Two weeks ago, downtown Barre was hit by back-to-back fires at a warehouse on Prospect Street, which sat just feet away from the city’s post office and Barre Opera House. The property is owned by Thom Lauzon, former mayor, a city councilor, and a major developer in the community.
Lauzon is mulling his options for using the half-acre site, but has no firm plans yet. But the vacancy has sparked a lot of discussion about possibilities, as the city has had an uptick in development and economic interest in recent years.
The city boasts new businesses and has plans for more construction, including a large housing project on Prospect Street, down the road from the Lauzon site.
Even the streets seem busier lately, according to Tracie Lewis, executive director of the Barre Partnership, an organization that works to create economic opportunity and foster community in the area.
“It’s quite busy out on the street, busier than I’ve seen it in recent years,” Lewis said.
Businesses are moving into the area, and many others are also interested, drawn by a combination of affordability and community.
“I wouldn’t say it’s overdue, but it’s time,” said Aimée Green, executive director of the Barre Area Development Corp.
Her organization focuses on economic opportunity for the area, especially bringing businesses to Barre. It has reported significant successes recently, as downtown buildings are being bought and renovated at a substantial pace.
“Like many of these older industrial towns, St. Albans, White River Junction, Vergennes, you know, Barre falls into that category of opportunity for, you know, revitalization and regrowth,” Green said.
In Barre’s downtown area, City Manager Nicolas Storellicastro and city staff have laid out an agenda.
In the near term, he said, city staff and elected officials are focusing on three areas: strategizing around underused Main Street properties; enacting new policies — “such as later restaurant hours, improved lighting, more events/activities” — that could encourage activity on the thoroughfare, and identifying development opportunities for the downtown area.
The Barre Area Development Corp. works directly to help businesses buy and renovate spaces in Barre. Green said it’s working with several manufacturing companies that are looking at the area, since Barre has a manufacturing background and affordable economic opportunity.
“We’re talking with lots of different larger employers interested in coming into the area, potentially into the Wilson Industrial Park for large-scale manufacturing,” Green said. She said the interest comes not just from Vermont, but also from places such as Canada and New Jersey, as companies are looking to Barre for the comparative affordability it offers, compared to other Vermont hubs.
Lewis, of the Barre Partnership, concurs that the city offers affordable incentives for both people and businesses.
“Barre and Montpelier are close together, but we’re … so different dynamically, but Montpelier has higher rent rates, so, you know, Barre is affordable,” Lewis said. She said growth was also stimulated by the pre-pandemic move of Agency of Transportation offices to downtown Barre.
The Barre Area Development Corp. works closely with businesses looking at a potential live music venue, developing office and apartment spaces, and working with the historic Wheelock building, which was recently approved for purchase by Fox Market.
Liv Dunton and Doni Cain, co-owners of Fox Market, purchased the Wheelock building from the city and plan to open a new location there this fall. Many of the market’s customers hail from Barre, and Dunton wanted to experience the opportunity and growth she heard was taking place in Barre.
“It’s a community that really feels like really on the cusp of something, of change and growth,” Dunton said.
The Fox Market owners were also drawn to downtown Barre because of the affordable housing market that customers spoke about around the store, a factor the city emphasizes in its recent growth.
“Families are far more likely to be able to afford to purchase a home here than in Montpelier or Chittenden County, and that has led to an extremely fast and competitive housing market in the City,” Strorellicastro said in an email.
While relatively low rent prices are enticing, affordable housing needs both attention and resources, according to Green. Her organization is in the process of seeking $3 million in grant funds for its Prospect Heights development project, which would build over 120 housing units just half a mile from the Barre Opera House, according to Green.
“It’s a major push for us right now, and where we’ve really been putting a lot of energy and time in attempting to address the crisis for central Vermont, anyway,” Green said.
Lauzon hasn’t yet figured out what to do with his suddenly empty Prospect Street property, but in the meantime, he shares a focus with Green as he looks ahead to the community’s future.
“I really hope to do something with housing,” Lauzon said. “In order to have a vibrant downtown, if you have people living there, in the downtown, they’ll come, you know, the businesses will follow.”
Want to stay on top of the latest business news? Sign up here to get a weekly email on all of VTDigger’s reporting on local companies and economic trends. And check out our new Business section here.
setTimeout(function() !function(f,b,e,v,n,t,s) if(f.fbq)return;n=f.fbq=function()n.callMethod? n.callMethod.apply(n,arguments):n.queue.push(arguments); if(!f._fbq)f._fbq=n;n.push=n;n.loaded=!0;n.version='2.0'; n.queue=;t=b.createElement(e);t.async=!0; t.src=v;s=b.getElementsByTagName(e); s.parentNode.insertBefore(t,s)(window,document,'script', 'https://connect.facebook.net/en_US/fbevents.js'); fbq('init', '1921611918160845'); fbq('track', 'PageView'); , 3000);