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Essex Junction, VT; back in business

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Essex Junction, back in business

By Victoria Welch

Free Press Staff Writer

ESSEX JUNCTION -- A year ago, vacant storefronts dotted Essex Junction's downtown. A restaurant building on Railroad Avenue was empty. The symbolic cornerstone of village commerce -- the storefront at the intersection of Railroad Avenue and Main Street that housed Phil's Trading Post for 61 years -- was empty, after Phil's had moved to the Essex Outlet Fair.

Village officials and business owners were pondering the future of Essex Junction's downtown identity.

Monday, store windows along Main Street were filled with bridal gowns, bottles of wine and kettles. The restaurant, now The Village Station, once again features white cloth-topped tables and polished silverware.

Village business is back on the upswing, officials said, as business owners and customers have rediscovered the strengths of downtown. Essex Junction, they said, has embraced a focused approach to a merchant's row, with niche shops and specialized services. Even one of the village's landmarks, The Lincoln Inn, is in the midst of a transformation under new ownership.

"We have seen a lot of transition," said Jeff Arango, Essex Junction's development director. "There are businesses that can really capitalize on drawing a certain sort of customer for a certain shopping experience."

All for one

Stretching from the village's distinctive Five Corners intersection, Main Street is lined with specialty businesses -- some new, others in varying degrees of establishment. J&J's Dolls and Hobby Shop opened three weeks ago, a few doors down from To the Table, which began selling wine, cheese and tableware in April. The Copper Cauldron has carried home decor wares for more than 18 months, while Martone's Market continues to provide the sandwiches and other food it has sold since 1992.

The shops mix with a quilt shop, attorneys and real estate agents to form Main Street, while Ray's Barber Shop remains tucked around the corner on Railroad Avenue. The stores, when blended into the downtown environment of village offices, banks and the Brownell Library, create a mixed-use destination that complements its components, village manager Charles Safford said.

"The health of one supports the health of all. That's the value of a village that has that dynamic," Safford said. "You realize the value and importance of supporting each other."

Linda Godin, an employee at The Copper Cauldron, sat in front of the store Monday afternoon next to J&J co-owner Jane Sanpetrino. The collaborative effort has benefited all village businesses, Godin said.

"Word of mouth. It's the way it should be. If I don't have something, I'll send them over elsewhere, and vice versa," Godin said.

Business at The Copper Cauldron, she said, has been brisk since it opened in April 2003, despite the buzz generated when Phil's moved out two weeks later.

"When Phil's left, everything was so negative. But we were a new store, and we were doing well," she said. "Last week I had a couple come in from Kentucky who had been here last year. They remembered the store; they knew I had something they'd wanted."

Maplehurst Florist owner Jon Houghton said the businesses now featured in downtown reflect a successful understanding of the village dynamic. The flower shop, operating since 1943, has continued as a specialty business during many waves of change in the village, the 13-year- owner said.

"We're coming around," Houghton said. "The vacancies from before looked a lot worse than it was. But the village only accepts certain types of businesses, and now they're finding their place."

Old and new

The Phil's vacancy served for many as a measure of the health of downtown. Fiori Bridal owner Nicole Roberts said she was more than ready to relocate to the space and fill the windows in April.

The space was symbolic, she said. She had passed the store since she was a child growing up in Essex Center. She moved Fiori, which she has owned for 11 years, from Pearl Street in Essex to the southwest corner of Main Street and Railroad Avenue.

"This has always felt like the center of Essex," Roberts said of the village. "It has that quaint hometown feel and is what you picture a small town to be. Quintessential Vermont."

In another effort to maintain the village environment, the Lincoln Inn was purchased by long-time residents and brothers Alex and Bob McEwing in September. Alex McEwing said the building, which faced the possibility of demolition, is part of the McEwing's efforts to revitalize the section of the village across the Five Corners intersection.

"We see this as a community center," McEwing said. "We're hearing it every day, that people are glad The Lincoln Inn was bought by some local brothers."

McEwing said he and his brother plan to restore the building and continue operating it as a restaurant and lounge. The main reason for purchasing the space, he said, was to ensure its preservation for future generations.

"This is a process that really goes beyond us," he said.

Transition continues

Village officials are striving to continue their relationship with present and future business owners through work on downtown streets and lighting. The Legislature recently approved a motion to declare downtown Essex Junction a historic district -- official certification is pending approval by the National Park Service -- while officials hope to continue development in the Five Corners area and along Pearl Street, particularly at the former A&P plaza.

Houghton said that relationship will be crucial to business success, particularly with the newer shops.

"Things move a little slower here in the village. The businesses will just need some time to get under way," he said. "It's just a matter of time."

From Burlington Free Press

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