Chapman's Place: A Place For All
A new commercial development concept in Fairlee, Vermont.
Last week’s post on accessibility requirements had a bit of a bite to it.
Let’s balance that out with an update that’s more optimistic and uplifting.
No pain points or lessons learned or recommendations. Just a cool project a few partners and I are working on that I’m excited to share.
We’re calling it Chapman’s Place. Located in Fairlee, Vermont.
The number of folks reading Brick + Mortar has since doubled, though, so I’ll give a brief summary to date.
A Place For All
A group of five of us formed a partnership earlier this year to purchase and redevelop two adjacent properties in Fairlee: a vacant lot and an abandoned gas station. The vacant lot we now own. The gas station remains under contract as we sort out environmental risks.
Going into the partnership, we did not have a concrete business plan. More important was our shared vision for a vibrant downtown Fairlee and a mutual trust that our collective mind would succeed in developing an amazing concept. These two properties have sat stagnant for over a decade on Main Street and we all independently felt a burning desire to change that. This was our chance to take action.
This summer, we managed a number of activations on the vacant lot—art murals, games, live music, food trucks, a permanent coffee truck—and received support from the community to plant ten trees.
For the past six months, the five of us have relentlessly strategized on a long-term vision for the development of the combined properties. Our diverse backgrounds—non-profit leadership, general contracting, marketing, organizational development, and management consulting—provided fertile ground for brainstorming.
We’ve entertained most possibilities under the sun—townhomes, office, retail, mixed use, rooftop patios, pole barn, etc. Everything except perhaps a strip mall or self-storage.
With our deep ties to the town, we prioritized community needs over profits. For example, a cannabis dispensary would likely crush it, but there are many other uses that—in our opinion—would better serve the broader community and long-term health of the town’s economic, social, and cultural facilities.
While community input was solicited, we wanted to make sure we were giving appropriate weight to progressive urban planning and economic development principles. Most people have an opinion for “I’d like to see <blank> built here” but we also wanted to determine the use or uses that objectively have the highest chances of revitalizing this section of Main Street.
The concept we ultimately landed on is a $1.7M project to rehabilitate the abandoned gas station and construct a new 2,500 SF building on the vacant lot.
Four new businesses would then be established: a wood-fired pizzeria, micro-retail space for local artisans, a café, and a cocktail bar. In addition, programmed events would be held year-round to tie the uses together and provide an additional channel to attract visitors.
A Pizzeria, Gallery, and Café Walk Into a Bar…
The two underlying goals of Chapman’s Place are to:
Transform two blights (472 and 512 Main below) into an active, social hub where people want to spend time
Empower our region’s Creative Economy, a sector that makes up 10% of jobs in our area (artists, performers, food entrepreneurs, craftsmen/women, etc)
In other words, the project focuses on downtown revitalization and economic development—two priority areas for any town struggling with stagnant growth and the aftermath of globalization.
To make any sort of significant dent in our goals, we need a big splash. One that establishes a set of diverse, yet complimentary, uses to attract people for different reasons. Once there, visitors need the opportunity (and incentive) to shop at other, local businesses.
Our approach was emphatically an anti-urban renewal one. Leveling the station and erecting a 5-over-1 podium building across the two lots was off the table from Day 1. Instead, we’re focused on salvaging the existing gas station and developing in the context of the surrounding scale and style.
We knew a one-off commercial space would not be enough. There had to be several, interwoven uses to increase the chances of success. We sought to create an ecosystem that could feed off of itself and establish a destination for folks across the region to visit.
Under these constraints, the concept and business plan for Chapman’s Place was formed—slowly, with input from various stakeholders and multiple iterations over the 6-month period, we developed a long-term vision that consists of four uses.
Use #1: Wood-Fired Neapolitan Pizza
Food is at the heart of any vibrant place.
In Fairlee, year-round dining options are limited. Most restaurant outings require a trip to a nearby town. But with $7.9M in annual restaurant sales leakage in our surrounding area, there’s a real market for food.
$7.9M is a large void to fill. Assuming $700,000 in gross receipts for a 48-seat restaurant (24 inside, 24 outside), 11 new establishments could open today to serve existing demand. Assuming quality operations and marketing, the creation of one restaurant should not have a problem attracting customers.
The corner gas station is the ideal location for a small restaurant—manageable size, ample parking, simple but intriguing architecture, and sizable windows. Emphasizing adaptive reuse over rip-and-replace was important to us. Both from an embodied emissions and cost savings standpoint.
The conversation gets interesting when aligning on the choice of food to fill the space. With so many options, everyone is bound to have a different take on what is best suited. There are a number of right answers here. It’s mostly just a matter of picking one and sticking with it.
We ultimately landed on something slightly more elevated than a traditional pizzeria that offers a simple but memorable menu. Pizza that goes back to its Neapolitan roots with a wood-fired oven, local ingredients, and wine pairings. Maybe a few appetizers, but no novel-length menus.
Something like a Pizzeria Verita in Burlington, VT. Just not 80 miles away.
Our plan is to convert the vacant gas station into the pizzeria (we are still a ways from closing on the property given environmental concerns so not a done deal yet). And, with the help and expertise of two local restaurateurs, we were able to develop a concept and business plan that gives us the confidence to take the next steps.
Of course, this is all subject to change when we find the right operator, but we wanted to have some semblance of a plan/opinion going into this.
Use #2: Micro-Retail for Artisans
Similar to food, retail is critical to activating a downtown center. Apart from Chapman’s General (our family’s 125 year-old general store), a new bike repair store, and Dollar General, the retail market is untapped.
We need a business that will attract shoppers from across the region, feeding off of the summer lake tourism while also providing a year-round destination.
Furthermore, 4,500 cars drive along Main Street daily, yet that traffic is almost entirely pass-through. We need a way to capture and convert those people into a paying customer base.
A business centered around Vermont craftsmen and women—10% of our region’s workforce—seemed like a phenomenal opportunity.
Our thesis is that, with the right level of support—staffing, backend operations, branding, and marketing—creators from across the region (and perhaps state eventually) could be empowered to grow their businesses and audiences. We would establish a curated collection of various artisanal brands, managing both retail and eCommerce channels on their behalf.
From an economic development standpoint, this checks all the boxes: supporting our region’s entrepreneurs, driving commercial activity in downtown Fairlee, and creating new sales and marketing jobs. Equally important, however, is that it also aligns with our partnership’s deep ties to the artist community.
1,500 SF of the new building would be allocated to this concept. It would provide 30+ stalls for artisans using a consignment model of profit-sharing with the ability to represent many more on an online platform. Retail operations, inventory management, digital branding, and content marketing functions would be developed in-house. Our partner artisans would be free to focus entirely on their craft while we ran the business end.
We would effectively create a new brand whose sole purpose is to elevate the Vermont creative. Our vision would be to become a premier collection of Vermont artisanal and handcraft goods, with global reach and a flagship brick and mortar location in Fairlee.
This idea has begun to take shape in the last few weeks on two fronts:
We established a budding partnership with Vermont North By Hand, a local 28-member artist collective looking for ways to expand opportunities for their members
We solicited feedback from the community and received almost 300 letters of support in less than a week. Of which over 100 were artisans interested in participating in the new retail opportunity
While we have a clear funnel of supply, quantifying the demand will be challenging given the void in similar businesses across our region. Although that may be to our advantage, we’ll see.
Use #3: Café + Cocktail Bar
The remaining portion of the new construction building (1,000 SF) will be dedicated to a café and cocktail bar.
This summer, my partners established the Chapman’s Elixirs coffee truck which attracted thousands of customers in just four months. It turned out to be a valuable asset for the town, providing new social opportunities alongside fresh coffee, lattes, and locally-baked goods on a daily basis.
Should this whole concept materialize, Chapman’s Elixirs would be moved indoors to provide year-round service.
Furthermore, we need a place for folks to gather after hours. Fairlee has lacked a downtown bar since The Third Rail closed almost a decade ago.
So, why not offer a hybrid coffee + cocktail concept? They’re all the rage now.
Fairlee’s village center needs a gathering place that is open mornings through evenings. This could prove to be the perfect opportunity to fill that void.
Use #4: Events
Every downtown needs some hype—an added buzz or reason for people to visit.
Events are a great way to do this. And are even more effective when combined across various uses.
Part of the café would serve as an indoor event space. Either by way of private parties or events open to the public.
Furthermore, ample outdoor seating combined with a new bandstand would provide opportunity for summertime entertainment as well. Live music, food trucks, artisan talks and demonstrations, combined wine pairings with art viewings, guest speakers, just to name a few. We tested a few out this summer with success.
There are plenty of relevant events to be planned—the only constraint being that of our own creativity.
Tying It All Together
To accomplish all this, we have blank canvas consisting of an abandoned 1,400 SF gas station and 20,000 SF of vacant land.
The station would be retrofitted to accommodate the pizzeria. This includes interior and exterior renovations, parking upgrades, and a new septic. As far as old gas stations go, we’re actually lucky—the tanks have been removed and the architecture is workable.
The only hurdle remaining before purchase is the reduction of environmental risk through testing and government programs.
The other uses would be housed in a new 2,500 SF L-shaped building as depicted below.
Keep in mind, this is a rough sketch plan. No approvals have been sought from the town or permits from the state. This was strictly to help us plan and develop our application for funding.
We also created a rough floor plan for the new building (below).
Café and cocktails at the top with a small kitchen. Micro-retail with ~30 artisan stalls on the right. Space in the left corner to manage inventory and shipping logistics for the retail business.
But Where’s The Housing?
You’ll notice we’re missing housing. Given the shortage throughout the Upper Valley, we strongly considered adding a residential component. However, we ultimately removed it from scope given financial constraints. More pressing for this project was establishing a commercial hub that would attract visitors and improve downtown activity.
Furthermore, I’m concurrently working on developing a multifamily building across the street (501 Main). These eight apartments only skim the surface of what’s needed in the immediate area, but we need to focus on a minimum viable product at Chapman’s Place. There will be future opportunities to develop housing elsewhere.
The Path Forward
The economics of this project are tough. Each of the four businesses is operationally intensive and low margin. And rents for new commercial space would likely max out at $20/SF/year including common area and maintenance charges—too high for businesses to sustain themselves and too low to cover real estate build costs.
Add in construction and startup costs and the associated debt needed to tackle a $1.7M project, and very quickly you’re left with a handful of unprofitable businesses. And that’s if a bank would even finance this project. Banks like traditional investments (e.g. multifamily buildings with stable cash flows). Getting a loan to tackle acquisition of a vacant gas station, construction of a new commercial building in a small, untested market, and leasing out to a number of “risky” new businesses would be next to impossible.
So, to make Chapman’s Place possible, we submitted a bid for a Capital Investment Program grant through Vermont’s Agency of Commerce & Community Development. Not for the full $1.7M, but enough to make the project feasible.
This month, we made it to the final round of applicants and have been working to submit the last round of materials. This includes more project details, a timeline, a financial model, and letters of support.
Award decisions are still undecided. And, with the intense level of competition, there’s a good chance we don’t get the grant and the project doesn’t move forward. Regardless, it’s worth sharing at this point as we’re extremely proud of the concept and application we’ve put together with the help of the community.
Over the past week, we solicited letters of support from the community and artists interested in participating in the new retail opportunity should the project move forward.
In total, we received 277 letters of support from community members—109 of whom are artists, artisans, or creators. That level of community support is truly amazing and signals to us the strong need for a project of this scope and scale in Fairlee.
On top of that, we received six resounding letters of support from:
Vermont Lieutenant Governor Molly Gray
The Fairlee Selectboard (highest elected position in our town government)
Green Mountain Economic Development Corporation (our region’s economic development corporation)
Two Rivers-Ottauquechee Regional Commission (our region’s planning commission)
Vermont North By Hand (a 28-member artist cooperative and a partner in the retail opportunity)
Vital Communities (a non-profit that facilitates positive change across our region from housing, to business, to education)
Even if we aren’t awarded the grant, the outpouring of phenomenal feedback that we’ve received has given our partnership a deep appreciation for what the community really needs. If this project doesn’t materialize, there will be another.
We submitted our final stage application this week and we should be hearing back early 2022.
That’s it for today. Thanks for reading. If you haven’t yet, go ahead and subscribe here:
About me: I’m Jonah Richard, a small-scale real estate developer in Vermont. With my company, Village Ventures, I’m currently getting my hands dirty redeveloping mixed-use buildings along Main Street while trying to pick apart and replicate what makes other communities thrive.