ST. JOHNSBURY — A group of downtown volunteers are helping to spruce up empty storefronts to spread holiday cheer and a sense of hope.
Heather Alger - who owns 142 Eastern, where she and her husband Nicolas Anzalone have hosted multiple community events and fundraisers - said she met Patricia Anderson, a town resident and St. Johnsbury Rotary Club member, a few months ago and they shared hopes for downtown rejuvenation.
Their collaboration led them to wanting to work together on the empty storefronts in town.
“All of a sudden, we started saying, ‘Let’s take care of the windows down on Railroad Street,’ ” said Alger. “Let’s do something with them!”
The women spoke to Tara Holt, executive director of the St. Johnsbury Chamber of Commerce, about how they could get permission “to deal with the storefronts on Railroad Street.”
More volunteers got involved, and the Window Warriors project, part of the Chamber’s Design Committee, was born.
RuralEdge owns the first building where the windows were improved, and was supportive of the project.
“They were amenable to us using the storefronts there and doing whatever it is we wanted to do to increase community and beautify the downtown area,” said Alger.
Garrett’s Property Management were agreeable to having the volunteers dress windows in their empty spaces, as well.
Alger said the volunteers reached out to Alexa Tomlinson Airoldi who runs the Alerin Barn & The Outpost Luxury Tree House and who is “very good at marketing and placement and design, and we got her into the fold.”
They began asking for more help and volunteers, and people have responded.
“It was really important to reach out to smaller businesses,” said Alger.
She said Exquisite Bridal and Formal Wear’s owner, Laurie Warden, and the owner of The Sewing Studio, Katrina Diller, as well as the owners of Moose River Lake & Lodge, Fred and Robin Little, have all helped, and donated items to be on display in the window scenes.
Northeast Kingdom Artisans pitched in; the Frame Dames helped with framing items, and many items are on loan from Dog Mountain, including prints and wood carvings and even a small dog house front by the late artist Stephen Huneck.
Boxcar & Caboose and Mayo’s Furniture pitched in, and Andy’s Hauling pitched in to help cart the big items.
A local Christmas tree farmer, Greg McNally, brought in evergreen boughs by the truck-full to be used in making a lush North Woods backdrop for some of the window scenes.
Other building owners have also been receptive to allowing their storefronts to be made over by the volunteers, who are calling themselves the Window Warriors.
“It just became the whole street trying to get it done,” said Alger - she said there is a long list of individuals and businesses who have contributed.
The latest window — which is the third downtown empty storefront — getting made over will have a duo theme of I Love St. J and GetNEKedvt.
A painting donated by artist Terry Ekasala will adorn one of the latest window makeovers.
“Through all this has been some momentum and vibrancy that’s given downtown a little buzz,” said Alger. “The old Frame Dames (space on Railroad Street) is already under contract, a new vintage store from Bethlehem, N.H. is going in there.”
Alger said all told, between 15 and 20 people “have reached out and said, ‘I want to be a part of this.’”
On Monday afternoon, in one of the empty storefronts on Railroad, volunteers Dotti Jackson-Turek, Jill Minkoff and Anderson were getting busy on the next storefront, cleaning windows inside and out and getting it cleaned up for staging.
The windows on Eastern Avenue that are part of the New Depot Apartments block are complicated for being part of the window dressing, said Alger, because the building is about to undergo a top-to-bottom rehabilitation by its new owners, and there are abatement matters.
The work is not pretty, using razor blades to take down glued-on old “for rent” signs and more, filthy trays of water and buckets for washing, vacuuming up dead flies.
One of the spaces being started on Monday has sat empty for 10 years, said Alger.
Anderson said the process of working in the storefront windows has seen many passersby stop in, sit for a spell sometimes, and visit. She said people in St. Johnsbury are very connected to the town and having the windows get cleaned and fixed up is restoring a sense of hope downtown.
The past few weeks, as the windows have been transformed, Anderson said, there’s been a palpable “little uplifting” happening downtown.
Holt said on Wednesday, “I could not be more thrilled at the enthusiasm and participation that has grown around decorating our vacant windows.”
“This has been a full community project. It takes all of us doing a little bit,” Alger said. “There is also a deep need to continue to invest in long term infrastructure including tree cages and benches.”