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How Wal-Mart stores impact downtown Vt. businesses - WCAX.COM Local Vermont News, Weather and Sports-

How Wal-Mart stores impact downtown Vt. businesses

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ST. ALBANS, Vt. -

The opening of the latest Wal-Mart in Derby brings the number to six Wal-Mart stores in the state, despite communities fighting to keep it out. 

Often, the argument has been that Wal-Mart will destroy local businesses and downtowns, but has that been true?

Mary Myers remembers when shopping in St. Albans wasn't such a good experience.

"Now there's just so many more stores starting from down below all the way up, there's very few that are empty, there's something for everybody," said Myers. 

"We had to change our trajectory, our future wasn't bright. Now, it's very bright," said Dominic Cloud, city manager. 

Look no further than half a block off Main Street to see what Cloud is talking about. An $11 million Hampton Inn Hotel will open for business in the spring.

It's part of the secret sauce of St. Albans, the city bought the land, cleaned it up and offered it to a developer for free.

"Not many cities in Vermont do this, but nationally city's do this all the time," said Cloud. 

Everywhere we walked, Cloud had another example of public money being used for private development.

"This is a current project that we just recently acquired," said Cloud. 

The city bought four buildings in a foreclosure and is looking for a private developer right now whose vision aligns with the cities. 

Reporter Julie Kelley: What was the goal of taking over these buildings? 

Cloud: To control the outcome. 

What they couldn't control was what was happening 2 miles outside of downtown. They called it the "Wal-Mart Crisis." It turned out to be a game changer.

"Wal-Mart frankly was the catalyst," said Cloud.

Cloud says the city and its voters needed to take some calculated risks and Wal-Mart forced their hand. He says they used money from a settlement from a lawsuit trying to keep Wal-Mart out and money from an account the city had been sitting on to start investing.

Eight years ago in St. Albans almost half the store fronts were empty. 

Now, Cloud says they have 90 percent occupancy and $40 million of new private investments in the last five years. 

Kevin Smith from Kevin Smith Sporting Goods is celebrating 30 years in business downtown.

"We just needed that push," said Smith.

Smith says he's seeing a lot more customers, in his store, these days.

"We close up at seven o'clock, when you look down the street at seven o'clock at night this street is full of cars," said Smith. 

Kelley: What's your biggest challenge? 

Tara Holt, St. Johnsbury Chamber of Commerce director: I think that perception is my biggest challenge. 

Across the state in St. Johnsbury, Holt says they're just finishing up a streetscaping project with new sidewalks and lighting. 

She says like St. Albans, St. Johnsbury was a community divided decades ago when Wal-Mart considered moving here.

"I don't particularly look at it and feel woe that we don't have a Wal-Mart," said Holt.

She says some businesses are taking advantage of state tax credits to upgrade their facades,something that jump started St. Albans' downtown redevelopment.

"It's allowed us to rebuild our downtown, so it is a cohesive, nice looking place," said Holt. 

Back in St. Albans, it's not just a nice looking place, but one where people want to live now. Cloud says higher end apartments are planned for some of the space in these two buildings, buildings which have sat empty for nearly a decade.  

"It's all about partnerships. The city doing what it does well, the private community doing what it does well, the community doing what it does well and it all comes together and you can change the fate of a community," said Cloud. 

Holt says mountain bikers using Kingdom Trails in Burke have helped downtown St. Johnsbury business.

She says a satellite location called Kingdom South Trails that is being built, will be accessible from downtown St. J and could help even more.

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