Traffic jams a welcome sign

Upper Valley economic report: Traffic jams a welcome sign

Muzeroll, Phyllis A

It’s got fast food, stores, hotel rooms. restaurants, interstate ramps, plans for future development and growing traffic. No, it’s not Route 12-A in West Lebanon, NH, also known as the strip, it’s the section of Route 5 that passes through White River Junction, and it’s one of the fastest growing areas in the Upper Valley.

State figures show that as many as 12,000 cars a day travel the exit leading off I-91 onto Route 5 in Hartford. And developers, it would appear, are ready to take advantage of that growing traffic pattern.

The corner of Route 5 and Sykes Avenue recently saw the opening of a McDonald’s franchise, the first national fast food purveyor to hit White River Junction. Many in the area contend that it is just a matter of time before other chains will follow. The new Golden Arches is located on the site of the former Lums Family Restaurant. That building was demolished to make room for McDonald’s.

According to Herb Hansen, executive director of the Hartford Development Corp, the economic picture in the Valley is looking very good these days, much better than a year ago. “Our unemployment is very low,” he said. “The difficulty is that we have lots of jobs that don t pay very well. But in terms of employment where people are looking to augment a family income, opportunities abound.”

Hansen agreed that with the arrival of McDonald’s, townspeople can expect more such chains to be opening soon.

“It’s pretty much a given that when McDonald’s comes into an area, Burger King and Wendy’s are not far behind. In fact, it’s a not very well kept secret that Burger King will probably be coming in across the street from McDonald’s.”

Hansen also said that there is talk The Country’s Best Yogurt, among others, will be opening a franchise at an expected food court at the Tally House Restaurant, an area often simply referred to as the bus station because of the Vermont Transit Bus Terminal located there.

Perhaps the largest proposed construction project for the area is the 94-room Hampton Inn slated to be built on Route 5, next to what is now the former Howard Johnson Lodge. Rutland developer John Russell is the mover behind the $5 million project. An idea that has been around for several years, plans for the facility were redesigned from a four-story structure to a three-story building, finally putting to rest objections that included traffic congestion, Act 250 concerns and numerous zoning protests from Gordon Brown, owner of the Howard Johnson Lodge located on an adjoining piece of land.

Brown himself has added a new look to his Route 5 business — he has just recently dropped the Howard Johnson affiliation to become a Best Western facility. The Hampton Inn is expected to include an upscale chain restaurant, something along the lines of a Red Lobster or Olive Garden, Hansen said.

The Hampton Inn will probably be finished in time for a spring opening, Hansen projected, joining not only the new Best Western, but a Super Eight Motel, Comfort Inn and a Holiday Inn in the area. The region, he said, could comfortably accommodate the added hotel rooms.

“We’re a gateway, not just to Killington, but to Stowe, unlike Rutland. This is a much better place to get access to places like the Montshire (Museum), Dartmouth-Hitchcock, theaters. There’s a lot to do in this area.”

Sykes Avenue is bound to see an increase in traffic, like Route 5. A new Texas Bar-B-Que restaurant has opened, a nearby Toyota franchise will be expanding into a larger site on the roadway and the new naval reserve training center, under construction behind the US Postal Service Distribution Center, is expected to open this fall.

The downtown area is also welcoming the opening of the City Lights Cinema, a new movie theater featuring an eclectic selection of films.

Hansen said traffic growth is not the only change taking place in the region. “There are more small, high-tech firms coming in, medical supply businesses, those kinds of companies. We’re attracting more technical-oriented types of people who come and decide they like it and want to live here. We’re not trying to compete with Hanover or Woodstock; we have a place here where families can grow up and still find opportunities.”

Another area of explosive growth, Hansen added, will be the southern part of Route 5, I-91 o the Hartland border. This is the last area that’s really available for industrial development.

ACROSS THE RIVER

Across the river in New Hampshire, the economic picture is bright, too, reported Jim Wechsler, executive director of the Lebanon Chamber of Commerce.

“Things are very good,” he said. “The economy has recovered from the mini-recession and we’re in an upswing. Sales are good, things look strong. The job market is getting very tight, to the point where employers are feeling the pressure when they look for people; some are even having to offer a higher pay. The unemployment rate for the past month was 1.5 percent for the Lebanon-Hanover area. Experts say that a rate of 2 percent is considered full employment, so we’re very pleased.”

One low point on the job market was the recent announcement that Mary Hitchcock Memorial Hospital plans to cut 150 positions over the next year, with possibly as many as 30 through layoffs. Still, Wechsler doesn’t see that move as drastically affecting the local employment picture.

“I don’t see any real impact. Of course, for those individuals directly affected, the unemployment picture hits home. But we’re talking about 50 or 60 jobs in a labor market of several thousand; that’s a very small portion. This is an area with an awful lot of medical employment, we have a lot of people employed in the medical or educational fields. I think the area market will enable those people to find new employment without much difficulty.”

Wechsler credits faith in the community at large for helping to rebuild the local economy. “In recent years, we had a lot of people who were opening small businesses and were operating at a loss, but they could see the long-range viability of staying in business. They were willing to pay the price.” That stamina, plus the abundance of small start-up businesses, Wechsler said, has become a mainstay of the Upper Valley economy.

“We also have a lot of growth in what I call he hidden economy. We have a lot of small companies, one individual or two to three people, involved in the software world. They have little contact with the local community, so people don’t often realize they’re there, and sales are usually out of the area. These think-tank types are drawn to the area because it’s a nice place to live, and all they need is access to phone lines to set up a business.”

The area continues to attract new business interest, said Wechsler, including the pending opening of a Linde retail chocolate store slated for the Staples mini-plaza on Route 12-A. And, a new plaza has opened on Hanover Street, attracting a handful of relocated and new businesses, from a copy center and video store to cabinet dealer and breakfast/luncheon spot.

In a community already loaded with shopping centers and plazas of various sizes, how many more can the area handle? It all depends on where they’re located and the traffic count, Wechsler said. The retail community has shown a lot of confidence.

A chunk of the economic picture remains centered around the growth of existing businesses. Mascoma Savings Bank in Lebanon announced its intention to purchase eight branch offices in the eastern part of Vermont from the parent company of Green Mountain Bank. The acquisition means that Mascoma will be the first to have full-service branches under one name in both New Hampshire and Vermont. Branch offices named in the deal include those in Bethel, Chelsea, Hartland, Norwich, South Strafford and White River Junction. Mascoma will up its total of branch offices in the Upper Valley to 13, the most for a single bank in the area.

“Our purchase is a rare opportunity for us to add banking offices on the Vermont side of the Upper Valley,” said Stephen Christy, president and chief executive officer for Mascoma. “It is also a significant opportunity for the bank to…enhance its long-term ability to remain competitive in the changing world of financial services.”

The Green Mountain Bank offices will boos Mascoma’s deposit base by $95 million, to about $300 million. The purchase price is listed at $7.6 million; Mascoma also will acquire $42 million in loans, $44 million in cash and $1.6 million in fixed assets.

On another front, Alice Peck Day Memorial Hospital in Lebanon is moving forward with plans to build an assisted living center. According to Pam Gile, vice president of planning, “the project is moving along; we have 24 people committed.” Gile said she needs to sign up about another ten to make the plan viable “but we feel very good about the interest out there.” The project represents one new direction in which some hospitals are moving to find new sources of income in an age of reduced reimbursement.

The center will consist of a retirement community, built on property adjacent to hospital grounds, that will provide a continuum of care to help maintain a high quality of life.

Essentially, the concept means a kind of in-house home care, where residents will receive home health services, such as help with medication. The center is being marketed toward individuals, at a minimum age of 62, who are mentally and physically capable of living independently and who will be able to take advantage of living in a one- or two-bedroom apartment and enjoy amenities such as a central dining room, library and other social opportunities.

There will be an initial occupancy deposit fee of $60,000 for the one-bedroom apartment; $80.000 for the two-bedroom. Monthly fees will range from $2,000 to $3,000. Gile said that in situations of death or the need for nursing home care, 90 percent of the deposit will be returned to the occupant or his or her estate. “We will keep the remaining 10 percent, part of which will be directed into a residence fund,” she explained.

Construction on the $5 million-to-$6 million facility is expected to begin this fall, with occupancy beginning in the fall of 1996. The center will create 23 full-time jobs and quite a few part-time ones, said Gile.

STILL ON TAP?

Last year a German businessman announced plans to build a massive $150 million brewery with operations so grand that two sites in two states were going to be required to contain it all. Christian Hoelscher, operating through a business called the Green Mountain Beverage Holding Corp with partners Bruce and Gloria Merritt, dazzled state agricultural, as well as Ascutney and Claremont, NH, officials two years ago with plans that included both a brewery capable of producing 1.8 million barrels of beer and a spring water bottling plant. The project would produce 800 jobs when it reached its full capacity. There was even talk of, and seed money designated for, growing experimental crops and local bops and barley.

Although plans were pushed back numerous times, land options changed and details from Hoelscher were few, officials in the Twin State Valley, who were counting on the brewery to reinvigorate a shaky economy, were caught off guard when the German businessman abruptly resigned as chairman of the company, faxed his resignation to his partners and left the country last September.

The Merritts, left responsible for $100,000 in debt, formed a new company called Classic Brewers, Inc, shortly after Hoelscher’s abrupt departure and proposed a scaled-down version of the brewery. The new plan called for a company to hang onto an option to buy approximately 100 acres of land at the Syd Clark Industrial Park in Claremont, NH.

According to Stuart Arnett, director of planning and development for the city of Claremont, the Merritts, as of mid-July, still had the option for the industrial park location and were pursuing financing. “We have conversations with them on a regular basis. We’re optimistic.”

A check with Vermont Directory Assistance showed there were no telephone for either Classic Brewers, Inc, or the Merritts, whose last publicly known residence was in the Hartland-Woodstock area. According to the Corporations Division with the State of Vermont, there was no listing for Classic Brewers.

In New Hampshire, a check with the Corporations department did show a listing for a Classic Brewers, Inc, registered in association with CT Corp Systems of Concord. A spokeswoman for the company said that the business works as an agent for corporations such as Classic Brewers, as is required by law, and only handles lawsuits for a corporation. She said she could neither confirm nor deny that this Classic Brewers, Inc, was involved in any Claremont brewery project. Attempts to contacts the Merritts were unsuccessful.

If an increase in traffic is any indicator, and most people think it is, then White River Junction might be at the beginning of a little economic boom. The first noticeable sign is a new McDonald’s restaurant. The fast-food franchise typically is the first national business to colonize a new-growth area.

* White River for years has had a very low unemployment rate, but most of the jobs were sent across the river into Lebanon, NH. Now, the eastern gateway to Vermont might get some of the jobs.

* Meanwhile in Lebanon, the unemployment rate is even lower and business is booming. The medical industry continues to feed off of Dartmouth-Hitchcock, and, in general, there are hardly enough workers for all the jobs.

Phyllis Muzeroll is a freelance writer from Claremont, NH.

Copyright Lake Iroquois Publishing, Inc. d/b/a Vermont Business Magazine Aug 01, 1995

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