Danby Commercial Center Project

By MARGARET BUCHOLT

The downtown Danby renaissance, a quiet affair that started three years ago with the restoration of one building, has blossomed into a full-scale project that is changing the neglected face of Main Street into an upscale commercial center.

Three of six buildings purchased for $225,000 last fall by resident Ann Rothman are being renovated in accordance with Vermont Historic Preservation guidelines into retail and commercial space and, across the street, a fourth, owned by Pamela and Thomas Fuller, is being cleaned up for a new crafts shop. A country green overlooking the scenic Mill Brook is planned to the rear of Ms. Rothman’s buildings, along with a large off-street parking lot.

“Everyone has been waiting for something to happen,” said Ms. Rothman, who expects to pump over $1 million into the project. “Well, things are going on here now and you can just feel the excitement.”

Workmen are hammering away at the Obediah Hadwen House, built in 1835, which is being converted into nine, small retail shops. Tin ceilings are being refurbished, old pine wide board floors sanded and sheetrock painted. The hand-printed European wallpaper has been ordered and, for the last few months, Ms. Rothman has been accumulating antique cabinets and fixtures for the shops.

All Ms. Rothman needs are tenants to complete the picture and start the ball rolling on May 1. Although she has had inquiries to her advertisements in the local papers, to date no proprietors have signed on the dotted line, she said.

Following the completion of Hadwen House, the construction crew will tackle the Millbrook and River Houses that straddle the Mill Brook. The fourth building, the former Silas Griffith General Store, will not be refurbished until the other buildings have made their mark on the community.

“I’m going to wait until we’ve built up such a demand, they’ll be pounding on our door,” said Ms. Rothman about potential businesses moving into town.

When completed, the revitalized Main Street structures will join the other restored showpieces like the Danby Antique Center, Sweet Peas and the Quail’s Nest. The efforts at putting Danby back on the tourist map are taking hold, and merchants are optimistic the attractive, historic buildings will bring new commercial life to the area and the town’s tax base.

“It’s a great little village,” said William Franks, owner of Sweet Peas and the Danby Antique Center. “It certainly could be a destination point. I have every confidence Danby is going to fly.”

“People love Danby; it’s a charming community,” said Ms. Rothman echoing his sentiments. “We’ll provide a real small-town atmosphere. I feel what Danby should offer is quality Vermont products at reasonable prices.”

Once the Manchester bypass for the new Route 7 is built, Danby will be the first town tourists will drive past on their way north, said Franks. Besides its strategic location between Rutland and Manchester, Danby has the small-town look metropolitan area tourists appreciate. “They find a town like Manchester is no longer a viable place to come and enjoy a scenic, quaint Vermont town,” said Franks who was one of the first people to recognize Danby’s potential. “Manchester has everything the towns have where they came from.”

A self-proclaimed New Jersey flatlander, Franks has lived in Vermont for more than 10 years. In 1980, he rented the former Silas Griffith General Store building but moved out when his efforts to chase building failed. When the grapevine got the word Franks was leaving town, people with businesses along Route 7 and in town told him they were sorry to see him go because Franks’ antiques business had generated traffic in their establishments as well. “I didn’t realize we had created such a spin-off,” said Franks.

The antiques business was doing quite well despite the fact most of Main Street was shut down. With more than 20 dealers displaying merchandise, gross sales totaled $185,000 the first year, said Franks who wanted to remain in town. So he purchased a building sadly in need of repairs just a house or two down from the original building, and restored its historic beauty. Last year, he purchased another Main Street property and waved his magic wand a second time for the Sweet Peas building just south of the Griffith store.”They saw what could be done,” said Franks, whose restoration efforts clearly inspired others.

In each case, Franks said he employed Danby residents and purchased all his materials from town merchants, a tradition Ms. Rothman is also following.

“We should not make it a money-making project off the bat,” said Franks. Employing locals and creating a tax base to lower taxes is of primary importance in the beginning, he said.

Mrs. Fuller, a Danby resident for more than 20 years, said the local people are applauding Franks’ and Ms. Rothman’s efforts at improving the downtown buildings because strengthening the tax base will lower everyone’s taxes. “The more business you have the more people you have coming through. It’ll be good for all of us,” she said.

Bringing back the booming business days of the ’60s and `70s, when famed novelist Pearl Buck had owned most of the downtown area, is something all the merchants look forward to, she said. At that time, Mrs. Fuller’s husband was a selectman, and angry locals would call saying the downtown was congested with cars and traffic, Mrs. Fuller said. When Mrs. Buck died, all the businesses folded and her estate was tied up for years in the courts. The tourist traffic trickled in and the response from the visitors was the same, she recalled.

“The first thing they would say is ‘this is a beautiful little town.’ The second thing they said was ‘what’s happening; everything is closed up tight.’ For a while, there was a ‘for sale’ sign in every window,” said Mrs. Fuller who has owned the Nichol’s store for the last seven years.

When the estate was settled, the Buck buildings were sold off and the new owner attempted to spruce up the properties and revitalize the commercial downtown, she said. Although his intentions may have been good, the projects never materialized and many of the buildings fell into disrepair, Mrs. Fuller said.

A twenty-year part-time resident of Danby, Ms. Rothman moved to Vermont permanently two years ago and became interested in the town’s deceased benefactor, Silas Griffith, who bequeathed a children’s Christmas fund to the town along with an endowment for the library and various other community projects. The former New York City resident decided to write a book on Danby’s most famous resident and purchase the two-story general store building that Griffith once operated.

“He certainly was the most important citizen the town had,” said Ms. Rothman. “There should be something significantly his.”

In the interim, Ms. Rothman caught the Danby renaissance fever. At first she joined forces with Franks and three others to cooperatively purchase the building. When the arrangement didn’t work out, the group amiably disbanded and Ms. Rothman purchased the former Griffith store along with five other buildings, much to her own surprise.

An interior decorator by profession, Ms. Rothman is attacking the project with gusto. Her plans to create a destination commercial center are meeting with approval and support but some residents are skeptical her long-range goals of a self-sufficient community, complete with a doctor, bank and beauty shop, may not make the grade because of Danby’s small population. Whatever the outcome, the energetic Ms. Rothman is determined to pursue her goal.

“The only way to start getting people to come here is to provide the most beautiful environment possible,” she said firmly. “And that’s what I’m going to do.”