Burlington downtown at crucial crossroads ahead of holiday season

Published: Nov. 14, 2023 at 5:44 PM EST
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - Faced with a recent exodus of Burlington businesses over crime and other issues, will shoppers head downtown this holiday season? And if they do, what will they find? The concerns about the health of one of Vermont’s premier retail destinations come at a critical time of year.

“Thank you to Burlington and the patrons and everyone that celebrated here with me,” said Theresa Bertram, the owner of El Gato Cantina, which is closing its Church Street location after 14 years. “We had a great run and I’m sad.”

She points to a myriad of issues that led to her to pack up, including a tough recovery from the pandemic, rising costs for both food and wages, and public safety concerns. “You can get everything you have but if you don’t have the foot traffic... you need the revenue,” Bertram said.

But as one door closes, another opens. “I’m very excited to be on Church Street,” said Mark Scully, who has been busy prepping for the opening of the Vermont Eclectic Company, a store that celebrates Vermont by commissioning local artists to design T-shirts and other Vermont goods. He hopes to open this weekend. Despite all of the recent closures and the concerns of downtown merchants, he says he’s hoping to be part of the solution. “Every city has challenges but there is a huge opportunity here.”

And shopping downtown to support the city is a rallying cry going into the holiday season from local businesses. “We can’t all retreat into our bubble right now. I think now, more than ever, we have to remember there is strength in numbers and participate and come downtown and shop and spend our dollars here,” said Eric Warnstedt, the owner of Hen of the Wood.

As part of an independent initiative, the restaurant will give away six free oysters to diners who show a receipt of $50 or more from a downtown business. “Something like that is really the gesture of unity - hope as opposed to being sad or angry.”

He says downtown business owners have real concerns about the impact of public safety, rampant retail theft, and open drug use on marketplace visitors and workers. “I think it’s very much so the reality and I think it’s more serious than most people realize,” Warnstedt said.

Kara Alnasrawi, director of the city’s business and workforce development office, says she hears those concerns every day. The city’s data shows gross sales are down dramatically from pre-pandemic but that foot traffic has rebounded. She says seven vacant or soon-to-be-closed businesses already have someone ready to move in. “We are not seeing spaces stay vacant. We are seeing interest in business moving downtown,” she said.

Even as she packs up her shop, El Gato’s Theresa Bertram says she sees brighter days for Burlington. “I’m really hopeful for that and I think it will. There’s no doubt that it will get better,” she said.

Another possible boost -- The BTV Winter Market is getting ready to open in City Hall Park this weekend.

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