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Family Buys Multiple South Woodstock Properties to Build Hospitality-Based Destination

  • Simi Johnston, of South Woodstock, Vt., talks to kitchen staff while getting change for a customer on Nov. 7, 2017, at the South Woodstock Country Store in South Woodstock. (Valley News - Charles Hatcher) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • The Kendron Valley Inn is seen on Nov. 7, 2017, in South Woodstock, Vt. Simi Johnston, who recently bought the inn and the South Woodstock Country Store with her family, said that the inn won't have any major exterior rennovations, but will get a new kitchen, fresh paint and other upgrades. (Valley News - Charles Hatcher) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Philip LaCourse and Allyson Beck, also of South Woodstock, Vt., work in the kitchen of the South Woodstock Country Store on Nov. 7, 2017, in South Woodstock. Beck said she loves working in her own town and likes to see her customers that come in regularly. "I drive about five miles a day," she said. (Valley News - Charles Hatcher) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Chip Hutt, of Hartland, Vt., reads the a newspaper after having a cup of coffee on Nov. 7, 2017, at the South Woodstock Country Store in South Woodstock, Vt. Hutt said that he lives close by and has been coming to the country store for many years. (Valley News - Charles Hatcher) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Business Writer
Sunday, November 12, 2017

South Woodstock — It takes a village. And sometimes a family can help out, too.

That is the situation unfolding in South Woodstock, where the family of Florida real estate developer and South Woodstock resident Pritam Singh has, in rapid succession, acquired the inn, the country store, the former Town Hall and a landmark 86-acre farm.

The Singh family is laying a new foundation to the rural community through ownership and operation of keystone properties with plans to revitalize them around hospitality, food, organic farming, art, social spaces and community events that would appeal to year-round and seasonal residents alike, Singh family members said in interviews last week.

Over the past few months members of the Singh family have spent a total of $3.4 million to buy Kedron Valley Farm, the South Woodstock Country Store, the Kedron Valley Inn and the former Grange Hall, all along the same stretch of Route 106 in South Woodstock. The Singh family also owns several old farm properties nearby on Morgan Hill Road and Calendar Hill Road, where they live.

“My family and I believe this is a special place and ‘if you build it, they will come.’ ” Simran Johnston, daughter of Pritam Singh, said last week as she was cleaning up before closing the South Woodstock Country Store for the night. “We really want to see South Woodstock thrive.”

Johnston, who along with her sister Charan Kaur and brother Noah Singh, are all involved in fine-tuning the inn, store, hall and farm that will function closely together in creating a “village hub” and promoting South Woodstock as a destination for area residents and tourists, they said.

Ideas are in the formative stage, they said, but run the gamut from selling and preparing food from locally raised sources at the inn and store to offering studio workspace to draw artists to the community and holiday-timed events for families and their children. The farm is being eyed to become a CSA and the former Grange Hall could become a community library and meeting space, Pritam Singh said.

“We definitely want to cultivate the arts,” said Johnston, a ceramicist who ran her own art gallery in Brooklyn before deciding to return to the Upper Valley where she was raised and, like her brother Noah Singh, attended The Sharon Academy before college. The space above the store is being adapted into a studio, for example, where Johnston said “visiting artists can teach and share” their skills. Johnston is already the owner, with her mother and Pritam Singh’s wife, Ann Johnston, of the boutique clothing store Revolution in White River Junction.

Real estate records at Woodstock town offices show limited liability corporations created by members of Pritam Singh’s family bought the South Woodstock Country Store for $488,000 and the Kedron Valley Inn for $1.5 million. Both the store and the inn have changed hands multiple times over the years under a series of different owners.

Kedron Valley Farm, across the road from the Green Mountain Horse Association, was acquired for $1,030,000, according to listing agent Snyder Donegan Real Estate Group. Pritam Singh said the former Grange Hall is the process of being acquired for about $390,000.

Singh, who has had a residence in South Woodstock for 35 years, said the recent South Woodstock property and business purchases by his children didn’t constitute so much a “grand plan” as it does “a reaction to an opportunity but one we thought was important to support.”

The offer to buy the South Woodstock Central Store came out of the blue, said Alison Cioffi-Brown, who with her husband, Jim Brown, bought the store in 2015 from siblings Holly O’Brien and Dan Noble, who themselves had owned the store for 14 years.

Cioffi-Brown said she and he husband hadn’t been looking to sell the store, but the Singh family “walked in and made an unsolicited offer.” She said she loved running the store and seeing familiar faces every day, but at the same time it was a seven-day-a-week job and finding people to work shifts was always a challenge. “The store is in good financial hands,” Cioffi-Brown said. “The new owners have a lot more financial resources than I would be able to throw at it. These folks have a network.”

Moreover, Cioffi-Brown noted, the sale turned out to be fortuitous. A few days after the closing at the end of July her husband was diagnosed with “some pretty serious health issues” that required heart surgery. He’s recovering now, but Cioffi-Brown can’t help but think something bigger was going on behind the scenes.

“God works in mysterious ways,” she said.

The 25-room Kedron Valley Inn is closed while the kitchen is being upgraded and other renovation work is underway. All the staff has been retained, including innkeeper Luke Underwood, said Noah Singh. Singh’s and Johnston’s mother, designer Ann Johnston, is advising on redecorating. Jim Reiman, a former partner in Three Tomatoes Trattoria in Lebanon, is consulting on planning a new menu.

“We’re taking it a little bit slower than we normally would,” Noah Singh said, explaining that the family — which has extensive experience running hotels in Florida — wants to ensure that the inn with its restaurant and tavern is welcoming to local residents in addition to seasonal tourists. Singh has spent the past six years working with his father in Key West, Fla., but returned to South Woodstock at the beginning of the summer shortly before the family acquired the South Woodstock properties.

After years of young people moving away from the area to live in urban centers, Noah Singh said, he is seeing indications the trend is beginning to swing back in the opposite direction. “We have a lot of friends coming back here now,” he said. “It’s a great lifestyle.” His fiancee, Maxine Lopez-Keough, is also helping on redesigning the inn, he said.

The family did some light rearrangement work in the South Woodstock Country Store, such as opening up the floor space and building an L-shaped eating counter around the kitchen space. Phil LaCourse, the store’s longtime chef who had been working at the Woodstock Inn for the past year, has returned. Veteran store employees Danielle Singleton and Alison Beck have also stayed on.

As an example of the kind of community events the Singh family hopes to build in the village, the store helped to organize and promote a communitywide Halloween party on Oct. 28 that included a jack-o’-lantern carving contest and potluck dessert contest at the firehouse, a “haunted hayride” around the village, a haunted house at the Vermont Horse Country Store and a “witches’ caldron” brew at the Kedron Valley Inn.

Other community events are being eyed to coincide with dates such as the winter and summer solstices and the Fourth of July.

“There’s a history of a community and village here that we are trying to honor,” said Charan Kaur, who teaches at the Upper Valley Waldorf School and moved from Boston to South Woodstock with her husband to raise their five children and be near their grandparents.

Although the store’s menu has been tweaked — the hipster staple of avocado toast is now available — Kaur said it remains familiar to everyday customers and prices have not been raised. “It’s important to keep the food. People like grilled cheese,” she said.

Chip Kendall, owner of Kedron Valley Stables in South Woodstock and a seventh-generation village resident whose family once owned the inn before selling it in the 1990s after which it passed through a series of owners, said he believes the Singh family’s investments will be good for the community.

“There is some positive new energy that is going into everything,” he said. “I think it will being some new life back into the community.” He said the previous owners of the inn, a Rhode Island company, “were away and didn’t have a good eye on the place.”

A few doors down from the store, Laura Spittle, who runs the tack and clothing shop Vermont Horse Country Store, said at first “it really scared me to see so much of this community going into one person’s hands,” even though she’s known the Singh family for a long time.

Spittle said she was worried when she learned that renovations might close the inn for months, which would hurt her business because she depends on the inn’s guests for customers. “Seventy-five percent of my business in the winter comes from the inn’s guests,” she said.

But Spittle said the Singh family responded to her concern and now everyone is working on ideas on “how to attract more people into this community during this time period” while the inn is closed for renovation. The Halloween event was a big success, she said, and they are now developing concepts to build on that — expanding the village’s annual Christmas “pageant,” for example, or a community caroling party coupled with a “cocoa and cookies” party at the store or firehouse.

She said she believes the plans to build a cluster of sustainable businesses centered around organic farming, a quality menu at the inn and convivially of the tavern — along with store serving as a social hub for the village — and drawing in practicing artists will help spur more young, year-round residents to live in the area.

The Singh family “want to see the store and the inn working together to upgrade what is offered in the community without losing the essence of the community,” Spittle said. “This is a welcome and worthy goal. But the fact is someone had to come along with enough money to make the difference and these people have enough money to make the difference and are willing to put themselves out there to do what needs to be done.”

Spittle realizes, however, the hoped-for revitalization of the village won’t happen quickly, but instead will take time to unfold.

“It’s going to be a tough winter but in the end it’s going to be absolutely great,” Spittle said.

John Lippman can be reached at jlippman@vnews.com.