Following a two year-long search for additional rehearsal and storage space, the Town Hall Theater has announced its decision to buy The Diner property on Merchants Row. The Diner will continue its regular operations up until THT’s official purchase on June 1. Following this date, the Theater board plans to open a new business — food-related or otherwise — to fill the space until funds are raised to support their future goals of expansion.
“The key point we want to make to the community is we don’t want to shutter the building,” said Douglas Anderson, THT Executive Director and former member of Middlebury College’s theater faculty, in an interview with the Addison County Independent. “We think an empty storefront is bad for downtown. We are actively looking for anyone who has any idea of how to use the building, and we will entertain any idea.”
The Diner was placed on the market about six weeks ago. Its owners, Carl Roesch and Caetlin Harwood, were relieved at its quick purchase, as they had taken some significant financial hits during the town’s bridge construction last year. In late January, Carol’s Hungry Mind Café down the street similarly announced its impending closure as a result of the bridge project’s impact on recent sales.
However, Roesch and Harwood are glad that The Diner’s property will go to a neighbor. “Both Caetlin and I are extremely excited about the THT purchasing the property and expanding,” Roesch said to the Addison County Independent. “Doug has shared his vision with us, and we see it as something that will be great for the community.”
In the meantime, Roesch and Harwood are committed to maintaining The Diner until June 1. “We want to go out with a bang,” Roesch said.
Originally opened in the 1930s as Steve’s Park Diner, The Diner has long been a popular destination for Middlebury residents and College students alike. The breakfast and lunch spot is known for its milkshakes — “the best in town,” as The Diner claims on its website — and its creative daily specials. In particular, many students will miss The Diner’s iconic Nutella Stuffed French Toast.
“It’s pretty sad,” said Logan Wright ’19, of The Diner’s closing. “Every town needs a diner.”
Fortunately for Wright and other Diner regulars, Roesch and Harwood have confirmed with the Addison County Independent that they will be returning to Addison County further in the future with a “new ‘food-driven’ venture.” Additionally, THT Board President Deppman commented on the possible inclusion of an eatery in the theater’s future plans for The Diner space, as one might be beneficial for intermissions and conferences.
Located right next door to the Town Hall Theater, the purchased space at 66 Merchants Row could not be more ideal. The THT’s long-term plan is to remove the original diner building and construct an addition to the theater— “THT 2.0,” as Anderson calls it. This new building could extend back behind the Clinton Smith carriage house, as far as the diner property reaches, and would solve much of the theater’s trouble with space shortage.
The THT began searching for such a real estate opportunity two years ago, when the theater’s overflow became so great that the board formed a committee whose sole purpose was to find a second property to rent or buy. However, the THT has been dealing with a lack of space for much longer.
“It’s not commonly known, but we were short of space on the day we opened,” Anderson said in an interview with the Addison County Independent. “There is no storage. There is precious little office space. We don’t have a scene shop. We need a second rehearsal space. We’ve known all of this for quite some time.”
Two whole years passed without any luck for the THT committee, which Anderson jokingly blames on Middlebury’s “success” in sustaining businesses.
“There isn’t any leftover space,” Anderson said in the same interview. “What we wouldn’t have given for an abandoned factory or an empty schoolhouse. They just don’t exist.”
When The Diner appeared on the market six weeks ago, the THT board “didn’t even have to discuss it,” Anderson said. The property was exactly what they had been looking for.
Anderson noted that the THT’s plan for the property was indeed a “long-term” one. “It could be three, five or 10 years before we (a) figure out exactly what we need to move into the future, and (b) raise the money to fulfill whatever the dream is,” he said. Astonishingly though, the THT was able to raise the funds ($300,000) to purchase The Diner in just two weeks, thanks to the donations of about 15 generous community members.
“I think it says a lot about people’s desire to keep the arts in the community,” THT board President Benj Deppman said of the pledges in an interview with the Addison County Independent. “It also says a lot about Doug and the quality we put on the stage.”
Doug Anderson originally led the communal purchase of the THT building in 2000, when its previous owners, the Knights of Columbus, could no longer take on the great amount of repairs it needed. Anderson, a resident of Middlebury for 15 years, rallied a group of community members and organizations to support the purchase of the building, which eventually sold for $275,000. According to the THT website, some of the theater’s earliest support came from Middlebury College itself. Anderson reopened the space as a non-profit corporation, and has led the Town Hall Theater to where it is today.