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Neighbors Band Together in Effort to Revive Brownsville Store

  • The Brownsville General Store sitting in the shadow of Mount Ascuney in the village of Brownsville, Vt., on Nov. 24, 2014. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Staff Writer
Sunday, January 28, 2018

Brownsville  — A group of West Windsor residents have organized and are raising money to buy the shuttered Brownsville General Store and reopen the business to serve the community.

The 47-year old store, cafe and fuel station on Route 44 on the approach into the village of Brownsville closed nearly a year ago.

Earlier this month, Lake Sunapee Bank, the principal mortgage holder on the real estate, bought the property in a public auction for $100,000.

Now, a group of West Windsor residents, informally calling itself Friends of the Brownsville Store, hope to raise enough money to purchase the property from the bank. The group would then recruit someone to reopen and operate the store, which would be leased on a rent-free or nominal rent basis.

The effort is being spearheaded by West Windsor residents Chris Nesbitt and Cynthia Tucker. They’ve been holding meetings and talking with others who have been involved in operating and reviving general stores around Vermont to get ideas about what can be done to reopen the Brownsville store.

“We believe that if we could properly structure it financially, then an operator could do a tremendous business there and they would be welcomed and supported in the community,” said Nesbitt, who heads Focus Acquisition Partners, a Hanover investment firm. 

Nesbitt declined to say how much money his group has raised or how much he estimates it will cost to buy back the property from the bank as well as spend on any required maintenance work on the building and capital to restart the business.

But he said the group — which would be comprised of a “limited number of investors or donors” — envisions forming an LLC to acquire and own the property and initially charge a token rent until the store was financially on its feet.

“Once the business is established we’d scale a rent that is affordable and tied to the revenue of the business,” Nesbitt said, a model which has been adopted at other general stores around the state.

Former owner Kathy Frazer bought the Brownsville General Store in 2014 from prior owner Amy Yates, who owned and operated the store for 22 years.

The store closed last February.

Frazer, in a signal that the store was facing difficulties, told the Vermont Standard in 2016 that a combination of disappointing business from seasonal tourists, combined with new taxes and fees imposed by the town, were squeezing the business and making her think of putting the store up for sale.

The nearby Ascutney Mountain ski area closed in 2010, though the nonprofit Ascutney Outdoors has now established a network of recreational trails at the site.

The store property was assessed in 2017 at $314,700.

West Windsor Town Clerk Cathy Archibald said in an email that Frazer bought it for $288,000.

A total of about $6,580 is owed the town in taxes in addition to $1,513 for a wastewater fee.

She said the mortgage on the property was held by Lake Sunapee Bank and the Vermont Small Business Development Corp.

A spokeswoman for Maine-based Bar Harbor Bank & Trust, which owns Lake Sunapee Bank, said via email that the bank will be “seeking a buyer for the property” and listing it with a real estate agent.

Nesbitt said a viable general store is one of the defining characteristics of Vermont’s small towns, and since the Brownsville General Store closed, the village has been missing an important social hub.

“To be seen and see other people — that’s the essence of what the Brownsville store means for the community,” he said. While having a handy place to buy gas, a quart of milk or beer or to pick up lunch is important, Nesbitt explained, the critical importance of the store is its real-life social network function in the town and “the spontaneity of connections” made there.

“Living in a small, vibrant community that has an elementary school, a town hall, a town library, … and a post office all within five minutes — to have an empty general store is almost as though the town is crying out for something.”

Unfortunately, despite the emotional support within their communities, small-town general stores have been getting pushed aside by discount convenience store chains and quick-stop markets attached to gas stations. Convenience store giant Dollar General, which added nearly 1,000 stores nationally last year, has more than 31 stores in Vermont, double the number it had three years ago.

(Within the Upper Valley there are now Dollar General stores in Springfield, Charlestown, Canaan, Randolph, Fairlee and Windsor, while there are Dollar Tree stores in Claremont and West Lebanon). 

One way to keep general stores open and running — short of having a wealthy backer as in the cases of the recent sales of the South Woodstock Country Store and the Teago General Store in South Pomfret — is to separate the real estate from the business itself, a model that has been adopted at several general stores throughout Vermont.

It is a structure that has been advocated by Paul Bruhn, executive director of the Preservation Trust of Vermont, with whom the West Windsor group has consulted.

“These stores are challenging to operate in today’s retail world,” Bruhn said, “so it’s really helpful to separate out the real estate and the store operation from each other.” The store operator leases the building from the property owner — frequently a nonprofit — at a rent geared to the level of sales, which lifts the burden of a mortgage, capital improvements and taxes off their shoulders.

He points to stores in Shrewsbury, Guilford, Peacham, and Putney, as well as the Barnard General Store in Barnard, that have adopted a variant of this model.

In all these cases, he said, freshly prepared food and meals is a critical factor in attracting customers and creating a sense of community, since the purchase of basic household supplies has largely shifted to convenience and discount chains.

“It may be they chose to be more a cafe than a general store,” Bruhn said.

The importance of a menu and a cafe-like setting is exactly what Mark Abrams has learned since he reopened the Cornish General Store last March.

The Cornish Flat store on Route 120 had been closed for nearly four years before Abrams reopened it and “it’s been a tough year,” Abrams allowed, especially when it comes to wooing back customers who “got into the habit” of going elsewhere, especially for lunch.

But one way Abrams said he has been able to get the community’s attention is through food — the Friday night pizza specials always sell out — and to invite members of the town to utilize the space for club meetings, such as a weekly women’s knitting group who meet at the store.

“A wine selection and craft beers all go over very well,” he said, as does things like locally sourced goods.

Chrysanthemums, pumpkins, apples, cider in the fall all sold out.

In West Windsor, the prospect of the Brownsville General Store reopening is welcomed news, especially since the nearest stores are in the towns of Windsor or Reading.

“They are becoming guardedly optimistic that something can be done to bring back the store,” West Windsor Selectboard member Win Johnson said of the efforts by residents to raise funds to buy the property. “That’s enormously exciting for West Windsor.”

Johnson said that residents may not have always appreciated the role the Brownsville General Store played in the community before it closed.

“I’m as guilty as anyone else, but perhaps all of us took the store for granted and we didn’t realize how valuable having a store like that is in a community like ours,” he said.  “We miss it and we want to try and find a way to bring it back in some form.”

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

Clarification: This story as been updated to reflect that the store is in the village of Brownsville, near Ascutney Mountain trails.