Observer photo by Karen Pike
Champlain Valley Union High basketball player Christopher Banbury, a transfer from Winooski High, levitates during Saturday's scrimmage.
Nov. 26, 2008
By Tim Simard
That’s how Williston shop owners are feeling in regards to the unofficial holiday shopping season that kicks off on Friday.
Observer photo by Tim Simard
Many parking spots remain open in Maple Tree Place a week before Black Friday — one of the busiest shopping days of the year. Retailers are hoping every parking space is filled with customers looking for deals the day after Thanksgiving.
Observer photo by Tim Simard
Local retailers hope the walkways at Maple Tree Place, empty last Friday, will fill with shoppers on Black Friday.
With the economy in a slump and uncertainty hanging in the air, many experts, including Burt P. Flickinger III, managing director of Strategic Resource Group, a Maryland-based retail think tank, say numbers will be down greatly, making for one of the more modest shopping seasons in recent memory. Flickinger is expecting a 3 percent decline in sales this shopping season from last year.
But local retailers are holding out hope for strong sales on Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving that is generally seen as one of the busiest shopping days of the year. Many of the national big box stores, such as Best Buy, Toys ‘R’ Us and Dick’s Sporting Goods in Williston, hold massive sales on the day, and some only during the early morning hours. For instance, Williston’s Toys “R” Us and the Christmas Tree Shops plans to open at 5 a.m. on Friday.
Already, stores such as Best Buy and Christmas Tree Shops are having early sales, hoping to attract shoppers early and often.
Tasha Wallis, executive director for the Vermont Retailers Association, said the economy is putting many small business owners in “uncharted waters.”
“We just don’t know what’s going to happen (this weekend),” Wallis said. “There could be decreases or a big bump from shoppers.”
Recently, an e-mail has been circulating the Internet identifying national businesses — including some with branches in Williston — that may go out of business at the end of year. The e-mail warns not to purchase gift cards at the stores. Wallis said she’s seen the e-mail and though she does not know if the rumors are true, she does believe it’s causing undue panic.
“Even if there are some retailers struggling, no one disappears pretty much overnight,” Wallis said.
One store that is slowly disappearing in Williston is Linens ‘N’ Things. The bath and bedroom goods store has been slashing prices well before this weekend since announcing last month that all stores were going out of business. Circuit City, which filed for bankruptcy protection earlier in the month and is closing 150 stores nationwide, is also having big sales.
Jim Baab, corporate communications manager for Richmond, Va.-based Circuit City, said the Williston store will continue to operate normally and has no plans to go out of business.
“It’s our intention to bounce back from Chapter 11,” Baab said.
Beyond the big box stores
The smaller, locally owned stores are also feeling the brunt of a weak economy, but many are crossing their fingers that economic forecasts are not as dire as predicted.
At Keeping Good Company in Maple Tree Place, the store is decked out in Christmas decorations. Owner Pam Carter said the design comes from the look of Colonial Williamsburg, a national historic site in Virginia, and hopes the holiday cheer will attract shoppers. She admits the smaller stores will have a harder time this year than the bigger box stores.
“It’s the little guy, the independently-owned stores that suffer most,” Carter said. “But the holidays are going to come regardless.”
This will be Carter’s third Black Friday with the high-end home goods store. It will also be the first time Keeping Good Company will have a sale on the day. From 10 a.m. until noon, the store will have a sale and offer warm beverages and cookies for shoppers. Carter believes shoppers will come to avoid the crowds in other stores and to find gifts for the home.
Over at the Floral Gallery, which sells floral arrangements and Vermont-made gifts in Maple Tree Place, owner Karen Sturtevant is among the cautiously optimistic crowd. She said Black Friday has been a lucrative day for her store in the past, and she’s having a sale on Vermont products in hopes of bringing in customers.
“We rarely run sales,” Sturtevant said.
Kathie Cooke, owner of the Paper Peddler in Maple Tree Place, also shares in the optimism. She’s hoping for a busy Black Friday weekend and even busier December shopping season.
“People still want to buy items and they still want to buy quality items,” Cooke said.
In years past, the Paper Peddler generally didn’t run sales on Black Friday, she said, although this year the store will have a sale on Christmas cards and related items.
“I expect (Black Friday) will be down a little, but shoppers will still be out there looking for those deals,” Cooke said.
Wallis hopes shoppers will be out in force in Williston and all over the state.
“We keep reiterating nobody’s cancelled Christmas,” Wallis said.
Information from the Associated Press was used in this story.
Levy to pay for road improvements
Nov. 26, 2008
By Greg Elias
The Selectboard has approved a scaled-back transportation impact fee that still more than doubles what developers pay to fund road improvements.
The fee will rise from $300 to $707 for each new single-family home in Williston. But the hike is only a fraction of the originally proposed $2,824-per-unit fee that would have funded a wide range of road construction projects to cope with the town’s rapid growth.
That proposal, based on a consultant’s study and a Planning Commission recommendation, was scuttled after developers protested and the Selectboard balked. The board was concerned that such a drastic increase would drive up housing prices that critics say are already out of reach for many area residents.
The lower fee will cover only a fraction of all of the town’s development-driven transportation needs, said Planning Commission Chairman David Yandell. If the millions of dollars in road improvements — which include adding grid streets around Taft Corners and widening the Interstate 89 interchange — are ever completed, existing residents and businesses will have to make up the difference through their property taxes.
“I don’t think we had anywhere near the right numbers as far as the real cost of improvements,” Yandell said. “The only question is who is going to pay.”
The transportation levy is one of three impact fees the town charges developers. In addition, the town has school and recreation fees that are also intended to defray the cost of adding classroom space and recreation facilities. In all, impact fees total more than $12,000 for each single-family home.
A study by Mike Munson, a former Williston town planner, and the consulting firm Resource Systems Group found the town would need a nine-fold increase in the existing transportation fee to fund millions of dollars in road improvements.
State law requires impact fees to be used only for infrastructure needs directly attributable to new development. Fees collected must be set aside for their intended purpose and used within six years.
Developers, including representatives from Snyder Companies, which plans to built 356 units of housing as part of the Finney Crossing project near Taft Corners, protested the fee hike was too high at a Planning Commission hearing earlier this year.
“We heard from some major developers, and what we heard is that they didn’t think it was possible to absorb that,” Yandell said.
The developers said the increase would simply wind up being paid by new homeowners.
Impact fees and other costs of development drive up the cost of housing, said Joe Sinagra, executive officer for the Home Builders and Remodelers Association of Northern Vermont.
He said the permitting costs, which include impact fees, have risen by 242 percent in the past decade. And he pointed to a report by the Vermont Housing Awareness Campaign that shows new homes are already too expensive for many residents.
It took an annual household income of $103,000 to afford the median-priced new single-family home in 2007, according to the report. The median household income in Vermont is $51,622.
It is a myth that builders can absorb impact fees and other permitting costs, Sinagra said. In good times, builders can make a 10 percent profit. In a tough market like the current one, that margin evaporates.
“Builders have to pass permitting costs on to potential buyers,” he said.
The Selectboard was also worried about driving up housing costs. Board member Jeff Fehrs said during a meeting last year that he had “sticker shock” from the original proposal. The board directed the Planning Commission to reconsider.
The fee approved by the Selectboard on Nov. 17 includes provisions for affordable housing. Units designated as perpetually affordable are eligible for a 50 percent fee reduction.
Town officials say a large hike in the transportation impact fee was needed because it had not been increased in many years. The fee was enacted in 1987 and last changed in 1999.
Ken Belliveau, Williston’s planning director, said setting impact fees is a “balancing act.” If fees are too high, it makes new commercial and residential development unaffordable. If fees are too low, existing property owners must foot the bill for infrastructure needs created by newcomers.
Yandell also acknowledged a balance, adding that fee hikes are subject to the law of unintended consequences. In this case, that meant a too-steep levy may scare away potential developers and actually dry up revenue.
“It’s not Williston’s intention to make things any harder than they have to be for any of these developers,” he said.
Impact fee rundown
The town of Williston charges developers impact fees totaling more than $12,000 for each single-family home. The breakdown:
Transportation impact fee
$700 per peak-hour trip end. That equates to $707 for a single-family home and $546 for multi-family dwellings. Commercial development also pays the fee, which is calculated based on the amount of peak-hour traffic it generates.
School impact fee
$10,838 for single-family homes; $3,649 for multi-family units. The fee only applies to residential development.
Recreation impact fee
$840 for single-family homes; $667 for multi-family units. Again, the fee applies only to residential development.
Williston student creates hit snack business
Nov. 26, 2008
By Tim Simard
Simultaneously hot, crunchy and, above all, spicy with the punch of cayenne pepper, Alec’s Spicy Pretzels have quickly become the number one snack at Williston Central School and Champlain Valley Union High School.
Observer photo by Tim Simard
Alec Distler, a Williston Central School eighth grade student and owner of Alec’s Spicy Pretzels, holds up 3- and 9-ounce bags of his popular fiery snack. The pretzels have become a hit at Champlain Valley Union High School and around Williston.
Pretzel brainchild Alec Distler, Williston Central School eighth grader and entrepreneur extraordinaire, has been marketing and selling his popular snack for only a few months, but has already developed a devoted following at both schools.
And he’s big in town, as well. Distler has successfully sold the pretzels to local shops — the stores keep calling for more supplies as they repeatedly sell out. To paraphrase the old Lay’s potato chip adage, you apparently can’t eat just one.
Distler has even become a celebrity of sorts. While on a recent field trip with CVU students, he was quickly recognized as the “pretzel kid.”
“They kept saying, ‘We have a celebrity on the bus!’” Distler said. “One kid even wanted my autograph, which was a little interesting.”
Mike Adams, owner of Eddie’s Energy Bars in Richmond, is Distler’s advisor for the business. He sees a big future for Alec’s Spicy Pretzels.
“He’s got a solid foundation,” Adams said. “America is a snack culture and you can never have too many snack options.”
More than just a passing hobby, Distler means business with his spicy pretzels. So far, he said, he’s made $3,000. He’s quick to point out the money has gone into updating equipment, but he hopes to give himself a nice Christmas bonus next month. And he hopes to have an even bigger bonus if the company is successful enough to pay for his college tuition.
The genesis of Alec’s Spicy Pretzels came about last year during Al Fletcher’s social studies class in Full House at Williston Central School. As part of a study in economics, students were awarded Monopoly money for good grades and could cash in at the end of the year for prizes. Distler decided to sell small bags of the pretzels, made with an old family recipe, to classmates for their Monopoly money.
It worked. Distler had the most money in the class — more than $30,000 in Monopoly cash — and “bought” a camera.
It dawned on Distler and his family that there might be some real money in selling the fiery concoction to the public. The Distlers tried it out by setting up a booth at the Williston Farmer’s Market, selling 6- and 12-ounce bags of the pretzels. Again, the snack was a success.
“We actually sold out a couple times, which was pretty awesome,” Distler said.
Building upon the success of the farmer’s market, Distler approached CVU’s Food Service Director Leo LaForce to sell in the school’s cafeteria. The pair agreed to start by selling 50 3-ounce bags. Within days, LaForce called saying he’d sold out and wanted 100 more. After selling out again within a matter of days, LaForce asked for 100 bags twice a week.
“They like spicy here at CVU,” LaForce said. “When we run out, students are always looking for (the pretzels) and asking for them.”
Now, LaForce is getting 300 bags on Mondays and 300 bags on Wednesdays. The bags cost $1.25 for students, LaForce said.
Distler also sells his pretzels to businesses in Williston, including Clark’s Sunoco, Adams Apple Orchard & Farm Market and Natural Provisions. The bags are also on sale at the Shelburne Market and Shelburne Country Store, and at Lantman’s Best Yet in Hinesburg. The pretzels are sold in 3- and 9-ounce bags, with prices varying by location.
Distler’s newest customer is the University of Vermont. He said he just got a call from the college’s bookstore looking for another shipment after selling out in a matter of days.
Distler is incorporating his new business as part of his eighth grade challenge at Williston Central School. Along with passing an inspection with the Vermont Department of Health, he’s incorporated the business into an official LLC, built a Web site — www.alecsspicypretzels.com — and is donating 10 percent of his proceeds to the Chittenden Emergency Food Shelf. His hard work, he hopes, will leave him in good standing for his school project.
With his success locally, Distler is looking beyond eighth grade and into bigger markets.
“We’ve had some dreams, you could say,” Distler said.
He’d like to see his pretzels in more local stores, and thinks they would make a great snack for sports venues. Distler also has relatives who want to bring the spicy pretzels to Pennsylvania and New York City. A new packaging label, to be unveiled next month, should help to drive sales, he said.
Distler admits the business has become a full-time job, but credits has parents, Frank and Lynn, and siblings with helping him mix spices and break up pretzels into bite-size bits. But he’s committed to his spicy enterprise.
“They’re my favorite food,” Distler said with a smile.