Picture-perfect Manchester, Vt., isn’t so perfect anymore
MANCHESTER, Vt. — In the twilight of the 1970s, as a new decade dawned, Lana Hauben and her husband, Ben, stood in the middle of this picture-postcard New England village, and the native New Yorkers saw something no one else did.
It was nothing less than the retail equivalent of Brigadoon.
“Ben said, ‘Isn’t this 57th Street and 5th Avenue?’ ’’ Lana Hauben recalled.
He had a vision, Hauben said, but “the town was very unreceptive to New Yorkers changing this town.’’
But change would come to Manchester.
Now, it’s coming again.
The Haubens presided over the Manchester Designer Outlets, some 40 stores sprinkled throughout this town of 4,400 nestled into a breathtaking valley between the Green Mountains and the Taconic Range — a retail mecca that became the town’s economic nerve center.
Now, nerves are rattled. The windows in storefront after storefront display identical bulletins of economic distress: Retail space available.
The town’s Banana Republic outlet closed early this year. In the spring, Eastern Mountain Sports, staggered by bankruptcy, closed all of its stores in Vermont, including one here.
Famous Footwear is gone. So are Yankee Candle and Coach, the New York-based maker of luxury handbags and leather goods.
“To this day, there are people who are not happy about the outlets,’’ said Pauline Moore, the town’s economic development officer. “But the outlets did an amazing job for the town. In the ’80s, they brought the town back to life. People used to come here to shop. But they don’t come here to shop anymore. They shop when they’re here.’’
As cities, including Boston, are fairly panting at the prospect of attracting Amazon’s second North American headquarters and the 50,000 jobs that come with it, evidence of the wreckage that e-commerce had wrought along Main Street is everywhere.
Credit Suisse has predicted that upwards of a quarter of the 1,200 malls in America will close in the next five years. Online apparel sales, which now account for 17 percent of the market, are expected to account for 35 percent of all Internet commerce by 2030.
“Today, if you know what you need, you go to Amazon and buy it,’’ said Pam Danziger, president of the Pennsylvania-based Unity Marketing. “Where you’re going to find interest is on Main Street and not in these homogeneous same-old, same-old outlet stores. Main Street — where people really know you — that’s where the future of retail is.’’
In other words, it’s time for Plan B.
In many ways, Plan B is an economic road map back to the future for Manchester, which is banking on its natural beauty, its home-grown retail talent, and its ability to convert some of its retail space into downtown housing for millennials as the central ingredients of its revival recipe.
The commercial vacancy rate, which in the boom years was a microscopic 5 percent, is 15 percent today.
“That’s worrisome,’’ said Moore, who grew up in Manhattan and ran international operations for a software company before retiring here in 2000. “But not tragic.’’
Town Manager John O’Keefe, who was the legislative director for former governor Mitt Romney in Massachusetts before moving into town hall in Manchester 10 years ago, is working to convert former retail shops into housing.
“You can’t get too panicked,’’ said O’Keefe, the father of two children who is also a middle-school soccer coach. “I keep telling people that you have to manage change. You can’t just sit there and wait for things to change. Change is going to happen. It’s either going to be good or bad. The one challenge we have in Vermont is that Vermonters do not like change. That is the one thing any good Vermonter will tell you.’’
Spend a few hours in this valley, and it’s easy to understand that preservationist inclination.
It’s a place of sloping emerald hills in the shadow of mountains that attract skiers, hikers, and outdoor adventurers. There’s a lovely, rambling old bookstore where literature lovers can get happily lost for hours. A tavern with wide-board floors serves locally brewed beer in mason jars.
Its stunning vistas and fresh air attracted Robert Todd Lincoln, the only child of Abraham Lincoln to survive to adulthood, who built an estate in the town in 1903 when he was president of the Pullman Co. Local history has it that, before his assassination, the president was due to visit the town in the summer of 1865.
Paul Carroccio, who runs a real estate firm downtown and is president of the Manchester Business Association, moved to Manchester as a child in the 1980s from Connecticut.
“It was like moving to wonderland,’’ Carroccio told me as he led a two-hour tour of the town he is working hard to stabilize. “It’s pretty much the best place to grow up.’’
The town skews older and more affluent. “Our biggest challenge is letting people know that we need young, smart earners,’’ said Carroccio, who wants the town to pivot from the outlets to what’s next.
“We had more than a handful of outlet stores and that was a great thing that happened to Manchester for 30 years,’’ he told me. “But that trend is gone. We’re coming into the age where millennials wants lifestyle and amenities. What’s next? We repurpose some of this space.’’
Carroccio said 30 percent of the town’s 150 retail outlets are part of national chains. The town’s new economic watchword is “local.’’
“We were in the denial zone for a while there,’’ Carroccio said. “Then came the anger. The fear mode set in. Now, we’re in the solution zone.’’
Mark Lenza is somewhere in that zone, too. He managed three downtown buildings, and his tenants report weak sales and disappointing traffic through their shops.
“The outlet stores are dwindling,’’ Lenza said, taking a break from renovation work on an empty storefront shop. “But it’s given an opportunity to the mom-and-pop stores and the sole proprietors. What Manchester has going for it is skiing, hiking, camping, canoeing, kayaking, fishing. Manchester is going to bounce back because of its resources and its beauty.’’
If anyone knows how to survive the economic threat posed by the Amazons of the world, it’s Chris Morrow, who runs the downtown Northshire Bookstore, which his parents opened in 1976. He is cheering on the town’s search for more local shops to replace national chains.
“People really value local expertise and authenticity,’’ Morrow said during an interview in a small room tucked away from the book stacks.
Morrow admitted to sleepless nights, staring at the ceiling and worrying about the economic storms stirred by Internet commerce. “But we’re doing fine,’’ he said. “For us, people appreciate the physical space. This is an interesting space, an uplifting space.
“What’s happening now is more than a cycle. This is a more substantial shift in the nature of the town. We were here before the outlets. I see this as something similar over the next few years that will strengthen the town — a healthy transition to diversity.’’
A generation ago, Lana Hauben stood not far from the doorstep of Morrow’s bookstore when she and her husband, who died last year, charted a new course for Manchester’s local economy.
Today, she does not spend much of her time shaking her fist at Amazon.
“You can’t live in the past,’’ she said. “Change came. And change is coming again. You have to embrace the future. Otherwise, you’d live in a museum. If you’re asking me: What do I see in the future? Somebody stole my crystal ball.’’
Internet shopping, e-commerce is here, she said. It’s not going away.
It’s all around us like the fresh mountain air.
Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com.