ST. JOHNSBURY — Not so long ago the town’s economic development director had a “doom and gloom” list of downtown properties in need of serious attention, but lately the list is looking a lot less gloomy, he told people gathered for the St. Johnsbury Development Fund annual meeting held via Zoom on Tuesday.
Joe Kasprzak, who serves as assistant town manager in St. Johnsbury and director of economic development, was invited to address the group meeting in the virtual space. He presented an optimistic outlook of progress at several properties.
Kasprzak shared a slide titled “My Doom & Gloom Speech.” It reflects a list of 10 properties from a few years ago that the town knew needed help but had no legitimate plan forward. The next slide noted “not a Doom & Gloom Speech anymore” and had check marks next to six of the 10 properties, noting progress made on those properties. Among them are projects in the planning phase like the town’s intention to remake the Armory into a police department and dispatch center and the recently announced effort by Zion Growers to purchase the ET & HK Ide property on Bay Street and create an industrial hemp processing facility.
When the doom/gloom list was created, the former St. Jay Hardware at 74 Eastern Ave. was on it. Now there’s a checkmark next to the entry because the property now is the St. Johnsbury Distillery, complete with a rum-making operation and tasting room and speakeasy.
Kasprzak expressed gratitude for the people who made that happen.
“Thanks to the Hughes family for their commitment to downtown St. Johnsbury,” he said. “For them to land at this location at the heart of our designated downtown and end up with this facility is truly amazing.”
Other check marks on the list include two downtown buildings where people are working daily to restore and rehabilitate for significant use. One is the New Avenue House at the corner of Eastern Avenue and Railroad Street, where a $15 million investment will provide three floors of apartments and the first floor for office and retail space. The other is a little south on Railroad Street in a large building where gloves were once manufactured. That building will soon be the Kingdom Animal Hospital.
It is a building that the St. Johnsbury Development Fund owns and is leasing to Dr. David McGrath, owner of St. Johnsbury Veterinary Hospital LLC, who purchased area veterinary offices and will be relocating all veterinary services to the new space, which is expected to open for business by the end of April.
Development Fund President Daniel Kimbell, who conducted the meeting Tuesday, spoke of the effort that went into addressing the long-dormant glove factory building. Two buildings on Pearl Street were purchased and demolished to create space for parking. There’s a new roof, windows, insulation, walls, lighting and landscaping. The fund, with grant assistance, invested over $8 million in making the property attractive to a prospective tenant.
The fund left the interior work to Dr. McGrath, and he is using the same construction company, Ruggco, on the inside as the development fund used on the outside. Ruggco owner Larry Ruggles was on the job site Tuesday and said he had a crew of 18 on the job that day. What was a wide-open factory floor just a few months ago is now looking a lot like one would expect a large multi-room veterinary hospital to look like.
Kimbell said Dr. McGrath is investing a lot of money into the building. “He will put in twice what we did,” said Kimbell. “It will be a state-of-the-art veterinary hospital by the time he is done.”
Dr. McGrath will lease the space from the development fund at a cost of $4,000 per month. The lease is for 10 years.
Kimbell also spoke of the development fund’s property in the St. Johnsbury-Lyndon Industrial Park. It’s a 23,000 square foot building that is being leased by BHS Composites, a Canadian company. The company recently renewed a five-year lease for the space.
Kimbell said he is pleased that the company wants to retain operations locally, especially through all the border restrictions during the pandemic.
“Let’s just say this has not been an easy year for a Canadian firm to be doing business in the United States,” said Kimbell.
Over 30 people gathered for the development fund’s annual meeting. Comments from several of them echoed Kasprzak’s assessment that there’s good economic progress.
Said Dan Hughes, co-owner of the St. Johnsbury Distillery, “You can feel the excitement in town.” He said he looks forward to greater success once pandemic fears and restrictions are passed.
“It does feel like we’re starting to turn the corner downtown but also all over town,” said Jamie Murphy. “It’s refreshing and great to hear.” Murphy is a former selectman and a co-owner of the Kingdom Taproom and Table on Railroad Street. He also serves on the executive board of the development fund.
Fellow board member Mark Clough said he’s pleased with the investment of younger adults in downtown projects, specifically mentioning Brendan Hughes, co-owner of the St. Johnsbury Distillery, and Gillian Sewake, new St. Johnsbury Chamber of Commerce director and co-owner with her husband of Whirligig Brewery.
“It’s nice to see young people doing this and not just gray hair,” said Clough.