St. Albans, Vermont
Business View Magazine interviews representatives of St. Albans, Vermont for our focus on Economic Development in U.S. Towns & Cities
There’s an ideal that underpins a great deal of thinking about Vermont – a generative engine that’s part natural landscape, part dairy farm and sugar shack, part independence of spirit, part neighborly-as-can-be. For those who know them, the City of St. Albans (pop. 6,801) and its surrounding (and separately incorporated) Town of St. Albans (pop. 6,501) certainly connect to these values in a tangible way. Spanning the shores of Lake Champlain to the foothills of the Green Mountains, theirs is a quirky, charming, and exuberant community offering historic points of interest and great recreational opportunities.
St. Albans is the county seat of Franklin County, one of several counties created from land claimed by Vermont when it declared itself distinct from New York in 1777. Although the area was chartered as a New Hampshire grant in 1763, its settlement was delayed until 1785 by the American Revolutionary War. When the settlers finally came, they found the lay of the land unsuitable for mills, so they raised horses, sheep, and dairy cattle instead. “At one point in the 1880s, St. Albans was actually the ‘Butter Capital of the World’ because we exported so much butter,” shares Brendan Deso, St. Albans Town Selectboard Chair. “From there, the City was basically spring-boarded by railway operations.”
The Central Vermont Railway was chartered in 1843 to build a line down the middle of the State. It stretched from New York to Canada (although some connections reached farther west) and was once St. Albans’ biggest employer, with a workforce of thousands and 23 tracks. “We were like a lot of small towns across America,” concedes City Manager Dominic Cloud. “Our historic growth engines moved on and we were left to fend for ourselves.”
This set St. Albans down a path of development that prioritized business above all else. Today, the community boasts both a strong agricultural base and a diverse manufacturing sector; the City’s Cooperative Creamery merged with Kansas-based Dairy Farmers of America (the largest cooperative in the country), while the Town’s Industrial Park became a catalyst for economic development and innovation.
“The Cooperative Creamery actually made it to its 100th anniversary, but it’s been a really difficult ag market, especially for raw milk, which necessitated a merger with the Dairy Farmers” Deso explains. “St. Albans is also home to a pretty major industrial park by Vermont standards. We have Peerless Clothing, which is based out of Montreal. They’re a fulfillment site for higher-end clothes – suits, primarily. Of course, we’ve got Ben & Jerry’s. We have Superior Technical Ceramics that engineers and manufactures just about anything ceramic. We also have Berry Callebaut, a huge producer of chocolate with headquarters in Switzerland.” With these tenants in place, Deso says they’ve shifted to viewing themselves as “the manufacturing gateway from Montreal into New England.”
The Autoroute 35 (A-35) is the primary route for traffic between Montreal and Boston, stopping short just eight miles north of the U.S. border. About a year ago, Quebec’s Premier announced the province’s plans to extend the A-35 further south, all the way to the Highgate Springs/St. Armand border, where it would connect with Vermont’s Interstate 89. “We’re really excited about that,” says Deso. “The Highgate area is about to receive some federal and state dollars. If Highgate, as a municipality, were to match $1 million out-of-pocket with a bond, they’d conduct a major renovation of the Franklin County State Airport. That would open us up for cargo, essentially.”
The A35 extension would make branding St. Albans “the gateway from the Port of Montreal to New England” a much easier sell. Deso notes, “We’ll have an airport able to help with air travel exports. We have a pretty solid manufacturing base in St. Albans Town already, but we hope to add to it. That’s our opportunity now: to capitalize on the State Airport expansion and the completion of the A-35.”
It’s all part of an important rebuilding process for St. Albans. They just finished a $4.2 million new Public Works facility on property they’d previously acquired in a more centralised location, and they’re just about to wrap up the environmental site assessment and mandatory reporting for the old garage property on the waterfront. “We’re avidly and eagerly discussing the construction of a boat launch to drive economic activity to our historic Bay Area,” says Deso, “and we just received voter approval to construct a $4.5 million new Town Hall, also in the Bay Area.”
All were made possible by leveraging the annual income received through the municipality’s 1 percent local option sales tax. “In addition, the City just passed a bond for a $5 million year-round pool, to be located at the Hard’ack recreation facility,” says City Mayor Tim Smith. “We’ve also just completed a $1 million ski lodge. We have a small rope tow, plus an extensive trail network on 250 acres between two organisations. So, the commitment to recreation is absolutely there.”
“For the last seven or eight years, St. Albans has been trying to do something different,” Cloud reveals. “We were a historic center, with a lot of great assets that we were bringing to the table in terms of quality of life, commitment to the community – some of the intangibles – but we weren’t putting our best face forward in terms of our Main Street, our curb appeal, our economic development initiatives.”
Cloud says these shortcomings incentivised them to “get really serious” about a public/private partnership model. “The cornerstone of that is the philosophy that if we invest in ourselves on the public side, the private sector will follow,” he explains. “We’ve set out on a strategy of helping our existing businesses grow, and attracting some of the new businesses and development projects identified in our Town Plan. We helped Mylan, one of the largest generics and specialty pharmaceutical companies in the world, expand and they added 100 jobs and $10 million to the tax base. We wanted a hotel downtown, so we recruited a nationally branded one. We also recently completed a combination housing/commercial project where, right on Main Street, there was a three-acre site with some blighted buildings. The City bought it and redeveloped 60 units of mixed-use housing on the back of the site. On the front of the site is a 25,000-square-foot office building that will host the Community College of Vermont and Northwestern Medical Center. in partnership with Vermont Technical College.”
Left to their own devices, these projects and uses would have located outside the City, according to Cloud. “The City worked hard to bring them downtown,” he affirms. “We made them offers they couldn’t refuse. One of the strengths that municipalities have in charting their own course for development is their ability to access capital. Several times the City has needed to act quickly to secure a property or an opportunity that presented, and the Peoples Trust Company has always been our go-to lender. We can walk down the street and get a commitment for a million dollars; that’s what it takes to be able to move swiftly and compete in the business world. The relationship with the bank is pivotal.”
Another frequent topic of conversation in recent years has been the issue of workforce recruitment. Although Franklin County has an abundance of jobs available, that supply is met with a shortage of candidates who meet those needs.
“We’ve got to get people to learn the basic skills to start to fill some of those opportunities,” says Smith. “With the way demographics are going, the aging population is growing all the time and the need for nursing applicants is huge. So, part of the project involving the Congress and Main building would be a training center that would anchor education and personal development here in town, as opposed to having it in Burlington or in Williston, which is 40 minutes away. The opportunity for educating individuals in the community, to focus on nursing, will go a long way towards solving that workforce shortage in the nursing and medical fields.”
Over the next phase of its redevelopment, St. Albans plans to invest in façade improvements and other exterior upgrades to improve its network of private spaces. “We’ve done a lot for the public spaces,” says Cloud. “Now we’re pushing our development experience out into the neighborhoods. A lot of neighborhoods have a house on the block that isn’t reaching its potential and that’s impacting everybody else. We really want to help and get them lifted up.”
With projections indicating that St. Albans will likely be the County’s largest population center by 2030, Smith says they’ll go on giving their community the flexibility to grow and beautify its neighborhoods. “We’ll continue to focus on treescapes, as well as individual homes which may be dilapidated and in need of assistance,” Smith concludes. “We’ve seen an increase in the average household sale price, so we’re very fortunate. We’ve made a big investment in ourselves, but it’s starting to pay off well.”
AT A GLANCE
St. Albans, Vermont
What: A spirited city surrounded by a charming town; combined population approx. 13,000
Where: On the shores of Lake Champlain, Franklin County, Vermont
Peoples Trust Company – www.ptcvt.com
“I’ve said for a long time that the bank thrives when our community thrives and vice versa.” This quote comes from Thomas Gallagher, President/CEO of the Peoples Trust Company. The community bank with five branches throughout Franklin County has been supporting individuals, businesses and municipalities located in Northwest Vermont since 1886. About 10 years ago, Peoples was one of the initial key partners and financiers of the St. Albans City’s downtown revitalization – with a shared vision of a thriving downtown area.
“This is where we all live, work, and play and we have a vested interest to ensure it remains strong and vibrant for generations to come,” said Gallagher. The partnership and the ability for Peoples Trust Company to provide fast, frictionless financing to support the City projects and the businesses in St. Albans has been key to the health of the downtown area. The connectivity Peoples Trust Company has to the local community is unsurpassed in the area, from the President himself occupying a desk in the front lobby of the main office to the bank’s support, sponsorships, and participation in seemingly every community event in the area. Peoples Trust Company is proud to state, “It has been our pleasure to help build a better community.”
White + Burke Real Estate Advisors, Inc. – www.whiteandburke.com
White + Burke – your outsourced real estate department.
Real estate development is complex. How are you supposed to handle that when you’ve got a business or a municipality to run?
When St. Albans decided to become pro-active about downtown revitalization, they turned to White +Burke Real Estate Advisors. W+B established a Tax Increment Financing (TIF) district with the goal of fostering private investment. Working side-by-side with the City W+B negotiated numerous successful public-private partnerships that have added over 60% to the taxable grand list within the TIF district. New buildings have been constructed, streets and sidewalks rebuilt, and downtown vacancies have been dramatically reduced.
W+B works with public, private, and institutional clients to make their real estate visions happen. When a business is looking to expand, open a new location, or a town wants to incentivize development in downtown, these are massive undertakings that can take focus away from crucial day-to-day operations, and they call for specialized expertise in feasibility assessments, permitting, financing, commercial brokerage, negotiations, and economic development.
There are numerous steps in navigating real estate that can slow down the timeline, increase costs, or introduce roadblocks. W+B handles these challenges allowing our clients to do what they do best – run their organizations.
DEW Construction – DEWconstruction.com
When people live and work downtown, it means more people are supporting local businesses on a day-to-day basis. When businesses thrive, communities thrive. In partnership with Grant Butterfield, Bill Niquette and the City of St. Albans, VT, DEW Construction is honored to be part of the City’s revitalization and economic growth initiatives.
Since 1997, DEW has been building successful commercial construction projects and solid partnerships throughout Vermont, New Hampshire, and the Northeast region. DEW’s success in the industry is the result of diverse teams of specialists who collaborate, innovate, and deliver. We understand that client satisfaction is the most important and fulfilling part of what we do every day.
People come first.
Communication is critical to success.
Accountability binds us.
Process guarantees predictable results.
Safety is a way of life.
Partnerships are built on trust.
Community makes us stronger.
Today, we express this simply as BUILDING WHAT MATTER MOST.