EAST CALAIS — Despite a year-long battle, the General Store on Route 14 has closed — but efforts already are underway to reopen it.
Lesley Lapan ran the store for 12 years before financial difficulties forced her to close at Christmas — and despite a GoFundMe campaign by local residents that raised more than $12,000.
In a Front Porch Forum posting this week, the community was informed that the Preservation Trust of Vermont has been working with a group of Calais residents to form the East Calais Community Trust.
“ECCT is a nonprofit corporation organized to purchase the building that houses the store,” the social media post stated. “While we are saddened that the store is temporarily closed, ECCT is committed to having a successful store in the building.
“You will be hearing from us during the next few months to ask for your support and ideas for making the old Dwinell General Store a successful present-day business that once again serves East Calais and the surrounding communities,” the post added.
Community leaders involved in efforts to re-open the store said they hoped they can build the same kind of support that led to the recent successful shareholder buyout of the Maple Corner Store, now known as the Maple Corner Community Store, after longtime owners Artie and Nancy Toulis were unable to sell the business and the community rallied to save it from closure.
Denise Wheeler, chairwoman of the Calais Select Board, said there had been concerted efforts to raise funds and grants to reopen the East Calais General Store.
“Currently, we’re fundraising, and the goal is to raise $200,000, and do some remodeling and pay for closing costs,” Wheeler said.
Wheeler said it was hoped to keep Lapan involved in re-opening the store.
“She’s an important part of the community and it was really sad for us, and for her, when she had to close,” Wheeler said.
Wheeler said community members involved remained busy with the capital campaign and would be holding community forums to discuss the project, beginning in late spring.
“Everybody would like to see the store up and running,” Wheeler said. “We’ve talked about Wi-Fi cafés, maybe a local farmer’s market ... we hope to really get the community involved and have a lot of local produce for sale.”
Wheeler said there was still “a big question mark” over whether the store would continue to offer gasoline sales, which had to be shut down because the state required remediation work to remove and replace an old underground tank.
Wheeler said there were still some necessary formal steps that needed to be completed, such as state approval of a nonprofit organization. In the meantime, Wheeler said the Preservation Trust of Vermont would act as the fiscal agent for the store and was accepting donations towards the project.
“Until we have our state 501 ©(3), people can still donate to the Preservation Trust and it gets credited to us, but it’s tax deductible ... and you can do it online,” Wheeler said.
“Calais is unique ... we have a co-op in Adamant, we have the Maple Corner Store, which is a for-profit shareholder thing, and we’re looking just to be a nonprofit. So, we want to work cooperatively with everyone else in town,” she added.
Lapan said she was disappointed that she had to close the store, but said she was hopeful it could be reopened as a community enterprise.
“I hope, for the community’s sake, that something like that does happen,” Lapan said. “I tried and I couldn’t make it, and I’m very appreciative of all the efforts people made to help me try to make it, but it just didn’t happen.
“I hate the fact that the community doesn’t have a store anymore, so I think it would be awesome if somebody could come in and get it going again,” she added.
Lapan said country stores are essential to support communities in times of local need, especially in difficult weather conditions.
“In the summertime and fall, it’s no big deal, but in the wintertime and mud season, that’s when people are going to have to drive 20 miles to get a loaf of bread,” Lapan said.
For more information about the East Calais Community Trust capital campaign, call Wheeler at 456-8730.