ST. ALBANS CITY — Roughly one year ago St. Albans City merchants and residents were meeting to discuss the number of empty downtown storefronts. Now, out of nearly 60 Main Street locations there are just two empty spaces, both at the edge of downtown.
“One of the challenges we’ve had with Main Street is that we have buildings that have been vacant and suddenly you have three to four people interested,” said Marty Manahan, the city’s director of business development.
The city’s downtown has become increasingly busy since the completion of the streetscape project. “I think people are enjoying the downtown and realizing downtown is the backbone of our community,” said Manahan.
Two new businesses are scheduled to open in the coming weeks – a UPS store and Imagination, a new antique and gift shop operated by Peter Dashno and Pauline Cray, who previously owned Back Inn Time.
They join other recently opened business such as the Avenue A clothing shop, Hello Again resale shop, and Just the Place.
In addition to preparing for the opening of their shop on Nov. 8, Cray and Dashno are also deeply involved in designing and making holiday decorations for downtown. “It’s going to be simple and elegant,” said Dashno.
Just the Place, which opened this fall, rents space to artisans. Most are from Vermont, some are from developing nations. “Our stock is always changing,” said co-owner David Chambers.
With the addition of Just the Place and Imagination, downtown now has a number of shops selling items not readily found elsewhere. “People who are looking for that kind of stuff aren’t going to Walmart,” said Manahan.
Filling the storefronts is key to downtown’s success, but it isn’t the only factor city staff and officials are examining.
Another question is what is the right mix of retail, restaurants, services and residential space for downtown. With first floors mostly filled, the city is considering how to maximize the value of the upper floors in downtown buildings. The floors above TD Bank, for example, are filled with attractive office space, but aren’t handicapped accessible, pointed out Manahan.
Apartments located over Jeff’s Maine Seafood were rehabilitated as part of the work on that building. They now provide living space for employees of Mylan Technologies, Inc. and other area businesses, said Manahan.
Manahan has met with numerous potential tenants for downtown buildings. “The number one question is parking. That’s where this garage, I think, is going to play a key role,” he said.
The parking garage is scheduled for construction next year in the city’s core parking lot. Once it’s complete merchants, their employees and tenants will be able to park there, freeing up parking on Main Street for customers and diners.
The city has added some spaces to downtown already. As part of the streetscape project, the city closed access to three alleyways on Main Street. Those closures made it possible to add parking spaces to the western side of the street, many in front of key business locations.
The streetscape also created new sidewalk spaces for merchants and restaurants to use. The bumped out sidewalk spaces in front of Twiggs gastropub quickly became a popular outdoor dining spot, but it also brought some additional traffic into nearby retailers, according to Manahan. While eating outside, diners have time to look into nearby shop windows, he explained.
The city offers façade grants to help businesses pay for the cost of improving their storefronts. Multiple businesses and building owners already have taken advantage of the program. Rather than wait for others to come forward, the city is actively working with architects to create possible designs and then bringing those designs to business owners.
Fresh paint, awnings and signs are the main improvements.
Although Main Street is filling up, there are still vacancies on Kingman and Lake streets. There are three empty storefronts on the upper blocks of Lake Street, but they’re in buildings that are being renovated.
There also are three vacancies on Kingman Street. However, the construction of a new state office building on the corner of Federal and Kingman streets will likely make those storefronts more attractive to businesses, Manahan suggested.
In addition businesses already located on Kingman are planning some changes, according to Manahan, who said residents “will probably see a change in the business atmosphere,” on Kingman.
There is also hope for another empty Kingman building, the former courthouse on the northern corner of Kingman and Federal streets. “I think you’ll see something with that sooner rather than later,” said Manahan.
There also are multiple sites for potential development, including the Handy lots on Main and Lake streets, and the Fonda site on Lower Newton Street.
Because the city is both a designated downtown and a designated growth center, permitting is somewhat easier than in other locations. The downtown designation qualifies some city buildings for tax credits that have been used to help pay for renovations to several buildings. “We’re in a very fortunate position,” said Manahan.
The city’s current growth is the result of work done by several administrations and city councils, along with citizens who volunteered their time, according to Manahan. “What you’re seeing now happened over year and years of planning,” he said.