- Matthew Thorsen
- A worker at the Edlund Company
Burlington officials have been soliciting feedback about a plan for future growth in the city's South End, which hosts some of its most desirable residential neighborhoods and also the bustling Pine Street corridor, which is zoned "enterprise" for "light manufacturing."
They've heard plenty from a well-organized group of artists and small-business owners who are worried that a proposed change in zoning — to allow housing where it's currently prohibited — will sanitize a district fondly described as "gritty."
Largely missing from the yearlong debate, however, have been the voices of the last-standing, large-scale manufacturers in the South End — some of the grittiest businesses still around. What do they think about the public planning process, dubbed planBTV South End, and, in particular, the prospect of people moving to their neighborhood?
Originally home to lumberyards and factories, the South End has shed much of its industrial past — a cotton mill turned weapons manufacturer now hosts Congressman Peter Welch's office and a Pilates studio. The technology company Dealer.com occupies a former bristle factory. Glassblowers, graphic artists and coffee roasters have recolonized other vacant buildings.
But a handful of companies have kept the manufacturing tradition alive, churning out four-color magazines, cookie dough, can openers and other products. Some, such as Edlund Company and Blodgett Ovens, have been around since before World War II. Others — Lake Champlain Chocolates, Switchback Brewing, Rhino Foods, Burton — represent a younger generation.
Executives at these companies tend to keep a low profile — they're not inclined to sign petitions, spar with politicians or insert themselves in public debates. But their businesses could be deeply affected by the planning that is under way.
In June, the city unveiled a draft of planBTV South End, a 98-page document that envisions new parks, a "maker'hood" for new businesses and more bike lanes, among other changes. The plan, which professes to be a compilation of public suggestions, draws on culinary imagery as an organizing device: the section on preserving artist spaces is headlined "Spice It Up"; the plan for parks is called "Get Your Greens!"
It immediately drew criticism for proposing to allow housing in certain parts of the Enterprise Zone, a 225-acre section of the South End that is home to 472 businesses.
One concern is that future residents could prove incompatible with operations that make loud noises or emit unpleasant odors. Some of the South End manufacturers run around the clock; most use industrial machines and rely on large delivery trucks to transport materials and products. In other words, they're not the type of neighbors you drop in on to borrow a cup of flour.
Another worry is that housing will compete for a dwindling number of open properties and put upward pressure on rent and tax bills, making the South End unaffordable for current inhabitants. The draft plan notes that manufacturers have already felt the squeeze: "As a result of rising rents caused by market demand, the South End is becoming increasingly unaffordable for traditional commercial-industrial business and small startups."
The city's logic is that South End companies stand to benefit from the "workforce" housing that planners have suggested.
Tammy Bushell, human resources manager at the Edlund Company, is open to the idea. Founded 90 years ago during a canned-food boom, Edlund started out making can openers in the South End. In 1960, the company moved to its current location: a single-story brick building with an expansive green lawn and single basketball hoop on the aptly named Industrial Parkway. Its product line has expanded to include tongs, scales, French-fry cutters, electric knife sharpeners and slicing devices. The company is touting its recently patented Tomato Laser Slicer as "the easiest, fastest and most advanced manual tomato slicer the industry has ever seen."
Bushell thinks some of Edlund's 107 employees could benefit from housing nearby — if the price were right — but the average assembly worker earns $17.50 an hour. It's not uncommon, she said, for them to turn down annual raises because the additional cash would make them ineligible for public housing assistance.
Edlund employees are all too familiar with conflicts that can arise when people live near an industrial manufacturer — beyond a line of trees behind the factory is a row of condos, just outside the Enterprise Zone. Bushell said they've managed to maintain a good relationship with their neighbors by making concessions, such as adjusting their delivery-truck schedule and using noise meters to make sure new equipment doesn't exceed acceptable sound levels.
But it doesn't always work. "We've had them come in screaming and threatening our employees," Bushell said of the neighbors. The draft planBTV proposes keeping Industrial Parkway housing-free, though critics suggest that could change. They say a zoning adjustment could open a Pandora's box.
Edlund currently operates just one shift, which ends in the early evening, but if its new slicers attract the big clients they're hoping for — Bushell mentioned McDonald's and Burger King — they'll need to add a second and possibly a third shift.
"We support the housing, but with the understanding that people really need to know what they are getting into," Bushell went on. "It's going to be loud. It's going to be noisy. It's going to have different fumes than if you're living on the lake in Charlotte."
Across the lawn from Edlund is Rhino Foods, founded 1981 by a former UVM hockey player. Ted Castle started with an ice cream shop in Winooski called Chessy's Frozen Custard. In 1990, he landed a contract to make cookie dough for Ben & Jerry's, and soon after he moved his business, renamed Rhino Foods, to Industrial Parkway.
Rhino employs roughly 100 people and operates 24-7, producing ice cream sandwiches, bakery products and, according to Castle, half of all the cookie dough that ends up in ice cream. Castle said that while his employees haven't been clamoring for housing, he's "not against" the idea of building it in the Enterprise Zone.
But, like Bushell, he urged caution. Rhino is located just 50 yards from the same set of condos that have complicated operations for Edlund. Castle said his company has also had to work hard to limit noise and truck traffic.
Who is clamoring for workforce housing? Justin Worthley is vice president of human resources at Burton, which moved its manufacturing operations to Austria in 2010 but still employs roughly 400 people at its corporate headquarters and R&D center on Industrial Parkway. Worthley said the lack of affordable housing in Burlington is a major challenge for Burton employees, but he also emphasized that the company cares about preserving the South End's current "vibe." Burton isn't taking a position on whether housing should be built in the Enterprise Zone, he said, noting, "We're not zoning people."
The South End's largest employer, Dealer.com, did not respond to an interview request.
Others are outright against the idea of diversifying Burlington's last industrial area. In 1951, the late Dick Schillhammer started Queen City Printers, a commercial printing business that moved to its current Pine Street location four years later. His son Alan Schillhammer, who runs the business, wasn't eager to take a public stand on the South End planning process, but he said he has reached one firm conclusion: "I'm not in favor of mixed-use housing in the Enterprise Zone."
Schillhammer worries about compatibility problems — tractor-trailer trucks make frequent visits — and higher tax bills that could result from increased property values. He mentioned that he'd just gotten off the phone with the city's planning and zoning director, David White, to whom he'd said the same thing. White had asked whether Queen City Printers' thirtysome employees might benefit from housing. "I don't see that, honestly," Schillhammer said, noting that many of his workers are already settled outside of Chittenden County.
The second-generation printer admitted that he hadn't been following planBTV South End "as closely as I should." His call to White was prompted in part by a hand-delivered letter from a collection of artists known as the South End Alliance, vocal opponents of the proposal to put housing in the Enterprise Zone. They've studied city zoning, convened meetings, circulated a petition and gained prominent allies, including business owner Steve Conant. The owner of Conant Metal & Light, who turned the old Pine Street Soda Plant into a space for artists, has spoken out against the housing proposal at public forums.
Charles Norris-Brown, a visual artist with a white goatee and an anthropology PhD, has led a recent effort to reach businesses that have stayed on the margins of the debate. So far, he and others have made visits to more than two dozen. "We kind of walk up to their doors and knock and say, 'Can you talk to us?'" he explained.
"We feel we have a lot in common with manufacturing," Norris-Brown noted. The letter he hands out states — in bold font — that housing "will adversely affect all businesses that currently depend on commercial/industrial rental rates and affordable warehouse space to survive in Burlington."
Through performance-art pieces, murals and other methods, artists have advocated for a more freewheeling approach to development of the South End: Let it occur naturally rather than relying on the overly curated approach of city-hired consultants.
Jim Lampman, president of Lake Champlain Chocolates, shared that view at the company's Pine Street headquarters. He started the company farther north on Pine Street, at the funkier Howard Space, which now hosts a number of artists, metalworkers and carpenters. When that spot got too small, it moved to the Maltex Building, a former cereal factory, and then to the erstwhile brush factory it shared briefly with Dealer.com. Since 1998, Lake Champlain Chocolates has been located in its current 24,000-square-foot building, where roughly one million pounds of chocolate are melted each year and 25,000 visitors stop by to watch it happen. The chocolate is packaged and shipped at a warehouse in Williston because Lampman couldn't find a large enough space in the South End.
Lampman, who has piercing blue eyes and talks slowly, as if he's contemplating each word, said, "Over time, Pine Street has grown really nicely — organically. It was never planned out." Case in point: Lake Champlain Chocolates recently opened the South End Kitchen next door, which offers meals and culinary classes.
"I think there's no need to bring in the fat cats and put in a lot of housing, which might change the landscape as well as change the rents and change the opportunities for other incubator businesses to grow," he offered. He politely described the planning process as "a little bit overcooked."
Asked if he'd heard anything about a demand for South End housing among his 150 employees, Lampman responded, "Zip." What he does hear are complaints about the infrastructure along the Pine Street corridor — potholes, chipped sidewalks and centenarian water pipes that have burst multiple times in recent months. That is where the city should be focusing its efforts, he suggested.
Bill Cherry is the founder of Switchback Brewing, which makes local, ubiquitous pale ale on Flynn Avenue, where McKenzie Country Classics previously produced hot dogs and ham. Like Lampman's, Cherry's business has a retail component — people can tour the brewery, then imbibe in the taproom — that's benefiting from the South End boom.
But, he noted, "Everybody desperately doesn't want to lose that organic feel." When Mayor Miro Weinberger stopped by Switchback to solicit the brewer's opinion, Cherry recalled telling him, "We're all for doing all these things as long as it doesn't create a situation where everyone wants us out."
Cherry, who employs approximately 30 people, plans to take his own advice: to grow as demand increases in Switchback's current location. He was relieved to see that the draft plan doesn't recommend housing on his stretch of Flynn Avenue.
The same cannot be said for Blodgett Ovens, which holds the distinction of being Burlington's oldest manufacturer. Founded in 1848, the commercial-oven company moved to a complex of painted red brick buildings, perched on a grassy expanse alongside Lake Champlain back in 1945. The bike path runs behind one building, and through a few cracked windows, passersby catch wafts of stuffy factory air and hear whirring machines and radios playing. Blodgett is now owned by the Illinois-based Middleby Corporation, which recently built a 100,000-square-foot manufacturing space in Essex.
For months, rumors have been circulating that Middleby plans to move Blodgett out of the South End and sell off the valuable lakeside site. The draft planBTV South End seems to treat it as a done deal, even recommending how to repurpose the property. A blurb suggests, "As the Blodgett site transitions to new owners and uses, seek opportunities to establish a publicly accessible park along the waterfront."
Wouldn't be the worst place for a condo complex, either.
Reached by phone last week, Blodgett president Gary Mick said the company had no comment.