Dan Giangreco has big plans for resurrecting the old Jonesville Country Store on Route 2, on the eastern edge of Richmond. He wants to convert the long-defunct market, deli and gun shop into an informal community center and local watering hole with an artsy, countercultural spin. The 24-year-old Richmond native intends to specialize in Vermont-made foods and crafts.
Giangreco isn’t new to retail. Previously, he started and ran his own business, Backcountry Pizza, out of Richmond’s Vermont Green Grocer. This time, he’s getting help on the project from a group of local twentysomethings. They’ve named it the Long Trail Community Market, or LTCM, after the famous hiking trail that crosses the road a quarter-mile south on Route 2. Giangreco hopes the store will eventually serve as a hikers’ outpost for food and provisions, as well as an Internet café.
But Giangreco and his partners, who’ve dubbed themselves the “Jonesville Underground,” have run headlong into a few logistical and regulatory hurdles. For one, the store lacks a potable water supply and adequate septic system, which could make it difficult to offer food and other amenities to the public.
Also complicating the project is a neighbor who Giangreco claims has been throwing up roadblocks at every turn. In addition, last week a member of the Richmond Selectboard questioned whether the store has been adequately vetted through the town’s planning and zoning process.
Sound like your typical small-town squabble? It’s not. Giangreco and his Jonesville Underground cohorts — Jeff Basiliere, Adam Kingsbury and Philippe Floyd — seem to be approaching the controversy as if it were some kind of social experiment or performance art piece. And they’re fanning the flames by blogging about it, at rebelmarket.blogspot.com. At the very least, this story is exposing radical stylistic differences within Richmond’s business community. It may also indicate a growing commercial chasm, between old-school merchants and the next generation of entrepreneurs, in a town recently challenged — and organized — by an inconvenient bridge closing and the sudden resignation of its town administrator.
The LTCM’s business plan might best be described thusly: Incur no debt and fly by the seat of its pants. Its financing: the meager savings Giangreco squirreled away while working for several years as a residential counselor. The sought-after aesthetic: Bread and Puppet Theater meets Wayne’s World.
Consider, for example, the interior décor, with its neon green floors, shocking pink ceiling and canary yellow walls. What was once a ’50s-era market now looks more like a carnival funhouse, with curious holdovers from its earlier incarnation, including dangling meat hooks, old meat-cutting tables and a carousel bottle sorter jury-rigged out of chicken wire.
In the basement, the guys are building a small stage for hosting local performances and readings. Above the market, on the second floor, Basiliere and Floyd are turning the former gun shop into an experimental video lab for producing short films and other content for the Mount Mansfield Community Access Television. That content may even feature customers from the market itself.
“I’m in the process of writing a series of sketches and short plays that’ll take place in the market during normal business hours,” Basiliere explains. “People will walk in here and strange dialogue will ensue, and they won’t know if it’s reality or theater. It’s sort of like mixing the theater world with the grocery world.”
“This is the kind of business that’ll sometimes close during peak business hours just so we can go swimming,” Giangreco adds. “It’s as much about a lifestyle as about making money. Our bottom line is about experiencing the process.”
If it all sounds a bit off the wall, that’s the idea. Yet, despite a seemingly cavalier approach to capitalism, Giangreco insists that he and his friends are serious about the market’s underlying social mission: to bring a sense of community back to Jonesville, starting with its young people. As Giangreco points out, most people his age are leaving the area in droves for better opportunities elsewhere.
“We’re really trying to push a more aesthetic and ethics-driven project as opposed to a profit-oriented project,” Giangreco adds. “So, it kind of changes the game.”
Not surprisingly, the LTCM has generated a lot of buzz in this sleepy, unincorporated hamlet nestled between Richmond and Bolton, Interstate 89 and the Winooski River.
“It would be incredibly useful,” says selectboard member Erik Filkhorn of the prospective store. “And, the fact that Dan has ambitions beyond just selling canned goods is a definite plus. Jonesville, in many ways, is its own community and I think this would serve them well.”
Thomas Hark, president of the Richmond Area Business Association, agrees. He claims to have spoken to “at least 60” Richmond residents and local business owners and says that, “almost universally, people are really excited by this new business. He’s providing something that’s really needed.
“Also, he’s a young guy and an entrepreneur,” adds Hark, who is founding president of the Vermont Youth Conservation Corps. “I think it’s got success written all over it.”
But not everyone in the area is thrilled by Giangreco’s radical vision for Jonesville. For the last four months, he and his friends have been involved in a public feud with their neighbor, Isaac Cowan, a local businessman who owns an abutting warehouse occupied by several commercial tenants.
Cowan did not return phone calls seeking his side of this story. But according to Richmond Selectboard Member Mary Houle, Cowan has filed a formal complaint against the project. Among other things, she says, the LTCM hasn’t gone through the town’s zoning and permitting review. Nor, she claims, has the building’s owner, Chip Spillane, secured a certificate of occupancy to allow Giangreco to live in the apartment above the store. According to her, only the store’s “owner” may live upstairs.
Houle says Cowan contacted her about two weeks ago to discuss a brightly colored mural that had just been painted on one side of the building’s two-story exterior. According to Houle, the mural may violate the state’s anti-billboard law. Giangreco disagrees, pointing out that the mural “doesn’t advertise anything but awesomeness.”
Houle puts much of the blame for this mess on the shoulders of Ron Rodjenski, Richmond’s former town administrator and acting zoning administrator. According to published reports, Rodjenski was suspended with pay back in April, then later resigned, over an alleged conflict of interest with the town’s accounting firm. It was within the context of this power vacuum that the store appears to have slipped under the regulatory radar, or so Houle claims.
“If everybody’s relying on the failed town administrator’s information, then this is Ron’s fault,” says Houle.
Cowan’s complaint about the mural is just the latest in the ongoing series of dust-ups between Giangreco and Cowan. Back in April, Cowan went before the town selectboard to object to Giangreco’s application for a liquor license to sell beer and wine. Despite Houle’s sole opposing vote, that application was eventually approved.
Then, in July, Cowan called the police and obtained a trespass order to prevent Giangreco from driving on the dirt road that runs between the two properties. The trespass order effectively bars Giangreco from parking behind his own business. In response, Giangreco and his friends dug a makeshift ramp through their parking lot to bypass that road.
At the time, Cowan told the Burlington Free Press that he really didn’t object to the store itself. “The only problem I had with him,” Cowan said of Giangreco, “was him trespassing across my property when he was told not to.”
But a few weeks ago, Giangreco alleges, Cowan effectively “preempted” the store’s potable water supply by digging a new well in a spot that makes it difficult, if not impossible, for LTCM to put one in on its own property. (State law requires wells be at least 50 feet from each other.) Both properties have been without a potable water supply since the state condemned the Jonesville water system back in 2002. Without water, the LTCM will be severely restricted in its food operations.
“The entire community is in huge support of this project. There’s been nothing but support from everyone but this one person,” Giangreco complains. “But that one person has been enough to make this incredibly challenging for us.”
Interestingly, Cowan has his own history of running afoul of Richmond’s regulatory process. According to court records, he built a retaining wall without a proper permit several years ago in Snipe Ireland Brook. The town fought a long and costly legal battle with him all the way to the Vermont Supreme Court and finally emerged victorious. One town official privately described the process as “a total root canal.”
But other Jonesville residents are more sympathetic to Cowan, saying that the only reason he’s angry about the store is that Giangreco has been using his blog to poke fun at Cowan and Richmond’s “stodgy” political environment.
Mike Santimore, who repairs lawn mowers across the road from the proposed market, describes himself as a longtime friend of Cowan’s. He rejects the suggestion that Cowan has done anything to harm Giangreco’s business efforts.
“It’s gotten out of hand with Dan having this thing in the paper and him saying Isaac has stopped him from opening the store,” Santimore said. “Isaac has not stopped him from doing anything. He ain’t no town official.”
Another neighbor, Gary Svetlik of Svetlik Custom Design, rents commercial space from Cowan in the neighboring warehouse. Svetlik said he’s looking forward to the market opening, since Jonesville hasn’t had a convenience store in years. Nevertheless, Svetlik says he understands Cowan’s ire.
“The reason Isaac is so pissed off about this is the stuff Dan is putting on his blog,” Svetlik explains. “To my knowledge, the only control Isaac has over Dan at any level is access to the back of the store” — a reference to the dirt-road impasse.
In fact, Svetlik said he once considered buying the old Jonesville Country Store building himself, but decided against it after researching the property and discovering its numerous shortcomings. Aside from the lack of potable water and adequate septic, Svetlik claims the building also needs significant heating and electrical upgrades.
Giangreco admits he’s called out his confrontational neighbor on his blog, but always in a joking manner he considers obvious. For instance, after Cowan allegedly backed out of a mediation session arranged in late July so the two neighbors could try to work out their differences, Giangreco wrote on his blog, “The LTCM does not negotiate with terrorists.”
Then, after Cowan’s recent complaint to Houle about the outdoor mural, Giangrego wrote another provocative, albeit satirical, post:
“The LTCM response to this most recent act of aggression and invasion of privacy was to gear up with mullet wigs, super soakers, kendo swords, wiffleball bat and a guitar and march defiantly … over to our neighbor’s house and deliver a freshly baked Backcountry Pizza,” Giangreco wrote. “When Cowan and his selectboard vassal finally departed, we let loose an Ewok battle cry and told ghost stories around the campfire.”
Although Giangreco and his friends appear to be having fun at Cowan’s expense, Houle was less than amused. That post contained an over-the-top reference to having “annexed a small island in the Winooski River, on which the new Jonesville Underground complex will be located,” outfitted with “zip lines,” “livestock” and “several tiger pits loaded with punji sticks.”
Houle, who claims she owns the island to which Giangreco referred, found those references “distressing.”
“Do you know what a tiger pit is and a punji stick is?” she asks. “How would I interpret that?”
As for the store itself, Houle says its permitting issues won’t fix themselves: “If this does passively go away, this effectively means that there’s no zoning in Richmond, and come on down and put a Wal-Mart in my front yard.”
Rest assured, the Richmond Underground will have something snarky to say about that, too.