A Walk
in the Park

Bob Miller, owner of REM Development, is expanding Whitcomb Park on Avenue D in Williston and encouraging his tenants to do the same

by Sean Toussaint

With his Green Mountain Messenger delivery service, Doug Haser needs a place near the highway and the airport. His biggest worry is parking though, "and there's plenty of parking here," Haser says.

Bob Miller, owner of REM Development, eases his car into the parking lot of his Whitcomb Park office on Avenue D in Williston minutes before a scheduled meeting, staying true to his first business principle: Be on time.

He briefly greets his guest and quickly dives behind his desk, ruffling through messages and returning a phone call his second principle. Then it's back into his car for a tour of Whitcomb Park, the industrial park he's been developing since 1984. By the way, his third and final espoused principle is always be honest.

"We started building up the park before we had any tenants. We started with those two buildings right there," Miller says, pointing to two units at the front of Whitcomb Park. "I built them with the two big bay doors because I thought that's
what people wanted," Miller says. "It turned out they wanted something a little different. You'll never get a drop on the market; there's no such thing."

Winding through the connecting streets of the industrial park, Miller points out the freshly mowed green grass, the absence of trash, and a picnic table full of workers enjoying lunch outside. He stops twice, first to talk to a tenant and a second time to talk to two landscapers. All three greet Miller with a jovial "Bobby."

Miller says he has a strong relationship with his tenants because he treats them with respect, just as long as they return the favor. He tells a story of customizing a building for a national company that was threatening to defer rent payments in violation of the contract. (Buildings in Whitcomb Park are built to spec, with REM customizing the work area to fit clients' needs.)

Miller says he asked for the key from a supervisor the company had sent and told him the deal was off. The next day, Miller says, the head of the company was on the phone asking him what needed to be done to get things back on track.

Rock Frost, shop manager at Architectural Interior Products says if he has any problems at his workshop, Miller is "Right on it. He makes things happen."

"These are the kinds of things that happen," Miller says. "Some of the bigger companies come in and think they can start making the rules just because you're in Vermont. You've got to be able to go into that sort of deal with equal strength. If you absolutely have to go through with a deal and the other side doesn't have to you're dead meat."

Those are a few of the lessons Miller has instilled in Tim, his son and vice president of REM development.

For as long as he can remember, Tim says he's worked at Whitcomb Park, from mowing the lawn to filing paper work. While his father deals with almost all of the office tasks meeting with prospective tenants, drawing up plans for buildings and renovations, making sure the subcontractors are delivering and materials are delivered Tim is out in the field making sure the jobs his father lines up, get done.

"One of the things that works best for us, I think, is that we're not an absent landlord," Tim says. "People come up here all of the time to see if we can get something done for them, and we treat them all the same. We have some tenants who've been here as long as we have, and that's why they started with us because of the service we offer."

USF Red Star freight company has had a terminal in the park since 1986, one of 33 terminals along the East Coast. When the New Jersey-based company moved in, operations manager Roxie Pike says a lot of the trucks stopped in Burlington as a middle point between deliveries, but as the city grew so did the demand for trucking services.

John Lika, owner of pet toy manufacturer Fat Cat Inc., moved into Whitcomb Park within the past year and has already expanded his warehouse space.

Now, the company runs up to eight loads a day locally, Pike says, helped in large part from neighboring Taft Corners. Having been there for 14 years, Pike says she's seen the park establish itself from the dirt road establishment she first remembers. The only drawback she could think of is the traffic on Industrial Avenue outside of the park that makes it a little tougher for trucks to access the terminal.

"Our company has doubled in size since we first moved in here," Pike says. "This is still one of the smallest terminals, but it's definitely one of the cleanest. It's totally different from some of the other terminals that are in industrial parks surrounded by barbed wire and security guards. How many industrial parks do you know that have wild turkeys and deer grazing on the hillside?"

It might have been the cleanliness and efficiency of the structures that lured Anne and John Lika's company, Fat Cat Inc., from Fort Ethan Allen in Colchester to Whitcomb Park, but John says it's the service that kept him there.

Fat Cat manufactures more than 30,000 cat and dog toys a year with such names as Postal Plaything and Revenge Rover. The company started out in the
Lika's home with Anne designing the toys, John handling promotion and Anne's mother sewing the toys in Ohio. After the company had made a name for itself, the Likas hired sewers around Burlington and moved into a converted horse barn in Fort Ethan Allen.

When the company moved to a 10,000-square-foot space in Whitcomb Park, the Likas felt the immediate benefit of having a warehouse compared to makeshift storage space. Fat Cat has moved manufacturing to Asia but has kept the corporate offices in Whitcomb Park.

"If we outgrow our space, we have the ability to get more space," Lika says. Whatever we need or need to create, Bobby can do it. That way I can concentrate on business and turn over that stuff to someone who offers the full service."

That's the thinking behind Whitcomb Park. Miller says the cookie cutter nature of the buildings allows companies to move in quickly with the confidence of being able to customize the inside all of which REM is willing to do. "If you're going with a build-to-suit," Miller says, "most of the time they'll tell you to come back in two years when it's done."

The square footage ranges from the smallest office of 500 to a warehouse of about 40,000. The tenants are a mix of national and local businesses. Miller says it doesn't matter how big or small the company is, but he will turn a business away he doesn't think it will make a good neighbor to existing tenants. "I like to think of this as a commercial park," Miller says. "We feel that we take a pride of ownership in what we have here."

With about 30 businesses, the park has room for lease. Miller says it's tough to say how much because of the degree to which he can change the size of any office or warehouse.

For every company that moves out, tenants say several are looking to move in. Doug Haser of Green Mountain Messenger moved into Whitcomb Park in October from Waterbury. He was looking for a place close to the airport and highway to move his deliver company that transports everyday items like blood to hospitals, car parts to service stations and bank money to the Federal Reserve.

Haser says he met with Miller on a Friday afternoon and looked at a 1,400-square-foot building. He says he called Miller the following Tuesday to close on the deal, but the space had been rented. The space eventually opened up and Haser jumped at the chance to lease it. With deliveries all over the Northeast, He needs a place that is centrally located and easily accessible. It doesn't hurt that he could expand the storage space.

"The location is perfect and the pricing was very good," Haser says. "My biggest issue was overnight parking, and there's plenty of parking here. I hope that if I get on Bobby's good side, he'll eventually let me move into a bigger space."

Miller says he thinks the flexibility to move into large quarters is a selling point, but he is often asked by prospective tenants why they should lease a building when they could pay comparable money to own one. "These are incubator spaces," Miller says. "We give them an opportunity to put their money and concentration into their business. When someone asks me why they should lease if they have nothing to show for it after 10 years, I ask them when they're going to start their own power company; rent is just another cost of doing business."

When Miller started Whitcomb Park named after F.W. Whitcomb, the gravel company that once operated on the premises he says there wasn't much else around and Williston seemed like a long way to travel from Burlington. But now, "Burlington is on the radar screen," Miller muses. "People are coming in from the outside, falling in love with Vermont and thinking this would be a great place to own a business."

That's one of the reasons REM is in the planning phase of developing 20 additional acres for Whitcomb Park. That part of the park will have five buildings three of which Miller says have interested tenants and a connecting road to neighboring Avenue C. The size of the operation might be in constant flux, but the nature of the business doesn't seem to have changed much.

"We do a lot of business on a handshake," Miller says with a grateful smile. "If we don't feel we can do that, we don't want to do business with the people on the other side of the table."

Whitcomb Industrial Park Building Directory

Architectural Interior Products
Residential and commercial interior building and restoration
Rock Frost, shop manager

Blodgett Supply and Distribution Co.
Appliances sales
Sam Levin, president

Bly Communications Inc.
2-way radio sales and service
Bill Bly, president

Engenuity Inc.
Consulting engineering services
Jerry Chabot, president

Fat Cat Inc.
Cat and dog toy manufacturer
John Lika, president

Fulfillment Systems International
Freight forwarding and fulfillment company
Kerri Muir, operations manager

Green Mountain Messenger
Pickup and delivery service
Doug Haser, owner

Green Mountain Office Machine
Office equipment
Richard Lowrey, general manager Heritage Environmental Services
Treatment, storage and disposal of hazardous and industrial waste
Ken Price, president

Holyoke Equipment Co. Commercial food equipment supplies
J.R. Gregoire, general manager

Ikon Office Solutions
Office products
William Gage, general manager

Micro Miniature Bearings Co.
Manufacturing equipment bearings sales
John Miller III, branch manager

NEMF
Freight company
Lou Deforge, branch manager

New England High Purity
High purity systems fabricator
Adam Tarr, owner

Northeast Information Systems
Telephone systems sales
C.G. Fink, president

Patterson Dental Supply Co.
Dental supplies sales
Glenn Frank, office representative Peak Enterprises Inc./HS Dent Co.
Marketing firm
Mark Gonsalvef, president

PPG Industries
Auto glass sales
Brian Nilson, branch manager

R.E. Michel Co.
Wholesale heating, ventilation, air conditioning and refrigeration
Scott Labombard, branch manager

REM Development
Real estate developer
Bob Miller, owner

Servpro of Western Vermont Inc.
Cleaning service, and fire and water restoration
Lori MacFarlane, president

Telecite Inc.
Electronics company
Angelo Guercioni, president

USF Red Star
Freight company
Roxie Pike, operations manager

Vermont Special Olympics
Programs for the mentally and physically challenged
Bob Halvan, director

Originally published in June 2001 Business People-Vermont