Alexandra Lange | Essays

Rural Vacation | Urban Questions

I just spent two weeks in rural Vermont, in the string of small towns and villages along the Connecticut River in which my extended family has lived since the early 1970s. I go there every summer, but this year I was more mobile: my son was at camp, and for the first time I had to perform the suburban parenting ritual of automotive pick-up and drop-off. Driving around on my own made me more aware of the commercial patterns of those towns, and what distinguishes Thetford from Bradford from Fairlee. What I finally noticed was how parallel rural development patterns can be to urban ones, or vice versa, and the chicken/egg problem for towns trying to develop a little retail life.

First question. Why Bradford? Bradford, where my aunt and uncle run Pierson Farm just got a big new Hannaford supermarket on a Route 5 site long occupied by a dismal P&C. Bradford has long supported two pizza restaurants, plus (until last year) the more ambitious Perfect Pear, located in the stone mill building across from the town’s dramatic falls. It also has the only traffic light in all of Orange County. Bradford has a two-sided multi-story main street, a Romanesque Revival brick library and school, and a set of grand Victorian mansions, some in a state of disrepair. Meanwhile, down the road in East Thetford, the strip mall was replaced a few years ago by a single Craftsman-style bank branch, and Isabell’s Café, in a small converted house, is open for breakfast and lunch only. The other new eatery is a tiny shack in the parking lot of the gas station, Wicked Awesome BBQ. That same gas station minimart hosts the local video store. Last year they tried selling wine, but this year that alcove was plasticked off: a bank branch is relocating within the minimart instead.

East Thetford would seem to have geographic advantages: it is commutable to Hanover, NH, where Dartmouth College and the Dartmouth-Mary Hitchcock Medical Center are major employers, and just a few miles from Norwich and Lyme, NH, where many Dartmouth employees also live. But Bradford is also closely linked to other routes: to Piermont, NH, and a series of lakes just across the river. It also has a huge truck stop near its exit from I-91, which the other towns don’t. East Thetford also it has no downtown. The post office, the auction barn, the senior center, even Isabell’s are all housed in buildings that once were (or closely resemble) single-family detached houses. The green is located in the associated village of Thetford Hill, along with the library and the elementary school. The strip mall, however undistinguished, provided slots for such useful services as a Laundromat. Without it there’s no place for businesses to expand – which is why they are ad-hocing their way into the only commercial space in town, the parking lot and minimart.

The East Thetford Irving Gas isn’t the only one hosting additional uses: the Irving upriver in Fairlee has an ice cream shack, along with a number of other businesses that serve the summer population on Lakes Fairlee and Morey (like my favorite, the Whippi Dip, serving a mean Toasted Coconut cone for $1.25). Just a matter of a couple of miles from the lakes make East Thetford an also-ran in the old-fashioned resort-town business, much as one block beats another due to subway stop proximity. Similarly, the food truck is replaced here by the gas station shack. Pop-up footprints save on overhead, but where would Wicked Awesome BBQ go if it were a roaring success? Probably across the river to Lyme.

What I noticed, is except for the new Hannaford, built adjacent to the P&C so the latter could keep operating during construction, is that most of the new businesses are in old buildings. The historic commercial footprints are not expanding, but shrinking or simply turning over. Bradford made an infrastructural improvement, extending its utility lines out of downtown and down Route 5, in order to spur development there. But it also had far more elaborate and high-quality existing architecture, because of its richer past. Bradford’s brick buildings were built in the 19th century with money from a variety of mills.

The Gazetteer of Vermont (1849) notes,

At the falls in Wait’s Rover, which afford some of the best mill privileges in the State, is a furnace for casting ploughs, stoves, etc, whetstone factories, machine shops, and an extensive paper mill. On Wait’s Rover, about two miles above the village, are manufacturers of woollens and other goods. The first artificial globes ever manufactured in the United State, were made here about the year 1812, by Mr. James Wilson.

Today, this part of Vermont can feel very distant from industry (all those cornfields), but it is obvious that the framework created by that time of prosperity is still bringing commerce when it can. Bradford’s economy today is based on wholly different sources, but the storefronts are there to bring some money into town rather than out to Wal-Mart. Next summer I hope to visit the various historical societies, and investigate the zoning. Could East Thetford bring back the storefronts? Does it want to? Or is each village playing a role in what is really a larger, spread out version of a city neighborhood, with pizza parlors on three corner here, a food truck there, and a restaurant for tourists over there, overlooking the park? Next summer I will try to find answers to some of my questions.

Posted in: Architecture, Arts + Culture, Business, Science , Social Good

Comments [1]

There are straightforward formulas for figuring out the amount of store space towns and regions can support, based on travel distance and income. Not surprisingly, they show that most of the United States has too much commercial space, and the much of it is in cheap buildings with short life spans sitting behind parking lots.

A way to stand out in the crowd is to create destination shopping. Unfortunately, "lifestyle centers" (outdoor shopping malls) and Big Box Power Centers are better at that management than downtowns, unless the downtown has a good Main Street program.

A changing element in this is that two very large groups—Boomers and Boomer children (aka Millennials)—are deciding to move to walkable places they like, where they can live car-free or less car-dependent lives. The Vermont I know tends to be car-dependent by choice, except among the young, the poor, and the oldest, who have less choice.
john massengale

Jobs | July 17