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Randolph residents have reservations about hotel plan

  • At their meeting on June 17, 2019, the Randolph Development Review Board visits the site where the proposed 79-room hotel would be built on Route 66 off of Exit 4 in Randolph, Vt. (Zac Freeman photograph)

  • A bird’s eye view of the proposed hotel and conference center to be built between Interstate 89’s Exit 4 and Randolph Center, Vt., along Route 66. (Courtesy Town of Randolph)



Valley News Business Writer
Saturday, June 22, 2019

Randolph would appear to have all the basics a small town in central Vermont would need. With a population of only 4,700, it is home to at least three manufacturing companies, a college, a performing arts center, a downtown movie theater, a hospital, a golf course and a weekly newspaper.

What Randolph doesn’t have — and no other nearby town does either — is a hotel.

That will change if a group of local business people and civic boosters have their way with a project that could cost $8 million to $12 million. The five-member investor group has plans before the town to build a Hampton Inn hotel, conference center and restaurant behind a grove of pine trees off Route 66 near the Exit 4 interchange along Interstate 89.

If built, the 79-room hotel would be the only large-scale lodging between White River Junction to the south and Berlin, Vt., to the north. Randolph has been without a hotel since the Three Stallion Inn closed in 2017.

“Everyone has always said we need a hotel here,” said Paul Rae, who owns a Randolph real estate firm and is one of the investors in the project. “There’s a void in the Randolph area.”

He said area manufacturers GW Plastics and LEDdynamics, institutions like Vermont Technical College and Gifford Medical Center, and Norwich University in nearby Northfield, Vt., have to send overnight visitors on as much as a 40-minute drive for a place to stay. That results in a loss in patronage of the town’s restaurants and stores, with several downtown retail outfits closing.

“Randolph is the economic hub of Orange County,” Rae said, adding that the lack of lodging hinders growth, especially as the town seeks to position itself as a central access point to winter recreation and skiing destinations such as Stowe, Killington and Sugarbush.

Pushback

Despite the calls from some residents and businesses for new lodging, the Hampton Inn proposal has not endeared itself to everyone in town. The project is facing some of the same friction that ended up scuttling a previous plan to build a hotel and mixed-use development at Exit 4.

In addition to town residents’ opposition to that prior project — which was proposed on an open 172-acre site at the southwest corner of Exit 4, a scenic stretch of the highway with sweeping views of the Green Mountains — conservation groups objected to the loss of prime farmland protected under the state’s Act 250 environmental review process.

After more than a decade trying to push that project through, developer Sam Sammis pulled the plug and sold the land to farmers and a conservation group before any Act 250 decision was rendered.

The new proposal for a hotel from a group calling itself FARM Developing LLC — “FARM” is an amalgam of the initials of the principals’ last names — is now before the town’s Development Review Board for approval.

All of the principals in FARM Developing have local connections to Randolph, some going back to their youths in the town. Perry Armstrong, a member of the Randolph Selectboard, owns tenting company Rain or Shine Tents and Events; Rae owns Rural Vermont Real Estate; John Farrow and Jody Davignon are partners in Farrow Financial Inc., a Randolph financial management and advisory firm.

The fifth partner is Ed Murphy, a Virginia developer with experience building hotels who went to VTC and grew up in Websterville, Vt.

The plan

The Randolph Development Review Board held its second public forum on the plans last Monday, moving from its usual meeting room in the Town Hall to a second-floor space at Chandler Music Hall to accommodate the approximately 75 people who turned out for the presentation by the developers.

The seven-member board, chaired by Chris Recchia, the recently named managing director of fiber-to-the-home provider ValleyNet and ECFiber and a former commissioner of the Vermont Department of Public Service, is required to render a decision within 45 days.

FARM Developing’s proposal calls for a three-floor hotel, a separate building that would house a 400-seat conference center and 152-seat restaurant in the southeast quadrant of the town’s interchange zoning district, a commercial zone that requires buildings to have a higher standard in design, according to Rae, who, along with Armstrong, are both longtime members of Randolph’s Planning Commission.

There would be parking wrapped around three sides of the hotel with 238 parking spaces.

Armstrong said the group franchised with Hilton Hotels Corp.’s Hampton Inn division because it provides name recognition and a reservations system that is critical to book customers for room occupancy.

“We couldn’t do this as a boutique. It wouldn’t work,” he said. (If built, the hotel itself would be managed by a third-party company that specializes in staffing and running hotels, which is typical in the industry).

“People hear ‘Hilton’ and they think we’re fronting for a corporate structure, but that’s not true,” Armstrong said. “We’re all local people or, like Ed (Murphy), have a strong connection to the area.”

Armstrong said they will not submit the application for the critical Act 250 review process until the proposal has received the various local approvals required from the town. The hotel plan has already gone before the town’s Design Review Advisory Commission which, other than urging landscaping to obscure the backside of the restaurant and conference center from the view of Route 66, said the proposal generally met criteria for the site.

But some members of the commission — whose input to the Development Review Board is not binding — questioned the hotel project’s seeking a waiver of the 35-foot height limit on buildings in the district. The developers hope to build about 50 feet high to meet the 79 rooms in the agreement with Hampton Inn.

Developers had revised the design from four floors and a flat roof — typical for a Hampton Inn — to three floors and a “peaked” roof that better reflected the design of other structures nearby, such as the convenience store on the west side of I-89 and Gifford’s Morgan Orchards senior living community.

“The project could not go forward if that (79-room) number would not be met,” Brian Lane-Karnas, the hotel’s project engineer, told the Development Review Board at last week’s meeting. “Even a two-story hotel would be over 35 feet. I don’t think the brand would approve a one-story hotel. I doubt the brand would approve a two-story hotel.”

Other tweaks include a stone exterior and paint colors “meant to be earth-toned to help blend into the natural scenery,” Lane-Karnas said, and low-power LED lights in the parking area to reduce nighttime glare.

“It shouldn’t have an adverse impact on the area,” Lane-Karnas said.

Lingering doubts

Whether those design measures will be enough to ease the worries of residents remains to be seen. But several expressed concerns at last week’s board meeting and afterward about everything from the increased traffic on Route 66 to noise from outdoor events under a hotel tent to stress on the town’s sewage and drainage system.

And then there is the contentious loss of prime farmland that will be part of the Act 250 review.

“I’m not against a hotel in Randolph but my main concern is why are they building up here?” said Dwain Chabot, a retired U.S. Marine gunnery sergeant whose property on Oak Ridge Road would abut the hotel property. “They have all these empty buildings downtown. They could have listened to people and built there.”

Chabot said the hotel would be visible from the porch of the house he built for himself and his wife in retirement and is worried about how the hotel would hurt his property value. “That’s a small thing to a lot of people but a big thing for me,” he said.

(Armstrong also lives on Oak Ridge Road and is one of Chabot’s neighbors).

Another adjacent property owner, Linda LaFrance, drove from her home in Pittsford, N.Y., to attend last week’s meeting. LaFrance, an electrical engineer who grew up in Randolph Center and went to VTC, who owns 10 acres adjoining the project’s property line. She said her land has been in her family since the 1940s and that she is hoping to build a home and retire there.

She worried her property’s “gorgeous view from the top of the hill” would “see quite a bit of the back of the back side of the hotel and look over the roof and see part of where they would put the party tent.”

“There are some people who have paid a whole lot of money to buy homes at Morgan Orchard. Their view will be impacted and it will impact what they perceive to be their quality of life there,” LaFrance said.

Business backing

Despite the reservations of some residents, Randolph-area businesses and institutions were squarely in support of the hotel project, saying it will bring convenient overnight lodging for visitors nearly right to their door.

Diane Scolaro, associate vice president of alumni relations and bicentennial celebrations at Norwich University in Northfield, said a “typical homecoming” in the fall draws 3,000 people. And for the upcoming bicentennial, the university is expecting 6,000 to 8,000 people.

“We bring thousands of people to central Vermont every year,” she said, for graduation, parents’ weekend, a residential week for online students and homecoming. “They have to stay in White River Junction or Burlington. So closer lodgings would be a benefit.”

The same goes for needing a conference facility and restaurant, said Brenan Riehl, chief executive of GW Plastics, which has manufacturing plants in the nearby towns of Bethel and Royalton. GW Plastics regularly brings in teams every other week or so from its other locations around the world for training and puts them up in hotels in White River Junction, Lebanon and Hanover, he said.

If company executives need to have a breakfast or lunch meetings, they have to drive a half-hour away to Jesse’s or Three Tomatoes in Lebanon. For conference meetings, they have already used the new Hilton Garden Inn on Route 120 in Lebanon on several occasions.

“Having a conference center and restaurant more proximate would be a good thing,” Riehl said. “We would definitely support it.”

Armstrong contends there has been a long-standing contingent of naysayers in Randolph who have held back the town’s economic growth and can be counted on to object to new commercial development. But he believes attitudes are changing and the public is more receptive than it has been in the past. Utilizing empty downtown buildings for a new hotel is not economically or even architecturally feasible, he said, especially given the requirements of franchisees in meeting everything from the size of the lobby to the number of rooms and parking spaces they are contracted to supply.

“People are starting to understand that we don’t do as much business here because we don’t have a hotel,” Armstrong said. Compared to the public attitudes three years ago when the prior Exit 4 project fell through, “I think we’ve been able to turn people around a little bit.”

But the steady growth the economy has been experiencing since the recession may not continue, and there are still many visible reminders of the last downturn in commercial developments.

“If it goes through, I hope it is wildly successful,” LaFrance said. “Otherwise, it will look like Rutland with all the boarded-up hotels and the social ills that brings along with it.”

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