With several years of work remaining on Middlebury’s Bridge and Rail Project, downtown merchants are determined to outlast dwindling patronship that has posed a challenge since the project began.
The Bridge and Rail Project, aiming to bring passenger rail service from Rutland to Burlington by 2021, will close down Main Street to vehicles from May 27 to Aug. 5 this summer, limiting parking for visitors and potentially decreasing foot traffic and sales. Examples of recent work include the replacement of the Main Street and Exchange Street bridges and blasting tunnels in preparation of the replacement of 3,500 feet of rail.
Nearby businesses are often caught in the crosshairs of the disruptive process.
“It’s been a real challenge,” said Theresa Harris, manager of Edgewater Gallery. “Everyone knows that Middlebury is going through a big construction project, and people bypass the town.”
Despite seeing the long-term benefits, Harris noted the immediate effects: “In the short term, we think it’s very destructive and troubling for businesses.”
Jutta Miska, the founder of second-hand clothing store Buy Again Alley, was a social worker at a teen center in Addison County when she would run clothing swaps at the local high school. As participation grew, students suggested she opened up her own store. While she initially predicted that she would open a store in six months, she managed to open in three months due to the enthusiasm of high school and college students in the community. Miska felt worried about the ten weeks of road closures. “The only way to survive is to adapt and come up with new ideas, and I really hope it will be okay,” she said.
Others, however, are less worried about construction.
“I think they’re doing a phenomenal job with the downtown construction,” said Dan McIntosh, owner of Forth N’ Goal Sports. “If your business is doing poorly, it’s very easy to blame the construction.”
For Dana Franklin, owner of Vermont’s Own Products, his business’ location situates him away from some of the problems associated with construction.
“I don’t see this as a big thing for me, because we already have another bridge, Cross Street Bridge,” he said, “but I can see how a business closer to the construction site can have problems with parking and stuff like that.”
Some merchants spoke to other reasons regarding dwindling patronship. Paula Israel, owner of Wild Mountain Thyme, contributed the slowing of business to a greater focus on Main Street, not the Bridge and Rail Project.
“There’s always parking available, and you’re still going to get amazing service when you walk through the door,” Israel said.
Israel called for more students from the college to patronize local businesses. “It would be nice if college students have more awareness of their surroundings and shopping locally,” she said, “and giving back to a community that has more than welcomed them.”
Scott Gemignani, owner of Tinker and Smithy Game Store, spoke of his frustration with the delay of project’s start date to 2017.
“I think the onus and the ownership is on our community as a whole, because we could have had this done years ago,” Gemignani said. “But now that we’ve waited this long, there’s that much more work, time and money.”
Despite these challenges, business owners remain hopeful that the Middlebury community will continue to help town businesses thrive.
Danforth Pewter also has a cohort of dedicated customers.
“We are very connected with a lot of local folks, as well as tourists and college people,” said Karen Douse, manager of Danforth Pewter’s downtown location. “We have a lot of people who come in for wedding gifts and then come back for baby gifts, so it’s a lot of fun.”
“There’s a lot of things that attract people,” said Gemignani of the town of Middlebury. “We are sort of a destination location for people looking to get away yet still have nice amenities and still enjoy their vacation and decompress without having to go to a big city.” For Gemignani, part of the appeal of opening a game store came from a place of nostalgia, since Middlebury used to have a game store.
The narrative around the construction project is one of endurance and hard work. Middlebury has had a history of surviving long construction projects, with many businesses being established as early as the 1970s. In many cases, shopkeepers are determined to stay.
“Old Mountain Thyme is the oldest business in town that has been singularly owned for as of this month, 48 years,” Israel said. “I used to come here when I was in college with my roommate.”
“I started [Vermont’s Own Products] in Shelburne in 1986,” Franklin said. “Fourteen years ago, I moved to Middlebury. I’ve gone through worse things than this already, so I plan on staying for a while.”
Despite both the short-term and long-term effects of construction, merchants feel a sense of community with each other.
“Our plan is to keep [Danforth Pewter] open kind of in solidarity with everyone else — we need to stick together and stay open,” Douse said.
Lucy Townend '22 is a Managing Editor alongside Abigail Chang.
She previously served as a senior section editor, a local editor, and a copy editor.
Townend is majoring in International Politics and Economics, studying French throughout her years at Middlebury and is planning on completing a thesis focused on income inequality and regime change.
This previous summer, Townend interned as a private banking analyst at a mid-sized bank in Chicago and plans to continue her work there after graduation.