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Bottom Line: Study shows that shopping local helps improve Upper Valley economy

Valley News Business Writer
Published: 10/3/2020 8:07:30 PM
Modified: 10/3/2020 8:07:28 PM

The Upper Valley (VT/NH) Facebook page recently lit up with rapturous speculation over what people hoped to see occupy the vacant retail spaces of the closed Kmart and soon-to-be-closed J.C. Penney stores in West Lebanon.

The list read like the Chain Store & Franchise Hall of Fame: Target, Costco, Trader Joe’s, Aldi, Red Lobster, Olive Garden, Cracker Barrel.

I stopped reading at the plea for a Long John Silver.

We may love the cheap hamburgers, fast-fashion clothes and five-cycle dishwashing machines brought to us by giant retailers. But the price we pay for that choice short-changes the money that flows back into the Upper Valley community, a new study from Vital Communities distressingly argues.

The White River Junction nonprofit has released a report that claims locally owned stores and restaurants funnel back up to four times more of the money from their revenue into the local community than do national chains.

At a time when the COVID-19 pandemic has caused many Upper Valley businesses to collapse and others to hold on for dear life, the study points to how supporting locally owned stores and restaurants underpins the economic welfare of the community in a way shopping at corporate behemoths fails to do.

The study “really spells out just how important it is to support our local businesses that are rooted in and support our communities,” Nancy LaRowe, director of Vital Communities’ Vital Economy initiative, said in a news release. “Many local businesses are struggling to stay afloat right now. We need to be there for them now by buying locally, so they will be here for us in the future to create stable jobs, enhance community character and invest in our communities.”

Utilizing financial information provided by 10 Upper Valley restaurants and 10 retailers, the study found that the restaurants “returned” 68.4% and the retailers 55.4% of their revenues to the local economy.

In contrast, national restaurant chains funnel back 30.4% of their revenue into the local economy and chain retailers recirculate 13.6% of their revenue locally.

The Vital Communities study, funded by a grant from the USDA Rural Development Program, was conducted by consulting firm Civic Economics, which has done similar studies elsewhere.

To collect the data, local Upper Valley businesses opened their books to show what proportion of their revenue they spent in five categories, including wages paid to employees, materials and services purchased by the business and charitable giving with the community.

The Vital Communities study might strike some as not quite on the level of McKinsey & Co. — the payroll alone at Walmart in West Lebanon is bigger than many Upper Valley businesses, to say nothing of how the presence of chain stores enables the plaza owners to pay property taxes into the city’s coffers — but one tidbit stands out.

Civic Economics estimates that Amazon sucked out $165 million in retail sales from the “region” in 2019.

And because there isn’t an Amazon warehouse or Amazon-owned Whole Foods market in the Upper Valley, which would have resulted in some portion of the revenues “returning” in the form of local wages, none of that spending returned to the Upper Valley.

But maybe not for long. One of the companies rumored to be eyeing the J.C. Penney and Kmart spaces in Upper Valley Plaza is — sorry, Long John Silver fans — Amazon.

The chatter along Route 12A in recent weeks is that Amazon has been checking out one of the plaza spaces to locate a new fulfillment center (the closest warehouses are in southern New Hampshire and there are none in Vermont), although as of now nothing has come before the city’s Planning Department about that development.

Model employer arrivesin East Randolph

A new prototyping machine shop that began on the West Coast before deciding to plant an East Coast location in East Randolph appears to be humming along nicely.

KAD Models and Prototypes, based in Alameda, Calif., and founded by Upper Valley native Brian Kippen last fall, acquired a 3.6-acre property at the corner of Route 14 and Route 66 that had been the former farm and construction equipment seller L.W. Greenwood & Sons.

Kippen’s company has received a $52,000 loan through the Vermont Economic Development Authority plus a $21,000 grant from the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation for brownfield remediation at the site, and that work is underway.

Kippen reports that he has hired four employees so far to work at KAD’s East Randolph facility, which he selected because of its proximity to Vermont Technical College and the school’s reliable output of skilled engineers in the advanced manufacturing trades.

The pandemic pushed launch plans back a few months, but Kippen was able to get the shop open by June.

Randolph-based lighting company LEDdynamics is already a client, and Kippen said as soon as the remediation project is completed in a couple weeks he plans a “hard push” for East Coast clients.

The fine print

Vikarnda Meesilp has operated the Bangkok Asian Market & Cafe on Hanover Street in Lebanon and then the Bangkok Thai Food Express food truck at area farmers markets and this summer has had the mobile kitchen stationed in the parking lot of Miracle Mile Plaza. Now she’s getting ready to move her operation into the former Ramunto’s space adjacent to the Systems Plus computer store in Lebanon.

Meesilp said that she will initially be serving only take-out from the location but also plans to open an Asian food market and restaurant in the space.

The Ramunto’s space at Miracle Mile Plaza has been vacant since the pizza franchise closed in 2018.

Grafton, which has been without a general store since the Grafton Country Store closed in 2018, will soon have a new place to buy items needed “in a pinch,” says the couple behind the endeavor.

Grafton residents Mark Brobst and Carole Platka-Brobst are opening Wilbur’s Country Store adjacent to their home near the Grafton fire station on Library Road, the loop that connects with Route 4, where they will be selling “everyday necessities with a focus on locally produced products that people want,” Mark Brobst said.

Brobst said they are targeting a “soft” opening in November followed by a “grand” opening in January.

The “mercantile” store will sell household staples, animal feed, “farming and homesteading supplies” plus their own line of “old fashioned bottled soda in five different flavors,” Brobst said.

General stores have been closing all over New England but Brobst, who works as an EMT, said they have canvassed the community and listened to what people want.

“My wife and I have been working on this idea for a few years,” he said. “We feel like we have the ability and gumption. When the pandemic hit we just decided this was the right time.”

Now is the right time to contact John Lippman with your business news at jlippman@vnews.com.




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