State Backs Private I-89 Rest Area
At a news conference yesterday, developer Jesse “Sam” Sammis talks about a visitor center he plans to build off Interstate 89 in Randolph. Listening are, at left, Vermont Commerce and Community Development Secretary Lawrence Miller and Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)
Jesse "Sam" Sammis holds up an artist's rendering of the proposed visitor center during a news conference in Randolph. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)
Randolph — Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin’s administration has agreed to partner with a private developer to build a visitors center off Interstate 89 in Randolph, a move aimed at saving the state money and spurring economic development in the region.
Developer Jesse “Sam” Sammis will pay to build and operate the center, which will offer rest rooms, coffee, Vermont tourism information and as part of a massive commercial and residential complex that he’s proposing by Exit 4. In exchange, the state has agreed to promote the center on highway signs. Otherwise, no taxpayer money will be used to pay for the project, Shumlin said.
“It will not cost Vermont taxpayers one single dime,” Shumlin said yesterday in announcing the agreement at Sammis’ Three Stallion Inn.
Flanked by members of his administration and area officials, Shumlin said the partnership would save Vermont millions of dollars in construction costs, as well as $300,000 in annual operating expenses. The project will also offer an opportunity to promote the businesses and direct people to downtown Randolph, which Shumlin called “one of the great downtowns in Vermont.”
The state has closed a number of visitors centers in recent years as it struggled to close budget gaps. Partnering with private business has been discussed as one way to keep serving highway travelers.
The northbound rest stop on I-89 in Randolph has been closed for years and the southbound side will be shuttered when Sammis’ new center is built, Shumlin said.
The 5,000-square-foot building has a barn-like design , meant to reflect Vermont’s bucolic aesthetic. It will be connected to a 40,000-square-foot “Vermont Products Showcase Center,” where businesses, cultural organizations and artisans such as glassblower Simon Pearce can promote themselves to travelers and sell retail products.
Sammis has mentioned Simon Pearce several times as being the kind of retailer he’d like to see in the Showcase Center. The glassblower already has a business relationship with Sammis, leasing space in a building Sammis owns in Greenwich, Conn., said Simon Pearce spokesman Ross Evans.
There’s no plan yet to open a Simon Pearce location at Exit 4, Evans said, although the company is aware of the proposed project and supports it.
“I think any effort to bring additional dollars into the economy of Vermont is good,” Evans said yesterday. “We would need to see specifics, though, before determining whether it’s a good fit for the brand.”
Sammis said he hopes the visitors center becomes a gateway for his larger development, which includes plans for townhomes, apartments, more than 500,000 square feet of office and manufacturing space, a fitness center and a 180-room hotel on 172 acres he owns there. Sammis has dubbed the complex “The Green Mountain Center” and hopes to break ground by spring 2014. The site is mostly open land now, with a golf driving range, McDonald’s restaurant and Mobil gas station.
The project still faces several regulatory hurdles, including town site plan approval and state review under Act 250, the environmental law that oversees development in Vermont.
Sammis said he expects to submit his Act 250 application in the next couple of months.
“I don’t see a negative in this project,” he said. “This project is a home run for everybody.”
Getting Act 250 approval is far from a sure thing, however, as Gifford Medical Center has discovered. The Randolph hospital has proposed a senior living complex just off Route 66 and down the road from where Sammis wants to build his project. Gifford submitted its application in October 2011 and is still awaiting approval.
Most of Sammis’ 172-acre property will remain undeveloped, however, giving him confidence that there would be relatively few hang ups to get approval.
“Of course I’m concerned,” Sammis said of the Act 250 process, “but 70 percent of this project is open space to begin with.”
Yesterday, state officials lined up behind Sammis and said he had their full support.
“When you can save money, serve the public and fulfill your mission, and give the private sector an opportunity they wouldn’t have otherwise, I think that’s a win, win, win,” said Michael Obuchowski, commissioner of the state’s Department of Buildings and General Services.
“The capacity this brings to the area is absolutely phenomenal,” said Lawrence Miller, the state’s Commerce and Community Development secretary. “There are a lot of components of this that are not only OK, but highly desirable.”
Randolph’s Selectboard has written to Shumlin in support of Sammis, and other business owners have said they are eager to bring more visitors to town.
“I do feel the hotel is a really good idea,” said Penney Young, the manager at Belmains, a retail store on North Main Street.
Having a hotel in Randolph would have economic advantages for businesses, she said. Most of the lodging available consists of bed and breakfasts and there’s no place that can accommodate large groups of people.
Wayne Warner, who owns Valley Bowl, a bowling alley on Prince Street, said he has struggled to attract tournaments because of a lack of lodging.
“I’m passed over on bowling tournaments all the time because people generally don’t have a place to stay,” he said.
Young doubted whether Sammis’ project would pull many shoppers downtown, but neither did she feel threatened by potential competitors who set up shop there.
Perhaps not everyone would come downtown, Warner said, but there would be enough to be a benefit to Randolph.
“If a half a million people come off the Interstate a year, they’re going to be venturing out and doing stuff,” he said.
Chris Fleisher can be reached at 603-727-3229 or firstname.lastname@example.org.