I was driving up Hastings Hill in St. Johnsbury recently and found myself looking at a piece of land. On that grassy stretch, across from Aubuchon’s Hardware, there used to be a restaurant, the Lincoln Inn for us old timers and the Black Bear Inn for the rest of you.
When I first started at the chamber in the 1990s, the Lincoln Inn was “the” place to go. Not only did we hold our legislative breakfasts, annual meeting, Citizen of the Year and Business Celebrations there, but a host of other businesses and organizations all met there as well. During the summer and fall, and I know this to be true, upwards of 16 buses would stop there for lunch every day, its visitors stopping off at our attractions while they were in town. Having the Lincoln Inn in operation at that time was a big boon to the town and the surrounding area.
There was one week where I spent every meal for five straight days there at meetings. To that point, I was there so much for the chamber I was mistaken for an employee more than once. And, then, one mysterious day in June 2002, the then-owner seemingly dropped off the side of the Earth, leaving his workers and a host of folks, who had reserved the inn for events, totally baffled. To this day, I don’t really know what happened but it was a very startling development at the time.
The Lincoln Inn was the only place in the area then that could take large gatherings, not to mention hundreds of bus passengers a day. I remember our chamber spending a couple months trying to recreate the inn’s significant bus list, remember this was before Google, but by the time we could get packets out, those companies had already rerouted their buses to communities who could take the volume. The impact of that bus traffic leaving us affects us to this day.
I have thought a lot about the Lincoln Inn these past weeks, as another venerable institution will soon leave us, JC Penney, which will close for good at the end of operation this Sunday. That store has been in the Green Mountain Mall for decades and we all depended on JC Penney as a place to buy school clothes, shoes, the occasional comforter and pillow and a host of other items.
Despite hundreds and hundreds of us calling their corporate office in Texas, begging the store not to close, its impact being so severe, corporate turned a deaf ear to our region and it hurt. I will say that those who worked at the local store were among the finest retail employees I have ever known, led by store manager Kurt Shellenberger. They were, every last one, stellar and this low assessment of their corporate structure in no way reflects on the customer-service skills of our local workers.
A very wise man recently told me that we must put these sad developments behind us and seek out new partners and establishments and that is what our chamber will do. This is an amazing area, with an extremely loyal customer base and when our economy rises, and it will, we hope someone will see our incredible potential and that the sting of these empty businesses wanes.
Darcie McCann is the director of the Northeast Kingdom Chamber of Commerce.