Do empty storefronts in downtown Burlington spell the beginning of the end? Ask merchants and developers about the health of the state's largest city, and you get some good news, some bad.
Portions of Burlington's Marketplace certainly give an impression of morbidity. Empty windows pockmark the top block and College Street near the Free Press building. Bars continue to replace retail outlets — yet another saloon is slated to open soon in the space formerly occupied by L.A. Green. The proliferation of pubs is likely to scare off shoppers already nervous about their personal security.
Perceived — and real — parking hassles, meanwhile, send some customers flocking to downtown's suburban competitors. As University Mall mushrooms and Wal-Mart arrives, many merchants wonder if Porteous and Woolworth will go the way of Magrams and J.C. Penney.
Burlington's waterfront, often cited as a potential engine for the city's retail sector, freezes literally and economically during winter months. Few people frequent the bike path, Boathouse and Urban Reserve on weekdays between November and April. The lack of activity has meant a slow take-off for the Wing Building's pioneering shops.
But not everyone is forecasting doom and gloom for downtown Burlington. "Normal cyclical churning" is how Marketplace commission director Molly Lambert accounts for the downturn. What ails Burlington is not a terminal disease, she suggests, but simple seasonal lethargy. Lambert counts five empty storefronts in the pedestrian zone itself, not including Miller's Landmark and Burlington Square Mall. That's two fewer than at the same time last year, according to Lambert's tally.
She adds that Marketplace merchants registered a 6 percent increase in holiday sales volume, a figure well above the anemic national average. Burlington Square Mall enjoyed a strong January as well, reports general manager Liz Kelley. The half dozen or so currently shuttered shops inside the Mall are also said to be within the range of the standard seasonal swing.
The recent announcements of two big downtown construction projects have further dispelled the March malaise. Some 81 residential units are to rise on the northeast corner of Battery and College Streets, while an office and retail center is planned for the empty lot abutting Main Street a couple of blocks to the south. These developments are expected to boost business along the waterfront as well as on Church Street, with hundreds of workers and residents pumping dollars into downtown restaurants and shops.
The mood could grow more upbeat still: The IDX software company may soon confirm reports that it has leased an entire floor in Burlington Square, adding about 70 employees to the 200 Fletcher Allen workers recently transplanted there. Those moves will heal much of the psychological damage inflicted on downtown by Bombardier Capital's unsettling defection to a suburban office park last year.
"We've got a lot going for us," says Mike Simoneau, vice president of the Coburn & Feeley real estate firm." The most encouraging thing now is that people are collaborating, actively searching for answers." Some results of that quest for competitive edge are to be unveiled later this month at a press conference cosponsored by the Downtown Partnership. Participants will spotlight the outcome of what has been an intensive, behind-the-scenes evaluation of downtown's prospects.
Kennedy Smith, head of a commercial revitalization program run by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, has been working as a consultant to Burlington's retail community for the past few months. Her recommendations for luring investment — and shoppers — downtown will be part of a springtime publicity offensive that includes a new set of city initiatives relating to public safety and transportation.
Some of the worries about downtown's viability aren't purely local: Retail sales have been slumping in many parts of the country, especially where economic insecurities are most acute. Burlington's problems are compounded, however, by its own unique concerns.
"Many of the local retailers we have on Church Street lack the skills and resources of national chains like The Gap," says downtown developer and philanthropist Bobby Miller. He points to the Mayfair clothing shop and Preston's Jewelers, both a few doors down from his own building, Miller's Landmark, as examples of locally owned businesses that "didn't stay up with the times."
The displacement of those two fixtures — and their possible impending replacement by an Eddie Bauer branch — highlights what Simoneau of Coburn & Feeley describes as Church Street's "continuing transformation from local to national outlets." Along with the shift to franchise retailers like The Body Shop, Laura Ashley and Nature Company comes the danger of losing the "familiar faces and superior level of service" that Liz Kelley of Burlington Square Mall cites as one of downtown's key assets.
Wal-Mart's presumed threat to Woolworth adds the risk of losing one of the last links between the Marketplace and Burlington's working-class neighborhoods.
"Church Street needs to retain its discount retailer," says Simoneau. He predicts that Woolworth may well survive the onslaught of Wal-Mart, partly because of the "captive local constituency" that can't, or won't, travel to Williston in search of a few cents' savings.
Downtown merchants are rooting for Woolworth and Porteous to survive for another reason as well: They have trouble imagining how those large spaces might be filled.
The strategy of carving specialty boutiques out of departed department stores may have been taken as far as it can go. While the former Magram's has prospered in its craftsy reincarnation, Miller's Landmark, with four empty street-level shops, has not been the success its backers had hoped for. How many niche markets can Church Street find? Are there enough high-end shoppers to support still more glitz and chintz?
Each of the failed ventures in his building had its own particular set of problems, Miller maintains. But office space, which accounts for more than three-quarters of the building's square footage, is almost fully leased. He admits, though, that the northernmost block of the Marketplace still has trouble luring the walk-in trade, despite the generous investment Miller himself has made in improving the physical ambience.
Rental charges all along the Marketplace have stagnated or dropped in the past year, says Simoneau. The average price per square foot shot up from $15 to almost $20 in the early '90s, but now some landlords are again asking closer to $15 than $20.
Simoneau is also skeptical about the degree to which new office projects will bolster the downtown retail sector. "There's very few new occupants coming into the area," he says. "Just because you put up 40,000 square feet of offices doesn't mean you're necessarily improving the picture. A lot of it can just be existing businesses relocating."
What's most needed, Simoneau and other analysts say, is a genuine jolt of hundreds of new jobs and residents moving into downtown. "Burlington has to expand its housing base," declares Miller, who is considering moving from Shelburne to the planned Milot project on College and Battery streets. Miller blames Bernie Sanders' mayoral administrations for discouraging downtown residential development by reducing allowable density rates, thus making it unprofitable to build apartment houses and condo complexes.
"Burlington has to decide whether it wants to be a city or not," adds Miller.
That view is shared by Melinda Moulton, codeveloper of Main Street Landing. She regards the waterfront as Burlington's secret weapon in the escalating economic war between the city and its suburbs. "If we can capitalize on this gem," she says, "we can outcompete the malls, for sure."
In order for that to happen, however, "we have to have festivals, a marina and other attractions for tourists and conventioneers," Moulton says.
"People have to start realizing that if they live in a city, there have to be urban-type activities. If it's solitude and tranquility they want," she adds, "maybe a place like Huntington would be better suited to them."
Parts of Main Street Landing are thriving, Moulton reports. She concedes, though, that business has been very slow in recent months for the stores along the bike path. One of them, Waterfront Jewelers, has already shut down. "It'll be only a seasonal thing, I'm afraid, until we get the commuter rail and some of the other things we want to have happen down here."
Overall, however, Moulton is bullish on Burlington. "I have the feeling that this city is on the verge of a wonderful renaissance," she says. "I think it's really going to take off in the next couple of years."