Re-opening the Shaftsbury Country Store?
Select Board chairman Tim Scoggins asked the commission to look into what other towns have done to support keeping businesses such as that one in the community. "I asked, with the board's knowledge, the planning commission to look into the feasibility of bringing back the country store," he said, "not really knowing what I was asking. But when the Country Store left there were a lot of people that were upset about that. It was really kind of the heart of the town, and when it left we kind of felt like what didn't have a place that was 'Shaftsbury' anymore.
"Since then after read an article or two, in different magazines, about towns that have re-vitalized their country stores by community effort," Scoggins said. "So I asked the planning commission to look into whether or not there's anything we can do."
After then-owners Evan and Tracy Galle decided to close the store in 2014, it briefly re-opened under the ownership of Stephanie Hockett in May of 2016, but after several problems with the 116-year old building emerged, the store closed again in July. Since then, the Route 7A business, once a community staple, has remained vacant.
The report looks into the former Country Store building, as well as a few others that the commission identified as potential homes for a new store.
"Just because that's been the site for the last 100 years doesn't mean it's the right place for the country store," said planning commission chairman Chris Williams. "We can't decide the business for some entrepreneur who hasn't been identified. We're just looking at what other people have done and what we see working in other parts of the state."
The current building, it said, contains 2,923 square feet of retail space, including walk-in coolers, display cases, and retail fixtures, as well as two apartments on the second floor that could serve as a secondary revenue stream. However, the plot of land the store sits on is only 0.15 acres, and there are additional problems with the space.
"Loading dock facilities are cramped and parking is very problematic, requiring backing out into busy Route 7A in some cases," reads the report. "This could be solved by renting parking space from adjacent properties. The 1,500 gallon septic tank was installed in 2001. It has reportedly failed."
Williams said that they had also considered the Mattison building across the street, which he said had held a country store and a laundromat in the past. "There would be a lot of expense in fitting up the building, code compliance issues," he said. "The square footage is actually a little bit bigger than the current country store building." However, he said the septic system is a problem at that location as well, and parking remains an issue.
The third building they looked at was the former Bank of Bennington building on Church Street. "The building is 1,500 square feet," said Williams. "It's too small for what's envisioned, but the lot is 1.1 acres and a substantial addition could be added, and that would be the obvious place to [install] a commercial kitchen. Parking could be expanded and septic could be expanded, but the complication is the driveway to the post office. That would have to be re-organized to make this possible."
The report also includes stories from Putney, West Townshend, Peru, and Hancock, towns that had varying degrees of success trying to maintain their country stores. In Putney, the local historical society raised over $1 million to restore their country store after it burned down. After it burned down and was rebuilt a second time, and the person they'd find to operate the store passed away of cancer, the Putney Historical Society took over operation of the building for a time, making them the first nonprofit organization to own and operate its downtown's biggest business.
The report concludes that almost all of the other efforts they studied were spurred by community involvement.
"Back in the day, the store really survived on people who inhabited the area, it wasn't outsiders coming in. They didn't depend on that," said Select Board member Joe Barber. "When the Harringtons owned it, when I was a kid growing up, it was always busy and parking didn't seem to be a problem. When Kevin and Tracy Galle owned it, a lot of times I'd want to go to the country store and couldn't because there was no place to park, so I'd go to Paulin's. It's as simple as that... I really think that was the kiss of death for that store, the parking."
"As Tim gave us the task to look at this, one of the things he emphasized was that it be a gathering place for Shaftsbury," said Williams. "I would point to the model of the Shaftsbury Community Club up in my neighborhood in northern Shaftsbury as a community-funded gathering place. This is a country church that was donated to the community back in the early 40's. It's maintained by the community and goes through ups and downs depending on who's managing it and what sort of program is being put forward, but its in an upswing at the moment. When there's a community supper at this place you can hardly get in the door, you'd better come early."
"While there is anecdotal evidence that the loss of the country store was mourned by many, Shaftsbury has yet to see similar home-grown efforts to bring it back," said Scoggins after being presented with the report. "I think the end of the day what the story is is there's not a lot that we can do here as a Select Board, except maybe letting people know Shaftsbury would like to have a country store back, that there are properties available, that there are issues that have been looked at by the planning commission, maybe it'll spark an idea in someone's mind."
Reach staff writer Derek Carson at 802-447-7567, ext. 122 or @DerekCarsonBB
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