Upping the Game

Summertime is finally here (officially, even, this Saturday), and memories of last winter's endless quality may be finally starting to fade. Outdoor recreation possibilities broaden, farmers markets are bulging with fresh local produce, and the arts calendar is chock full of tempting offerings.

This summer seems especially rich in the range and breadth of shows being staged at local theaters, as well as those organized by the Manchester Music Festival, Northshire Performing Arts and the Southern Vermont Art Center.

Downtown, we're seeing a construction phase that augurs well for the town's future. From the new hotel that will replace the former Village Country Inn, to a new event barn at the Inn at Manchester, a new Dunkin' Donuts and the new Marble Mill, there is a lot of investment going on. Further down Depot Street we see a long time local restaurant moving into and refurbishing the former Friendly's building. Over on Cemetery Avenue the town's new library is nearing completion and looks on track for its projected Fall opening. On Main Street, the former Factory Point/Berkshire Bank building is poised for rehabilitation into something new. All of this is good news.

And those are just the projects which are actually underway. Several others are waiting in the wings - The Hampton Inn, the Mediterranean-style spa/hotel further up Main Street, and Starbucks are the three highest profile ones.

Our view is that each one of these three projects would be major boosts for the town and we hope to see them all successfully navigate their way through the regulatory thickets. In the case of Starbucks, we hope an appeal of their zoning permit is eventually turned aside, and that internationally known chain can add Manchester to one of its locations.

All this activity should be cause for celebration. It shows the town, despite the anxiety occasionally expressed about vacant storefronts, remains a magnet for investment that yields jobs and tax revenue. Many other towns would like to be able to say the same. Some of those are even in Vermont.

One of the tensions that has long played out over the 30 years or so that Manchester evolved into a town best known by those living elsewhere as a "retail outlet" town is the push and pull between home-grown, local businesses and those who are based far away and are national brands.

Manchester is hardly alone in trying to sort out the proper balance between the two, which offer different attractions to consumers. Getting the mix right is tricky and hinges on several unpredictable factors, but it can be done.

Stowe and Woodstock are two examples of Vermont communities that seem to have done a good job at maintaining a unique local flavor while growing and remaining popular destination spots. And Manchester can lay a fair claim to being on that short list, even as a case could be made that two of the features for which Vermont is becoming increasingly identified - brewing local beer and local farm foods - are not as well represented here, perhaps, as they could be. The local brewing idea would benefit from its own tavern and night spot - one amenity sadly lacking so far in downtown Manchester. Local food markets are another story. We have several local farmers markets that seem to be thriving and some of our local farmers - in an industry almost given up for dead not so long ago - are creating some terrific produce.

One of the flash points that has sparked debate over the "local vs. out-of-state" question is the proposed Starbucks. It seems to have touched a raw nerve among some residents. Will it put someone local out of business? Why does it need a drive thru? What's Manchester coming to anyway?

Competition is the main driver of innovation. You could argue that almost any business that opens up threatens the livelihood or at least the market share of someone else. But at some point in the past, those businesses in turn were competition for someone else. If we draw up the gangplank and say no one else should be allowed on board the ship (except for some of the people we already know), the inevitable result is stagnation.

As everyone knows, the drive thru at Starbucks was already there and really shouldn't be an issue. Drive throughs don't belong everywhere, and the town has some good rules in place to govern that. Starbucks isn't the camel's nose poking into the tent.

The most recent issue of Vermont Life contained an interesting article about small, family-owned grocery stores across Vermont competing with Dollar General, the national chain of discount shops. How does a small independent business compete with the buying power of such a behemoth - especially when economic times are still far from rosy for many of the state's residents? When will Vermont start to resemble "Anywhere U.S.A." and lose the distinctive quality that makes it a pleasant place to live and an attractive place for visitors to travel too? Distinctiveness and uniqueness are what we should be trying to preserve here as well, and here our calling card would seem to be the arts-rich environment, which few other communities this size can match. Add in some unique locally owned stores, which we have a fair number of, and the shopping and visiting experience gets good quickly.

One of the answers to the earlier questions can't be that national chains like Dollar Store or Starbucks can't open here because, well, this is Vermont, or Manchester. Handled correctly, such businesses expand the pie.

What could be looked at - and this is a state or federal question - is making bank credit easier for small local entrepreneurs. We're not advocating a return to the Wild West days of finance pre-Great Recession, but perhaps our creative finance industry, so adept at bundling risky packages of mortgages into investment grade opportunities until 2008 or so, can figure out a way to make money while doing good.

Meanwhile, let's embrace this boom in new construction and business confidence here and hope the research that preceded the investment was based on good data. The rising tide does, in the end, raise most, if not all boats. The opposite tidal movement holds little for anybody.


If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.

Powered by Creative Circle Media Solutions