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Jim Kenyon: An Inconvenient Convenience Store Sign

  • Valley News columnist Jim Kenyon in West Lebanon, N.H., on September 15, 2016. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Published: 10/9/2016 12:05:24 AM
Modified: 10/17/2016 3:18:48 PM

Vermont’s ban on billboards has served the state well for nearly 50 years. The 1968 law — the first of its kind in the nation — was supposed to protect the landscape along highways from the blight of outdoor advertising.

So how could state officials approve plans to erect a large sign on the northbound side of Interstate 89 in Sharon to promote a new upscale convenience store — if there is such a thing — nearly 40 miles away in Berlin, Vt.?

Simple. The state is the one putting up the sign.

To save money, Vermont has been trying to get out of the rest area business for a while. Last December, the state made a deal with a private development company that was building a mega-convenience store with a dozen gas pumps about a half mile off I-89 in Berlin, which is just south of Montpelier.

Under its agreement with the state, Maplewood Ltd. of Montpelier (not to be confused with Maplefields, which operates convenience stores in Lebanon and Woodstock) promised to keep its store open 24 hours a day with plenty of parking and public restrooms. It also agreed to fly the state flag.

For its part, the state tossed in $75,000 or so of taxpayer money for brochure racks, maps and large color posters of dairy cows, village greens and pristine white churches. In other words, anything that makes Vermont look like Disneyland with maple trees.

Now for the part that makes a mockery of the state’s ban on outdoor advertising along highways.

The agreement calls for the state to install and maintain signs in the I-89 corridor to let motorists know about the 24-hour Travel Service Center at Exit 7.

It doesn’t spell out the number of signs. But Mary and Nate McShinsky argue that there’s already one too many.

The McShinskys have operated M&N Mini-Mart just off Exit 3 in Royalton for almost 27 years. A few weeks ago, they came upon a flashing portable sign just before I-89 North’s Exit 2, hyping the new “Travel Service Center” two counties away.

They immediately saw red.

“It’s foliage season. When people see that sign they’re just going to drive past our place,” Mary McShinsky told me. “We can’t compete with that.

“If we can’t put up a sign advertising our store, they shouldn’t be able to do it.”

The state’s Agency of Transportation put up the flashing sign to coincide with the Maplewood Vermont Travelers Service Center’s grand opening last month.

At this time of year, the McShinskys depend largely on leaf peepers (in the winter, it’s skiers) pulling off the highway for gas, snacks or a sandwich from their store’s deli.

“We’re a mom-and-pop trying to make a living,” said Mary McShinsky, who, like her husband, is a graduate of South Royalton’s K-12 school. “We can’t afford to lose any more customers.”

Last week, several state officials tried to convince me that the Sharon sign isn’t an advertising tool for a private business. They consider it a public service sign.

Ed von Turkovich, director of the state’s information centers division, noted that the sign doesn’t mention Maplewood by name. I guess that’s what allows the state to skate around the no-billboards law.

On Friday, I talked with Wayne Lamberton, who built the new store with his business partner, Randy LaGue.

“We spent all of own money — $7 million — to build this facility,” he said. “We’ve saved taxpayers a lot of money.”

That’s true. The state isn’t in a financial position to do much of anything. Take a look at the abandoned rest area on I-91 North in Hartford for proof.

As convenience stores go, Maplewood is a sight to behold — high ceilings with skylights, windows that stretch from floor to roof, indoor and outdoor tables. It even has a “beer cave.”

Lamberton, who grew up in Calais, Vt., told me he didn’t have a say in the state putting up the sign in Sharon. His company’s contract doesn’t specify locations.

Still, it’s hard not to think the state is playing favorites. Along with the flashing sign, the state has a color poster in the front window of its Sharon rest area touting the “public private partnership” with Maplewood.

After the deal was made last year, Gov. Peter Shumlin met the media at the construction site. “The governor thinks this type of partnership is a good way to bring needed services to central Vermont without asking Vermont taxpayers to invest millions of dollars,” wrote Scott Coriell, his spokesman, in an email.

The McShinkys have contacted state officials to let them know that the sign is hurting their business. They’ve heard back from a couple of people, but they don’t expect much will change.

They can’t compete with a businessman such as Lamberton who has deep pockets and strong connections in Montpelier.

Lamberton is a longtime friend of Lt. Gov. Phil Scott. He contributed $4,000 — the maximum allowed under state law — to Scott’s current gubernatorial campaign. Dubois Construction, the company owned by Scott’s family, has been doing excavation work, including at the Maplewood site, for his businesses for 20 years, Lamberton said. (If elected, Scott has indicated he’ll sell his share of Dubois Construction.)

It all seems a bit cozy. But Scott’s campaign spokesman, Ethan Latour, implied I was reading too much into it. “Phil had no role in the agreement between the state and the developers,” wrote Latour in an email. “The contract between the state of Vermont and the Maplewood facility in Berlin was entirely executed by the current (Shumlin) administration, who, as you probably know, are not supporting Phil.”

Vermont politicians often talk about how much they value the state’s small businesses. There are signs that’s not always the case.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.




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