What’s Brewing in St. Johnsbury?

Last week I spoke at Breakout Bakery, a start-up Social-Entrepreurial venture, with plans to provide job training and life skills to formerly incarcerated individuals through the operation of a local and wholesale bakery. One of the bakery’s founders, Darryll Rudy, was recently featured in Bess O’brien’s documentary, Coming Home. Coming Home tells the story of participants in the Circle of Support & Accountability program, a program with the power to dramatically impact one’s ability to lead a crime-free life. I wasn’t at Breakout Bakery to tell the COSA story, though. I was there to tell the story of St. Johnsbury.

St. Johnsbury has long been good at telling the story of its history. We are fortunate to have valued historians, like Peggy Pearl and the St. Johnsbury History & Heritage Center. St. Johnsbury, though, is now learning how to tell the story of its evolution. For quite some time, many stories about St. Johnsbury began with, “It’s too bad about St. Johnsbury…” and would go on to describe some poor judgement, or unfortunate event. The story would end there, without looking to solutions, alternatives, or new ways of thinking, but it would be repeated, time and again. However, in the past year, I really sense a shift in thinking in so many people I encounter.

To help me tell the story of St. Johnsbury’s development, I brought a few guests with me. Business owners and community members who are all doing some pretty exciting things that will launch downtown in the near future. Before I introduced my guests, I shared progress reports on some key projects in the works.

Lamoille Valley Rail Trail. The Lamoille Valley Rail Trail extension into downtown, made possible through funding from the Northern Borders Regional Commission, will reach its destination on Bay Street in September 2019. Preliminary designs were submitted to the town in September 2018 by project engineer, VHB. After feedback was provided, updated plans were submitted in December. Original plans included converting the former K.C. Rental building into a Trailhead Center, but a report issued by the consulting structural engineer recommended full demolition. Utilizing funding from the Brownfield Revitalization Fund, the hazardous material abatement will be completed prior to demolition. We will look to other area vacancies to fill the need for a trailhead center.

As part of the public awareness raising event we hosted in partnership with NVRH and AARP in early September, attendees were asked to rate the amenities they most wanted to see at the Trailhead Center. A public restroom/water fountain, bike and river sports rentals, and a picnic area were the top three choices among respondents. The mural created that day remains in storage while we work to find a suitable location for display.

The Glove Factory  The long-shuttered Glove Factory, located at 146 Railroad St., is under new ownership committed to bringing the building up to code and outfitted to serve a significant purpose in town for the right business. There have been a variety of businesses interested in the space, and we are eager to see that large space at the Southern entrance to downtown filled with life again.

Depot Square Apartments Few downtown projects have been as long anticipated, long dreamed of, and long hoped for than the revitalization of the former New Avenue Hotel, located at 10 Eastern Avenue. Housing Vermont purchased the property in July 2018 and immediately brought in Summit Property Management. Kate Bertolini, the local property manager for Summit, spruced up the office space where she now spends afternoons. The renovations of the residential floors will begin in early 2020. Prior to that, Housing Vermont will be securing financing for the renovation, with an expected budget exceeding $8 million. The project, once known as Depot Square Apartments, has been rebranded as New Avenue.

The current tenants will be relocated during renovations. Current residents will continue to receive rental assistance when they move, thanks to tenant protection vouchers arranged by the Vermont State Housing Authority and Housing Vermont. Housing Vermont tells us that when renovations are complete, residents will have the opportunity to move back into the building. “Housing Vermont will focus not only on the physical renovations of the building, but will also focus on positive outcomes for the residents” noted Kathy Beyer, Vice President for Development at Housing Vermont. “We will work to bring health and wellness programs to residents, and create a supportive and vibrant community as part of the transformation.”

As for the ground level retail space, a local investor group, New Depot Square Commercial Properties, LLC., a partnership between Kingdom Development Company and Northeastern Vermont Regional Hospital, took ownership of the space in November 2018. Renovations to the ground floor will coordinate with renovations on upper levels. There is no definitive plan for the spaces, but project architects Bob Duncan and Taryn Barrett, from Duncan Wisniewski Architects of Burlington, have reviewed historic images of the building and construction manager, Breadloaf Construction has extensive experience renovating historic buildings. **Thanks to Kathy Beyer, of Housing Vermont, for providing us with this update on plans for renovation at New Avenue.

Downtown Housing Mix The findings from last year’s Housing Study, commissioned by the Housing Committee formed as a work group after the Community Visit process by the Vermont Council on Rural Development, show us we have a shortage of available housing in the downtown. There is a need for affordable, senior and market rate housing. A mix of housing in the downtown core is a proven element of a healthy downtown. I am pleased to say we do have some market rate options opening up soon with the recent renovations of the future law office of Jared Cloutier located at Main St. & Maple St. More projects will be underway in the future to grow the availability of quality housing in St. Johnsbury.

The image of St. Johnsbury in the public eye has vastly improved, and with it, a more buoyant, hopeful outlook for its future. That outlook is confirmed by the number of new businesses opening downtown in the coming months. The educational opportunities available in our town are recognized and celebrated for their success, and we regularly greet visitors at the Welcome Center that live in Vermont and come to town for the day to check it out because they haven’t been in a long time and have heard great things.

Placemaking and Other Public Space Enhancements. Along with St. Johnsbury’s Image, its appearance improves with every passing year, thanks to Streetscape Improvement Projects, and especially, with thanks to tireless volunteers and generous donors, working to add those special touches that show the world our residents are proud of where they live. In every season we see something lovely and worthy of causing pause to take it in. In the coming year we will complete a Placemaking Project at Depot Square Park. This project aims to install seating, lighting, spaces for games and entertainment, bike racks, picnic tables and shade. This project, funded through a grant from the National Life Foundation, will enhance the visitor experience in downtown St. Johnsbury. The Intersection Redesign at Route 5 and S. Main Street will take place in the 2019 construction season. This project includes a pedestrian island to allow for safe crossing of Route 5, as well as possible Storm Water mitigation enhancements and an enhanced welcome sign, as well as a painted bike lane up Route 5 to the Welcome Center.

The whole that all of these parts create are the dish that is St. Johnsbury. These parts rely on each other to avail their growth.

One notable thing about these current projects and developments is that no one organization or person is solely responsible for them. They are the direct result of ongoing partnerships and collaborations. The economic engine of our Arts and Culture organizations, the support and leadership from local businesses, the planning and facilitating from Regional Development Corporations, partners at the Town and State level and non-profit level, as well as the daily acts of local and regional residents as consumers of arts and culture, retail, service industry, health care industry, education – it all combines to make these developments possible.

These are exciting times, and I want to encourage everyone to take part in telling the story of St. Johnsbury. If you see something cool, tell folks about it. Lets start repeating our positive stories and happenings. Furthermore, as your time and interest allows, find ways to get involved. There are so many ways to plug into existing projects and give them the boost they need. and when those projects are completed, use them, and make them part of your own story.

NOW! Go watch the complete recording of our What’s Brewing in STJ talk. The video will give you a chance to hear more about Breakout Bakery, and, more about all of my special guests! Thanks to Kingdom Access TV for their work to keep our community connected and informed!

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