Marble Mill set for soft opening

MANCHESTER -- Back when Manchester was better known for small scale manufacturing -- something like two centuries ago when what is now the downtown core was known as "Factory Point" -- a small marble mill stood near a bend in the West Branch of the Batten Kill, the river that flows through town.

Several other small mills clustered nearby, but in time, all left, closed their doors, or moved elsewhere. The marble mill was eventually replaced by a once popular nightspot known as the Five Flies, and then a family-style restaurant called the Sirloin Saloon.

Then, two years ago, the Sirloin Saloon faded into the history books, unable to make a go of it any longer. In its place is about to open the first new retail outlet complex to have been built in the town since the start of the economic downturn which began in 2008.

Despite occasional bursts of angst about its reputation as a retail mecca, Manchester has also watched with some apprehension from time to time the turnover in retailers since the start of the Great Recession. For some, the turnover and vacant storefronts were troubling, but a burst of new construction which includes a new library, a new hotel (and possibly two more), plus the opening of a Starbucks seems to indicate that a more buoyant time is at hand.

Eddie Bauer will be opening its first retail outlet in Vermont on May 26 in Manchester. It will be part of a "soft opening" for a new 20,000 square foot building that has been rising steadily over the course of the past winter and spring, and in a nod to the site's heritage, will be called The Marble Mill. Three other stores - New Balance, a sporting goods retailer; Eileen Fisher, which features women's clothing that's practical yet stylish; and Armani, a high end mens and womens wear line -- will be opening there shortly afterwards.

A formal grand opening of the complex is tentatively planned for July 5.

"We've taken a site that had a great deal of history and nostalgia and feeling for people, and we've transitioned it to something we hope people will love," said Lana Hauben, the vice president of marketing for Vanderbilt Equities, the development firm that owns and constructed the building. They already have a wide footprint in the retail outlet world of Manchester, and own seven other properties throughout the town.

The retailing industry has matured and evolved since she and her husband, Ben Hauben, opened their first retail outlet center more than a quarter century ago, but the unique characteristics of Manchester -- a New England village in a scenic setting in close proximity to outdoor year-round recreational opportunities -- will continue to make it a desirable location to do business in, she said.

How do stores get wooed to move here or open up new locations? The game has changed drastically over the past 25 years as outlets have proliferated and online shopping became a factor. So developers have to adjust, and up their game accordingly. And sometimes, it's serendipity -- the right space becomes available at the right time for the right merchant, she said.

Eddie Bauer has one other store in Burlington, Vt., but that's a full-price shop and this will be their first outlet shop in the state, said Susan Sacca, the district director for Eddie Bauer in New York, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and now Vermont. What drew them to Manchester was its reputation as a four-season outdoor recreation center as well as a town already well known for retail clothing stores.

"Our primary claim to fame is outerwear and performance wear," she said, as employees opened boxes of clothing and sorted out where they would go. "There are successful outlets here, people embrace the outdoors, and that suits us."

Eddie Bauer will be occupying 6,000 square feet on the ground floor of the two-story Marble Mill. Eileen Fisher, Armani and New Balance will between them take up all but 1,800 of the available square footage. Vanderbilt Equities is looking to find a restaurant or food outlet to join them, but so far hasn't found the right tenant, said Ben Hauben, the development company's president.

But they will, he adds.

They weren't looking to build more outlet centers, but when the Sirloin Saloon closed its doors, they were approached and the opportunity was too good to pass up, he said.

"It's one of the most expensive buildings we've ever built," he said. "It's hard to get anybody right now (referring to new tenants) because while the economy in general seems to be getting better, we've never gotten totally back. So it's tougher to get these brands, but we've been in the business for over 30 years, so we speak their language."

This is one of the very few stores Eileen Fisher will be opening, so that speaks well for Manchester and its future as a retailing center, he said. Manchester used to enforce a strict limit of 3,000 square feet on the size of retail outlets that could be locally constructed. But the needs of contemporary retailers have changed over time, and most want more space than that. In response, the town adopted a set of incentives that allow developers like the Haubens to construct buildings with a larger footprint, in exchange for incorporating design elements like more green space, fewer curb cuts (planning and zoning-speak for driveways or interruptions of the sidewalk), energy efficiencies and moving sidewalks a certain distance from the roadway. The Marble Mill will be the first building constructed in town that made full use of these incentives, said Allison Hopkins, the town's zoning administrator and planning director.

The incentives are intended to limit sprawl and create a pedestrian-friendly environment, she said.

One of the distinctive features of the new complex, which is located on Depot Street a short distance from the town's main traffic rotary, are two public plazas where shoppers and pedestrians can stop for a break or a snack. The lower level plaza is wide enough to allow for musical and entertainment acts to perform, said Lana Hauben.

"Our customer is someone who appreciates what Manchester is all about," she said. "It's got history, it's a resort, a vibrant second home community as well as a residential community. It's a community and a village, it's not an outlet center."

And now it will also have Eddie Bauer and Eileen Fisher too. (New Balance and Armani are moving to the Marble Mill from current locations). If you enjoy ribbon cuttings, Eddie Bauer will be holding theirs at 10 a.m. on Monday, May 26.


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