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Williston is epicenter of commerce in Vt.

May 19, 2011

By Steven Frank
Observer staff

A.C. Moore, an arts and crafts retailer, had long lines at its grand opening in March. The Williston store is its first in Vermont. (File photo)

Tires have a hub.

Airlines have a hub.

Vermont businesses have a hub – Williston.

Over the last two decades, headlined by Wal-Mart’s arrival in early 1997, Williston has become a hotbed for business development. Companies have targeted the town when considering a location to expand or relocate.

“(Williston) is an attractive physical location, it’s the envy of other communities,” said Ken Horseman, economic development specialist for the Vermont Department of Economic Development, referring to the town’s position along Interstate 89, Vermont 2A, U.S. 2, and proximity to Burlington International Airport. “The Planning Department has also done a great job of laying the groundwork and being accommodating of this development.”

Green Mountain Coffee Roasters expanded its operation into Williston. (Observer photo by Steven Frank)

Williston Director of Planning Ken Belliveau reported that in conversations with longtime residents, attention on commercial development first increased with the opening of I-89 in the 1960s, and particularly heated up with a population spike in the 1980s.

“The town came to the realization that we have these two important highways that crisscross and here is this interchange – there will be a lot of growth pressure,” Belliveau said. “What happened was the town drew a line in the sand and said, ‘Here is the area where you can have commercial development.’ We’re very supportive of a strong business environment but also on preserving open space. If companies can work within our parameters, there is a lot you can do here.”

That philosophy led to what Williston is today, with commercial development, such as Taft Corners and Maple Tree Place, concentrated close to Williston’s two major roads and exit (12) off I-89. Williston’s residential and open space alter ego is located a few miles away in all directions with the village area situated along U.S. 2 to the east towards Richmond.

NBT Bank, based in Norwich, N.Y., opened its first Vermont branch in Burlington two years ago. It didn’t take long for the bank to focus on Williston for its second location, despite the town already housing a large number of banks and credit unions, including Citizen’s Bank, Northfield Savings Bank, and KeyBank.

NBT opened at the Taft Corners Shopping Center in January.

“The whole truth for NBT is that we looked at this location and quickly realized that it didn’t need another bank,” said NBT Bank Williston branch manager Jean Lynch, “but Williston is the hub of community banking and we wanted to be a part of it. It’s the fastest growing market. This is the place everyone drives into.”

Green Mountain Coffee Roasters’ trucks drive in – and out – of Williston, too. The Waterbury-based coffee company expanded into E-Commerce Park off Marshall Avenue in 2009. Ken Jensen, GMCR’s Vermont Operations Distribution Manager, said the approximately 200,000-square foot facility is primarily used for the inventory storage of raw materials and e-commerce – orders via GMCR’s website go through Williston.

In addition to the size of the building, Jensen said the Williston site is convenient because it’s located between the company’s manufacturing facilities in Waterbury and Essex.

“It’s also a good market for labor,” Jensen added.

Depending on the season, Jensen said the 24-hour a day, seven day a week, Williston facility employs between 110 to 130 people.

“It’s been working out well,” Jensen said.

The retail market is also expanding. A.C. Moore, an arts and crafts retailer based in Berlin, N.J., opened its first Vermont store in Williston in March. The 27,500-square foot store – formerly occupied by Circuit City – is one of the chain’s largest.

“It’s been a great town and we’re happy with the results so far,” said Susan Stoga, A.C. Moore spokesperson. “The Burlington-Williston area has a great heritage in the arts. We feel we can provide the resources for pros and those getting started.”

Old Navy, a subsidiary of Gap Inc., relocated from the Church Street Marketplace in Burlington to part of the space once occupied by Linens ‘n Things in Maple Tree Place in March. Calls to Old Navy’s corporate office were not returned by press deadline but according to an Observer article written last November, part of the reason the retailer decided to leave Burlington was to have a smaller location.

Target, a popular retailer based in Minneapolis, Minn., operates 1,755 stores in 49 states. Vermont is the lone state without a Target, with the closest one located across Lake Champlain in Plattsburgh, N.Y. That begs the question – will Target come to Vermont and, if so, will it be in Williston?

“It’s my understanding that (Target) wants exposure, near an interstate, and access to automobiles. To me, that narrows it down to Shelburne, South Burlington, Williston, and Colchester,” said Belliveau, who hasn’t spoken to any representatives from Target about coming to Williston. “If Target is willing to meet our development standards, we’d welcome them. If not, they are free to go elsewhere … life will go on.”

He noted that there haven’t been any new commercial development buildings since Moe’s Southwest Grill opened in 2009.

CVS/pharmacy, however, has been approved by the Williston Development Review Board to build in Taft Corners. That project is contingent, however, on another one by Taft Corners Associates to build 30,000 square feet of retail space near Ponderosa Steakhouse, according to Belliveau. If the project’s current obstacles — better access for motorists and pedestrians — are met, Belliveau said he hopes groundbreaking can occur this fall and completed by spring 2012.

“Williston has a lot for businesses to leverage,” Horseman said. “Williston has a great future.”

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