More flexibility needed, retail developer says
Ben Hauben has been closely identified with the retailing boom that has transformed Manchester over the past 20 years. Is there still room for growth in Manchester? How will a possible economic downturn affect business? And what of the long-term future? In a rare interview, Hauben discussed these and other questions with the Journal.
JOURNAL - What do you see as the future of Manchester's retail base?
HAUBEN - I personally believe that retailing could be an important leg for this economy here. That's not to say we shouldn't try to develop other legs. Retailing is going through, as it's always been going through, a growth, a maturity and development. "Outlet" retailing has really grown and the industry itself has matured and is an important piece of the retailing base in the country. We should be happy to have this retail support here because we have a head start - we have had 20-odd years of growth. It's going to weed (itself) out - you'll have weaker companies leave and new companies come in and that's how it's going to be, like any industry.
JOURNAL - How should the town support retailing beyond what it's already doing?
HAUBEN - I think because this form of retailing was perceived by some in the early stages as a pejorative, the zoning the town incorporated made it much more difficult to grow this type of industry and limited the kind of specific retail that could happen here - the size of the stores and other restrictions - and I think that has been a great disadvantage. For example, clothing, you can maybe get away with a 3,000 square-foot building. It's not for everybody. If you want more hard good stores here you have no way of bringing them here. We can't recycle these buildings to fit the needs of these new groups that want to come in. Home furnishings are now in vogue, but we don't have the ability to put them into the mix here because we don't have the buildings.
JOURNAL - Is Manchester still considered a desirable location for retailers to be in?
HAUBEN - I think so. Like every new industry it was exploding around the country but now it's matured and Manchester is one of the older (and successful) centers as can be evidenced by the fact that we're continuing to bring new brands into the mix. It would be a great detriment to this community if the retail sector is diminished here.
JOURNAL - What about competition from Internet-based retailers? Is that a concern?
HAUBEN - I think there's competition with many things _ the Internet is one of them. Younger consumers seem to be more likely to shop on the Internet, but there's still a lot of room for the kind of retailing we do here in a small New England village - it still has a lot of charm and quality and that will continue as long as we nurture it. At the same time we can develop other areas of retailing.
We have a proposal that will combine agriculture, having a center for farm producers to have a full-time area to show their goods both retail-wise and wholesale-wise. We thought Manchester would be a good venue for that. We've talked to the town and the state and they're very enthusiastic but we feel like we're alone.
We've started building "green." We're investigating sustainable energy sources for our buildings. But the town has to be more pro-active with assisting and with giving certain kinds of benefits, otherwise these things won't happen. You can't put that kind of facility into 3,000 square-feet. We can't wait for years and years. I know the town is looking at it but the time is now, not five years from now.
Thirty years ago, we didn't have this cultural vitality we have now. We have to remind people that came as a result of economic vitality. I think people forget what things were like. There was high unemployment and everyone hoped for snow so we could get some jobs at the ski areas. Now we have a shortfall of people working at our stores and in general people have to come from greater distances.
If we lose the economic vitality we'll lose everything else too. You're not going to have cultural activity going on because there will be nobody to support it. We're very fortunate that we have such a tremendous selection of venues here. We have some world class art, music and dance. We have some incredible things and we need to really appreciate how they have come to be.
JOURNAL - Do you see any immediate challenges on the horizon for this year?
HAUBEN - We can see major challenges for the summer because we as a country have major challenges facing us. Of course energy is one of those, no one is surprised by that. If we don't start doing things to prevent us to be taken down by that condition, then we're just waiting for the inevitable. I am concerned about that and the state of Vermont should be concerned about that. We're a tourist destination - that means people have to travel here from other places - unless we can present ourselves in the proper way, we're at a disadvantage.
JOURNAL - What is the proper way?
HAUBEN - It just seems we have a tough time coming together. We need to come together and start doing things together. I know we have many meetings and initiatives but I don't see the results. You need good ideas but you need people who will back it up with action, and I would hope we could do that. If the community succeeds, I succeed. If the community fails, I fail. I want the community to succeed.
JOURNAL - Any other concerns?
HAUBEN - I'm personally not in favor of the Roundabout. I think it will change the texture and fabric of the downtown area and make it less pedestrian friendly. At this point, I don't think we have a need for it anymore. I'm concerned by what it would do to the economy during construction because I think with gas prices the way they are now and the lack of initiative for people to travel, the fact that things are going to be torn up for two years or longer is not going to be an incentive for people to come to Manchester.
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