Home News and Features Some Downtown Montpelier Businesses are Struggling

Some Downtown Montpelier Businesses are Struggling

Filibuster Cafe on State Street, Montpelier. Photo by John Lazenby.
Downtown Montpelier businesses that survived the pandemic and the flood have been facing a continuing aftershock from both catastrophes: a decline in foot traffic that is being attributed to remote work, a closed hotel and post office, and fewer open businesses.

“This is a huge concern,” said Katie Trautz, executive director of Montpelier Alive. “Since COVID and then the flood, Montpelier has experienced quite a decrease in visitors to shops and especially restaurants and cafes. These businesses depend on regular foot traffic to succeed. There has been such a drop-off in business this winter that I know there are a couple of businesses thinking of closing, even after bouncing back from the flood.”

Melissa Bounty of the Central Vermont Economic Development Council has been tracking the finances of 12 local businesses, nine of them in Montpelier. “These businesses have allowed us to see their finances today and for the past five years,” she said. “In January of this year we found that the net revenue of these businesses was off 50% on average compared to January 2019.”

Downtown Montpelier has been continuing to bounce back from the flood in many ways, with more stores and restaurants opening all the time. The recent reopening of the Capitol Plaza Hotel should give a boost to downtown, and events such as the solar eclipse and the return of the Green Mountain Film Festival have brought more people to town.

But overall, business has not been good in recent months, according to Trautz and others. Brian Lewis owns the Yellow Mustard sandwich shop and the recently opened Filibuster Café in Montpelier. He also owns restaurants in Middlesex and South Burlington. 

“I am running $800 per day in labor and bringing in $1,200 a day in sales in Montpelier, but I also have to pay for utilities, rent, food, and insurance,” he said. “If I am not making money in Montpelier, what is the point of being here? I have other locations and opportunities.”

Lewis and others feel a big part of the problem is that most state workers are working remotely most of the time. Some of that is because state buildings are damaged, but even when workers can come in — such as at the space the state leases at National Life — most desks are empty, Lewis said.

Trautz said she has been in touch with the state and was told that worker schedules are set by their supervisors. Anecdotally, it appears many state workers are choosing to work remotely, with some even said to be living out of state.

State Rep. Conor Casey (D-Montpelier) pointed out that there is a workforce shortage, which may make it hard for the state to force workers to come to the office if they like working from home. “There are lots of vacancies in state government,” he said. “Last I heard there were 1,100 job openings.” Union contracts also come into play when it comes to work requirements, he said.

Capitol Stationers co-owner Eric Bigglestone is one merchant who wonders what is going to happen to the state’s buildings and workers long term. “I know people who work for the state who have been given a choice of where to work,” he said. “A lot of them choose to work at home. We may have to find other ways to get people to come into town, like tourism.”

Trautz said downtown merchants are hoping for a good summer, but she is not sure tourism can make up for the lack of downtown workers. “We have heard from the Governor that he supports downtown revitalization,” she said. “The worker policy is something he should consider as part of that picture.”

State workers are not the only people missing from downtown. Private businesses and nonprofit organizations are also moving to the remote working model. At the Vermont League of Cities and Towns (VLCT), which has about 50 employees, only between three and twelve works come to the office per day, according to VLCT Executive Director Ted Brady. The VLCT has sublet some of its space in City Center to the Montpelier Food Pantry and the U.S. Post Office.

Some local businesses have been moving to a hybrid model, with workers required to come into the office part of the work week. Both National Life in Montpelier and Vermont Creamery in Graniteville now expect office workers to come into the office Tuesdays through Thursdays. They can work from home Mondays and Fridays. It is unclear if the state will ever consider such a plan, which would partially restore downtown foot traffic.

Legislators Casey and Rep. Kate McCann (D-Montpelier) were recently invited to a meeting with about a dozen Montpelier business owners to discuss the problems facing the downtown. The group was organized by Brian Lewis, and intends to keep meeting. They are currently trying to set up a meeting with the county’s three state senators and plan to reach out to Gov. Phil Scott, Lewis said.

“We can’t have downtown limping along for four or five years while the state figures out what it is going to do with its building and workers,” Lewis said. “If state workers are not coming back, we need to get other businesses or new housing downtown to replace the people who are no longer coming to Montpelier.”

Lewis was disappointed the Vermont House recently declined to add money to the state budget to help businesses recovering from the flood. Statewide, flooded businesses were given $20 million last summer and fall, and there were hopes another $40 million could be added via the budget to the state’s Flood Recovery Assistance Program.

Businesses say they could use more help. “I personally took on $330,000 in debt to reopen Filibuster and Yellow Mustard,” Lewis said. “So far I have only received $40,000 in state aid and local grants. Some people borrowed against their homes to re-open, and they could lose their homes if they can’t repay those loans.”

Casey noted that studies have shown the flood caused $300 million in economic injury in central Vermont. He said that although it appears no more state funding for flooded businesses is likely to materialize this year, he would like to see the state set up an organization or program that could seek grants and federal funds for these businesses. However, an effort to do this failed in the House recently. Casey retains hope the idea might be revived in the Senate before the legislative session adjourns.