant is not lost on the rush of the workweek. Whether it's taking time out for a quick game of Foosball during the winter or heading onto the lush green lawns of summertime to toss a football, business owners and their employees at the Marble Works are quick to point out how fortunate they are to work and live in Middlebury.

"We were on the verge of moving to Vergennes a year ago, but for one reason or another it wound up not working out," says Raphael, who employs five full-time and two part-time employees mostly twenty-something professionals, two of whom are Middlebury graduates. "I'm really glad it didn't. I don't think we really wanted to leave. We needed more space and when some opened up, Marilyn was very supportive of helping us move into the extra room."

Salzburg Seminar
Seminar group with classes in Austria; Olin Robinson, president Raphael was referring to the partnership's general manager, Marilyn Wakefield, who handles the day-to-day operations for Kim Smith, owner of the Marble Works and a member of the original partnership that purchased the property in 1986.

The partnership bought the Marble Works from the Cartmell family with the intent of rehabilitating the historic buildings constructed in 1898. In its marble manufacturing heyday, the Marble Works employed nearly 200 people. Today, about that same number of people make their living there, and the history of the land is preserved in the slabs of decorated marble throughout the grounds. The Marble Work's Memorial Bridge provides pedestrians with views of the historic ruins from the Great Fire of 1891 that destroyed much of Middlebury and the surrounding area.

"Basically, the original partners wanted to preserve the history of the Marble Works and rehabilitate it into something that could be used in current days," Wakefield says. "From what the partnership started out as and what it has grown into it's changed a lot." In an effort to maintain the core buildings, the partnership sought, and received, local and state permit approvals for a Certified Historic Rehabilitation project under the auspice of the National Park Service, the partnership's literature reads. After completing the site's only late 20th century building a three-story-high, 19,000-square-foot condominium constructed in 1990 the partnership was ready for retail businesses. Unfortunately, the Vermont economy wasn't. "When the place was ready for occupancy, the economy in Vermont was less than flat," Wakefield says. "Once it started to pick up again, the focus had changed to office space with a mix of retail."

John Chamberlain, CPA, left Burlington to open shop In Middlebury, a place he says offers just the right pace.

The region's commitment to the Marble Works and the flexibility the complex offers are two reasons Netaka White relocated his company, Artisan Gear, to the business district. White started the company, which puts out a full line of hemp canvas gear and other outdoor accessories, in 1989 and decided to move the office-side of the operation from the Northwest to Vermont in 1995.

White left the company's production side in Oregon and Seattle and set out to open a main office in the Northeast. He said he looked all over Vermont but settled on Middlebury because of what he calls the area's creative climate.

White, with his wife and brother, opened a 600-square-foot office building in the Marble Works. The trio outgrew the space, and the Marble Works' partnership offered a 2,500-square-foot space Artisan Gear immediately filled. "This has been a dream place to work," White says. "You really can't beat the location, especially because of its proximity to our retail store on Main Street Greenfields. The management is always willing to help in any way they can, and there is a great mix of tenants."

Those same characteristics drew Evergreen Advertising and Marketing Inc. to the Marble Works. The advertising firm started in Middlebury in the old stone building on the edge of the property as one of the Marble Works' original tenants. When the company outgrew its surroundings, the partnership was eager to accommodate it by leasing the entire third floor in Marble Works' newly built office building.

Evergreen and its 17 employees concentrate on direct mailing, mostly for national clients. The company opened in New York City, but by the 1980s the owners were looking for a change of pace and relocated to Middlebury. They were lured by the rural setting as well as the town's ability to offer a social climate that some Vermont towns don't have, Evergreen financial director Susie Martell says. "It's nice when we do have clients who come up here to take a look at our operation there's a lot to do and places to stay," she says. "It's not like we're off in some big field somewhere."

The Marble Works is within a couple of minutes walk from Middlebury's Main Street and two hotels. The Middlebury Inn and the Swift House are favorites of business owners who provide places to stay for their visiting clients. Shops around the town center; including a photography store and a stationery business, offer the Marble Works' tenants practically everything they need to get through a business day. The National Bank of Middlebury at the bottom of Main Street is handy for financial transactions, and the town's renowned college has a replenishing pool of interns and prospective employees.

Wakefield says the complex offers "the best of both worlds." The Marble Works is close enough to downtown for business owners to access, but far enough removed that people aren't hindered by pedestrian and automobile traffic. The area is also one of the last remaining places around Main Street that can be built upon, although Wakefield says the partnership has no plans to do so in the immediate future.

For all of its amenities, the Marble Works has at least one noticeable drawback. "The biggest challenge for us is access," Wakefield says. "There are two ways in and only one way out. It's one of the reasons why people who come here have to be very destination-oriented."

That's not completely ominous, though, Wakefield explains. She says a lot of people come to the Marble Works for a specific purpose to pick up cold medicine at the pharmacy or check out a movie from the video store and they wind up strolling around the premises. "There's a nice picnic area in the summer, and we have such a great selection of businesses that get a lot of people coming over just to look around."

A shot of the Marble Works most recent building from under the bridge.

The complex boasts a number of retail stores, including dia Ltd. and Waterfront Video, but in the beginning the partnership had only one retail business, the Marble Works Pharmacy. Not a bad anchor store, considering the pharmacy has continued to lure a tremendous number of people over the foot bridge to the Marble Works. Wakefield credits the bridge for transforming the area into a cohesive part of downtown commerce. Signs along the town's main thoroughfares installed by the Middlebury Business Association direct traffic mostly tourists who otherwise might not be clued in to the business district.

Noonie Deli is another reason people veer from Main Street and into the Marble Works. Not only is it one of the few places in the area that open for coffee early in the morning, but by lunchtime the place fills up with college kids, business owners and tourists. "(The location) is bad and good," says Genny Zecher, the owner's daughter. "A good thing is there is plenty of parking. It's not that easy to find, though, if you're not looking for it. We depend a lot on word-of- mouth. The shop owners on Main Street usually recommend us when people are looking for a cup of coffee or a place to eat."

Then, there are those businesses that relish being removed from the beaten path. John Chamberlain of Chamberlain and Associates, CPA, left Burlington in 1987 when he says it started to feel too much like a big city. Two years into business on Court Street in Middlebury, Chamberlain was contacted by the Marble Works' original partnership and asked if he would be interested in moving into the business district. After deciding to make the move, Chamberlain quickly realized what the existing business owners already did: Not only is this a desirable match for his company but the management was there to accommodate. "For us, access was never an issue," Chamberlain says. "We make our first contact with clients by telephone. It's easy to tell people how to get here; so for us, its easy to get to, and there's plenty of parking."

When the partnership finished renovations to one of the buildings, Chamberlain moved into bigger quarters. The accounting firm now employs five and handles finances for small businesses and personal tax returns as far away as California. While Chamberlain and Associates might lack the feel of an up-and-coming dotcom business that resonates throughout many of its neighbors' offices, the stone wall and cozy atmosphere presents a relaxed feeling that seems to be one of the precepts of operating in the Marble Works.

Vermont Magazine, a 100,000 circulation, glossy publication, moved to the Marble Works in 1996 from Bristol to be more centrally located. Freelance writers and photographers plucked from all over Vermont produce most of the copy for the magazine. "I think there are a lot of good writers in Vermont," says Elisa Fitzgerald, the magazine's advertising and promotions director. "What's hard is finding and keeping good people in the sales position, which we've been lucky to do."

Like many of the offices throughout the Marble Works, there's a strong sense of enjoyment; and in this particular office, a sense of humor is in rapport with almost anyone who steps through the door. Dogs and children are as much a part of the surroundings as telephones and computers, accentuating the laid-back milieu. "You hear a lot of 'you-can't-get-there-from-here' in Vermont," Fitzgerald says, "but Middlebury is a good spot for a statewide magazine because it's kind of a middle point in Vermont. You can get anywhere from here." •

Buildings Directory April 2001

Brett's Making Waves
Hair salon; Brett Weeks, owner

Palmer Legal Services
Law office and negotiations consulting; Michael Palmer, owner

Community Investment Associates
Investment services; Rollie White, owner

Marble Works Partnership
Owns and manages the Marble Works; Kim Smith, owner

Headstart (CVOEO, Addison Community Action)
Support to families with children ages 3 to 5; Sharon Whickman; manager

Panda House Restaurant
Chinese restaurant

Vites & Herbs Shoppe
Sales of vitamin, herb and health supplements; Fran White, owner

Middlebury Print & Copy
Commercial and personal printing and copying; Sam Trudel, owner

Porter Hospital Subsidiaries
Marble Works Pharmacy
; Jeff Waite, general manager
Medicine Chest, medical goods for rent or purchase
Orthopedics; John Ayres, MD
Practice Management, financial services for the hospital

DePasquale's Deli/Fresh seafood market
Seafood; deli; Mark Reardon, owner

Waterfront Video
Video store;William Folmar, owner

Artisan Gear
Hemp canvas gear and outdoor accessories;Netaka White, owner

Environmental consulting and
landscaping design; David Raphael, owner

Addison County State Attorney
Stateattorney's office; John Quinn, attorney

Danforth Pewterers
Retail store for manufactured pewter; Fred and Judi Danforth, owners

Noonie Deli
Deli and breakfast shop;Karen Phelps, owner

dia, LTD.
Women's sweaters and knit wear; Dia Jenks, owner

Marilyn Taggart
Piano teacher; Marilyn Taggart, owner

Chamberlain & Associates CPA
Certified public accountant; Jon Chamberlain, owner

Vermont Magazine
Bimonthly Vermont publication; David D. Sleeper, publisher

Originally published in April 2001 Business People-Vermont