ST. JOHNSBURY — A number of new businesses are locating downtown, spurring optimism.
Among them is the St. Johnsbury Distillery, owned by father-and-son Dan and Brendan Hughes and Dan’s son-in-law Brian Garvey.
The trio bought the former Dunc’s Mill distillery in Barnet about a year ago from Duncan Holaday.
On the corner of Eastern Avenue and Pearl Street, St. Johnsbury Distillery is remaking the former St. Jay Hardware building to house its operation. Major work is underway ahead of an expected 2019 opening.
Plans call for the production facility on the lower level to open first, to be followed by the tasting room and event space on the upper level, Brendan told about two dozen local business leaders gathered at Monday’s meeting of the St. Johnsbury Rotary Club.
The Hughes told Rotarians they are committed to the economic revitalization of downtown St. Johnsbury and they expect their efforts will drive visitors to the community and support businesses elsewhere in town.
“We want to help the town as much as we can,” Brendan told the Rotarians gathered to learn more about the expanding company. He said from beautification to entrepreneurship to philanthropy, the distillery is hoping its anchoring in St. Johnsbury will be of benefit to its own success and will have a measurable ripple effect.
Until the upper level of the new building is renovated, the St. Johnsbury Distillery’s tasting room will remain at Celtic Marketing, run by Dan Hughes at 1350 Main St.
Brendan Hughes said the distillery’s expansion and top-to-bottom rehab of the old St. J Hardware building downtown is one of a number of exciting things going on in the downtown, and it’s a time of renewed optimism.
He said there are several businesses moving in, expanding and renovating downtown. “The momentum is there,” he said, asking people who had tried the new Kitchen Counter Cafe’ breakfast and lunch spot on Railroad Street. “Definitely get down there to Railroad Street to support the businesses.”
On Wednesday, Hughes mentioned Star Theatre’s plans to add a fourth theater as well as a cafe’/ice cream parlor in part of the former Sunshine Boutique space.
The owner of the theatre, Al Bulay, said in recent days that the project is advancing after being held up at the state fire marshal level for some months, and a building permit should be in hand soon. He said he’s hoping to have the fourth theater open by the spring.
New Brewery Opening On Railroad After New Year
A brewery is planning to open on Railroad Street in the former Keene Medical Supply location next to the space where the Kingdom Taproom & Table will soon open.
Geoffrey Sewake of Peacham is the brewery’s owner and operator. His venture is called Whirligig Brewing.
“It’s a fun new leap in life. It’s kind of scary!” he said.
The opening of the brewery tasting room is planned for spring 2019. Sewake will be the head brewer for the business.
“I have a passion for fine food and drink, which is part of what drew me to Vermont,” he said. “Our state has made a name for itself with an extremely high caliber of breweries, and I’m excited to bring some of that to St. Johnsbury.”
Whirligig Brewing will offer a line of artisanal beers with a focus on sours, farmhouse ales, and barrel-aged beers.
“The hope is, every time you come back there’ll be something new,” said Sewake.
Sewake said he plans to “utilize local microflora, fruits, grains, and hops as much as possible,” and is “working with a local farm to cultivate a local hop recently rediscovered in the Green Mountains.”
Tara Robinson Holt, director of the St. Johnsbury Chamber of Commerce, stated in an announcement about the brewery opening, “Regional craft drink and food destination travel has already produced increased visitation in St. Johnsbury. Augmenting our local capacity to support such tourism will be a great boon. I believe growth in the food and drink sector in St. Johnsbury will help us stand out as a foodie town.”
Sewake works at the University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension doing community economic development work. He plans to continue in his position as he and his wife, Gillian, begin their new business.
“I really had this passion and the opportunity arose and I felt good enough to pull the trigger, I wanted to give back to my community,” he said.
There is also a plan by Heather Alger to open an event and dinner club at 142 Eastern Ave., the former Jaboh Salon.
“We’re not a restaurant, we don’t want to be a restaurant, it is a private dinner club. You’ll sit down with an artist or a musician,” said Alger. “The first one we’re doing will be Jan. 25th, it will be a local blacksmith (Nathan Colpitts) and a local artist (Andrea Otto), and they are both musicians and they raise their own sheep, we’ll be having mutton stew for dinner and homemade bread.”
Alger said, “We have had interest in Pop Up Sessions during the month of December.” On Dec. 18, April Zajko, of St. Johnsbury, will offer paper craft and card making over tea. A local folk band, Fifth Business, will hold an open rehearsal to help celebrate the solstice on Saturday, Dec. 22 from 7-9 p.m. A chocolate making workshop is planned for Saturday, Dec. 29.”
“I’m trying to stay open to the needs of the community and what people want, it’s going to kind of be an open, trying-to-figure-it-out kind of space, it’s called 142 Eastern and that’s what the name will be,” said Alger.
“From what we have gathered in our very short time is that there appears to be need to connect around art, music, and food,” she said. “We are investigating a pop-up sessions model where an event could last an evening or perhaps a month as well as a private dinner club where patrons will spend an intimate evening with local artists while enjoying simple local food.”
Taproom’s New Eatery
Jamie Murphy, an owner of the Kingdom Taproom, said of the new restaurant, Kingdom Taproom & Table, “We’re shooting for a January opening, work is plodding along, we’ve got the new sign up, which looks awesome, the Academy did that. Other than that, we’ve got plumbers, electricians and builders, it’s all moving.”
“We are really excited as building owners and business owners with the addition of the distillery, a brewery and another restaurant and with Depot Square Apartments changing hands we feel like there is a lot of momentum right now,” Murphy said.
Commercial Space Sold in St. Johnsbury Historic Building
Another significant rehabilitation project in downtown St. J is the Depot Square apartment building at the corner of Railroad Street and Eastern Avenue, bought earlier this year by Housing Vermont.
Last week, a local investor group made up of the Kingdom Development Company (affiliated with St. Johnsbury Academy) and Northeastern Vermont Regional Hospital, closed on the first floor space of Depot Square.
The investor group is called New Depot Square Commercial Properties (NDSCP), LLC.
“We look forward to bringing new life to the commercial storefronts on Eastern Avenue and Railroad Street,” said Brad Ashley, CEO for Kingdom Development Company. “We are also appreciative of NVRH joining our group to make the partnership with Housing Vermont a success.”
The purchase price was $400,000.
Ashley said, “This is a two-year project. We don’t envision opening anything on the first floor until the entire restoration of the building is done. Our partnership is with Housing Vermont and we think it makes more sense to go through the process of restoring the building together. Currently there are no active plans or agreements in place with regard to occupancy.”
“The joint purchase of the building by Housing Vermont, Kingdom Development Company and NVRH has always been for the common good, we’ve all purchased the property significantly above market value and so it really requires people who are oriented towards people who are supporting the community, and that’s really the way that NVRH has understood its participation,” said Ashley.
Housing Vermont and NDSCP LLC recently hired Duncan Wisniewski Architects of Burlington to lead the design team; project architects are Bob Duncan and Taryn Barrett.
Bob Hersey, Northeastern Vermont Regional Hospital’s (NVRH) chief financial officer, said “It’s an exciting project. We can remain an investor in the project and earn a return on our investment, or, NVRH can occupy a portion of the first floor space. At this time we are keeping our options open and have no definitive plans.”
Chambers Weigh In
St. Johnsbury Chamber of Commerce Director Tara Robinson Holt wrote in a recent letter to St. Johnsbury businesses about the current economic momentum.
“Many existing businesses are expanding operations,” she wrote, saying there are “signs of growth” throughout town.
Darcie McCann, executive director of the Northeast Kingdom Chamber of Commerce, on Wednesday said, “I believe we are in the midst of a moderate upward economic swing, here in Vermont, the Kingdom and downtown St. Johnsbury. There are a number of economic development people and entrepreneurs who have been working hard to get to this point and, fingers crossed, we will continue to experience such growth.”