Part I: Chester’s Green a window on the health of local economy

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The Spater Building with the new VintageVermont antiques shop, Mountain Leather Shop and the new Free Range restaurant. All photos by The Chester Telegraph

By Cynthia Prairie
© The Chester Telegraph – 2014

With three new businesses opening this summer along Chester’s Green in what had been empty storefronts, many merchants in and outside the immediate downtown area are sighing with relief. It’s not that businesses along The Green are any more important than those, say, along the Route 103 corridor, which also has restaurants, galleries and antique stores.

But the concentration of shops in such a small and highly visible place make The Green, in the words of Joan Morey of Barrett and Valley Real Estate, “the face of Chester.”

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From top, Country on the Common, Sage Jewelry and Polish Pottery Shop, DaVallia Art and Accents and Barrett and Valley Real Estate.

And a closed store – or three as has been the recent case – is a blemish on that otherwise handsome face. While those blemishes can be just a depressing transition period for many, for others – especially those neighboring businesses – closed stores have an economic impact.

An Analysis: The Green in Chester’s Green
Part I: Chester’s Green a window on the health of its local economy
Part II: It’s not easy being The Green; Defining a unique space
Part III: Dining out on the lure of a restaurant

For a group of buildings — retail, residential and rental — whose collective value of $6.4 million on the Grand List  is 1.46 percent of the town’s total of $442 million, that’s a big weight to carry. Says Morey, who has sold real estate in Chester for more than 30 years, “When one or two businesses close on The Green, it affects everybody. And those businesses nearby really suffer” – either from a perceived  malaise or a real one.

When Alice’s Restaurant, which had been open for years under a number of monikers, closed on April 20, 2013, nearby shops almost immediately felt the impact. Sharon Baker, owner of Country on the Common clothing store, which sits down the short alley from Alice’s, says, “So many people would come in here who would also have eaten at the restaurant.” Baker, who has owned the women’s shop for four years, meticulously notes each visitor who walks through her front door. After the closing, “walk-in traffic dropped 30 percent,” she says.

“Empty storefronts are very disheartening. It starts to make you question if you’ll be here in a year,” says Baker.

Sharon Baker of Country on the Common saw a 30 percent drop in walk-in traffic when Alice's Restaurant closed.

Sharon Baker of Country on the Common saw a 30 percent drop in walk-in traffic when Alice’s Restaurant closed.

But, says Baker, once word spread that someone had purchased the building and began extensive renovations to open a new restaurant, the mood changed considerably.

In January of 2013, Michele Bargfrede, owner of Sage Jewelry, had moved from the rear of the Moon Dog Cafe – just west of The Green — to the larger storefront across the alley from Baker’s place. The space is large enough to accommodate her jewelry workshop upstairs as well as the Polish Pottery Gift Shop.

“I had traffic definitely when the restaurant was open,” says Bargfrede. “The waitresses would talk us up and after a customer has eaten something and had a drink … (they find) it’s nice to take a stroll and do some shopping. … The more shops there are, the more draw (a community) is and the more it is a destination.”

While Bargfrede says it’s difficult for her to assess the immediate impact of Alice’s closing since she was so new to that retail space, she did see its effect. “People would walk up to the building, realize the restaurant was closed, then turn around and get in their car and drive away.” They would not shop, she says, “because when you are looking for food, you are looking for food.”

Misty Valley Books, above, and the Fullerton Inn.

Misty Valley Books, above, and the Fullerton Inn.

Bargfrede also says not every business brings business for others. “I was disappointed that the Message (for the Week) went into the (Spater Building) because it was a real nice retail space. So I’m glad to see the new store” – VintageVermont antiques.

Even before Alice’s closed, says Bob Flint of Springfield Regional Development Corp., the Chester Green was “vulnerable because traffic hasn’t been what it used to be over the (previous) three or four years. So much in Chester is now tourist-dependent and some of that (tourism) will depend on the weather.” And that weather, as Chester has seen, has included a devastating tropical storm, a too-long winter, too-short or no winters at all , parched summers and shortened foliage seasons.

But, Flint adds one crucial issue that should be addressed is “prying traffic from Route 103” and directing it to the Green as well as capturing more of the west-to-east traffic on Route 11.

Click here to read Part II: It’s not easy being The Green; Defining a unique space

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Filed Under: Business & Personal FinanceFeatured

About the Author: Cynthia Prairie has been a newspaper editor for 30 years, having worked at such publications as the Raleigh Times, the Baltimore News American, the Buffalo Courier Express, the Chicago Sun-Times and the Patuxent Publishing chain of community newspapers in Maryland. She and her family moved to Chester, Vermont in 2004.

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