BERLIN — A year from now Hobby Lobby should be doing business in the Berlin Mall, and Vermont Bobbin Country Store and The Shoe Department likely won’t be.
Both long-time mall businesses will be displaced under a just-executed “long-term lease” that entitles Hobby Lobby to 49,000 square feet of existing retail space — most of it currently vacant.
Some of it isn’t, and that includes the 4,000-square-foot storefront The Shoe Department has occupied since 1997 and the 4,201 square feet occupied by Vermont Bobbin Country Store — a locally owned business that launched its first shop in the mall in 2007.
The currently occupied contiguous storefronts are part of a package that contemplates Hobby Lobby taking over the north end of the mall that was built in 1987 and lost its last original tenant — a J.C. Penney department store — just more than a year ago.
The vacant J.C. Penney space — just over 34,000 square feet — will anchor a proposed Hobby Lobby that will require an additional 15,000 square feet. That includes two vacant storefronts that bookend The Shoe Department and Vermont Bobbin. One is empty, and sits between what used to be Penney’s and what is still Vermont Bobbin. The other is three doors down and located between The Shoe Department and Berlin Optical Expressions. All four smaller spaces — two of them occupied and two of them empty — have been leased to Hobby Lobby along with the space that was formerly Penney’s to create the new store Ken Simon, vice president of real estate for mall owner Heidenberg Properties Group, said Tuesday, should be under construction in early February.
“This time next year they should be open,” he said of Hobby Lobby, which when work is finished will occupy roughly 25% of the lease-able space in the main mall building, which doesn’t include a free-standing 55,000-square-foot Kohl’s department store, under construction on the mall campus six years ago and opened in 2016.
The main mall includes roughly 194,000 square feet of retail space and Walmart leases more than 93,500 square feet of it — more if you count a vacant storefront it seasonally uses for storage. Hobby Lobby’s introduction at the opposite end of the mall will provide a second anchor to a complex that had three — Rich’s, Magram’s and J.C. Penney — when it opened nearly 35 years ago.
All three department stores have since closed — two of them long before Heidenberg Properties Group purchased the mall more than a decade ago with an eye toward revitalizing it.
Simon said Tuesday the addition of one of Hobby Lobby’s sizable stores, which sell everything from arts and crafts to home décor, is another step in that direction.
“I think it’s good for the mall,” Simon said. “I hope the customers think it’s good for the mall, but we think it’s good for the mall, otherwise we wouldn’t do it.
“We’ve always tried … from the time we bought it to improve the mall and to improve the tenant mix and to give the customers in our market a broader assortment of goods and services,” he added, noting the mall’s pivotal role in Berlin’s “new town center” and the addition of residential opportunities, like soon-to-open Chestnut Place.
Simon pointed to the 98 units of senior housing — a mix of independent and assisted living — that is nearing completion and expected to welcome its first residents early next year as an example of the mall’s out-of-the-box thinking with respect to its 62-acre campus. He also noted the local permitting process for Fox Run — a 30-unit affordable housing project — as well as what would be central Vermont’s first stand-alone Starbucks, is about to begin.
“The whole nature of the mall is going to change in the next year,” Simon predicted. “Between Hobby Lobby and Chestnut Place and, presumably Fox Run and Starbucks, and some other things that we’re doing, hopefully it (the mall) is going to be a better place by this time next year.”
It doesn’t sound like that place will include The Shoe Department or Vermont Bobbin Country Store.
Asked about those two tenants, Simon offered a cryptic response.
“We’re talking to them about their future location,” he said.
Asked if that meant a possible move within the mall Simon didn’t indicate that was an option.
“We’re talking to them about their future location,” he said, suggesting it isn’t clear how much space will be available when Hobby Lobby opens.
The manager of The Shoe Department said she was still processing the news and deferred comment to the company’s corporate headquarters. The woman who answered the phone at Vermont Bobbin was in a similar position and referred questions to owner Andy Ibey.
Attempts to reach Ibey and get a response from The Shoe Department’s headquarters were unsuccessful on Tuesday, and Ibey didn’t respond to a message left on his voicemail before press time.
Mall Manager Kay Nuissl spoke as if both businesses would be leaving.
“I hate to lose them,” she said. “They’re part of the family here.”
Simon said Hobby Lobby will be a big addition to the mall and the long-term lease was the product of months-long conversations that appear to have paved the way for the 900-store company’s return to Vermont.
Since Hobby Lobby closed its Rutland store two years ago Vermont has been one of three states that don’t have at least one of the family-owned outlets.
The addition of a major arts and crafts business at the mall fills a void created nearly a decade ago when JoAnn Fabric and Crafts moved from space now occupied by Planet Fitness to the Vermont Shopping Center on the Barre-Montpelier Road.
BARRE — A committee just pumped the brakes on Barre’s search for a new superintendent, but not very hard.
Despite a short list of candidates that is a little bit longer than she initially reported, Human Resources Director Carol Marold said preliminary plans to potentially offer the job by the end of the year were deemed unrealistic by the committee that met for the first time on Monday.
Heading into the holiday season, Marold said committee members agreed not to rush their work and see some value in the process extending into January.
Some of that, Marold said, has to do with uncertainty about whether the committee believes a second round of interviews will be needed and the prospect of getting meaningful turnout for virtual and staff forums with finalists was also a factor.
Marold, who was chosen to serve as chair of the 15-member committee, said the panel accomplished its primary objective — setting a schedule. It is one, she said, all of them can keep and contemplates the first round of interviews being wrapped up by mid-December.
Marold, who initially indicated there were seven applicants for the superintendent’s job said there are actually nine — two less than the district received when it advertised the position as part of a separate search last year.
Interim Superintendent Chris Hennessey has confirmed he is among the applicants. That is consistent with his prior public statements.
Marold said the committee isn’t scheduled to meet again until Dec. 8. That, she said, is when members of the diverse group, which includes a mix of board members, administrators, faculty, parents, students and community members, is expected to determine how many of the applicants to interview and refine questions each will be asked.
The committee plans to conduct its first round of interviews on Dec. 13 and members have left open the door for a second round of interviews on Dec. 15.
Barring some unforeseen problem, Marold said that is when the committee is hoping to recommend one or more finalists to the School Board for its consideration.
Instead of rushing that portion of the process, the committee, which includes three School Board members, agreed to suspend the search process until after the holiday season.
Tentative plans call for those who make it past the screening process to attend separate forums with school staff and community members during the second week of January and be interviewed by the School Board the following week.
That’s when Marold expects a final decision and, absent a surprise, a job offer will be made.
Marold said the schedule is built to absorb a surprise. If a job offer is rejected or if the board decides it isn’t satisfied with the finalists and opts to to re-launch the search there is time to do that and still fill the position by the July 1, 2022, start date.
With Hennessey in the mix that would seem like a remote possibility. He is a known commodity in the district, having served in a variety of capacities over the years — most recently as co-principal at Barre City Elementary and Middle School.
Hennessey left that job to step in as superintendent on an interim basis after the abrupt resignation of David Wells earlier this year. He has expressed his desire to remain in the position long term and unless he has a change of heart in the next few weeks, isn’t viewed as a viable candidate by the committee or ultimately the board, he would seem like a safe choice absent a superior candidate.
Three of the board’s nine members are on the committee, including Chair Sonya Spaulding and School Directors Gina Akley and Sarah Pregent. One principal from each of the district’s three schools are members of the committee. That includes Brenda Waterhouse, principal of Spaulding High School, Erica Pearson, co-principal at Barre Town Middle and Elementary School, and Pierre Laflamme, who was promoted to co-principal at Barre City Elementary and Middle School to fill the void created when Hennessey took over as interim superintendent.
Marold, Josh Allen, the district’s communications director, and Facilities Director Jamie Evans are representing the central office. Faculty and staff are represented on the committee by Ben Matthews, president of the Barre Education Association, and the union’s vice president Rachel Van Vliet.
The committee also includes a parent — Giuliano Cecchinelli — who lives in Barre, a community member — Terry Reil — who lives in Barre Town and two Spaulding students — Grace Isham and Ronald Saldi.
The Legislature has authorized towns to enact their own mask mandates, but in Rutland County it’s hard to find any that plan to.
A bill approved in special session Monday allows municipal boards to require mask wearing in “public spaces” as defined by the board. Gov. Phil Scott is expected to sign the bill, allowing it to take effect next week.
In the city, Mayor David Allaire has consistently stated his opposition to such a move and repeated that opposition last week. Board of Aldermen President Matt Whitcomb said Tuesday there had been some discussion among board members about whether to take up the issue.
“I’m very empathetic to the fact that people — they’re fatigued,” he said. “They did what they were supposed to do. They vaccinated. They sacrificed the last year. ... When does this end?”
That said, Whitcomb said he does plan to reach out to local leaders in the medical community about whether they think a mask mandate in the city would help.
“One of the worst things we could do is take no action and overrun the hospital, take no action, affect the population the VNA serves,” he said. “I want to get their professional opinion.”
The Rutland Town Select Board, convened as the Board of Health, voted unanimously Tuesday to meet at 9 a.m. on Wednesday to discuss passing a town-wide mask requirement for indoor public places. Town Health Officer, Selectman John Paul Faignant, said he was concerned about the upcoming shopping season contributing to Rutland County’s already high case count.
Castleton Select Board Chair James Leamy said his board has already mandated masks in the town offices.
“When the COVID started to come back again, the emergency manager said we should go back to wearing masks,” he said. “We all wear masks in the town office. As far as I know, no one’s objected to it.”
Leamy said he didn’t realize how much wider the authority was that the Legislature was giving the towns.
“Maybe it’ll come up at the next meeting,” he said.
Brandon and Pittsford’s leadership had already decided against mask mandates.
“We heard in the news it was coming so we put it on our agenda for last night,” Brandon Select Board Chair Seth Hopkins said Tuesday. “The folks who were in attendance on zoom and in the room, nobody spoke in favor of it and some people were opposed.”
The discussion resulted in a 4-1 vote against pursuing a mandate.
“We might revisit it if the situation were to change, but right now it doesn’t seem like the right thing for Brandon,” Hopkins said.
Similarly, Pittsford Town Manager John Haverstock said the Select Board there was briefed last week about the likely legislation and concluded they would have trouble enforcing a mandate.
“They seemed reluctant to use that power,” he said. “I don’t think there was a hot debate — people were generally agreeable it would be an effort with minimal results.”
Haverstock said Pittsford has a policy of “recommending” use of masks in town buildings regardless of vaccination status.
In other towns, leaders said mask mandates were not on their radar.
“I have no idea what the other board members think — it hasn’t been brought up yet,” Wallingford Select Board Chair Nelson Tift said. “I’m pretty much wait and see. We haven’t had a big problem here in town yet, and I just hope everyone’s using common sense.”
Vermont registered 190 new cases of COVID-19 Tuesday, according to the Department of Health, with 68 people hospitalized, 16 of them in ICUs. Thirty of those cases were in Rutland County, which has seen a 14-day total of 848 cases. The state’s death toll stands at 406.
Keith Whitcomb Jr. contributed reporting to this story.
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The ACT Late Model Tour will have three events at White Mountain Motorsports Park in 2022. B1