With a chance to brainstorm ideas and jump start business activity in Shelburne, a couple dozen people sipped wine and swapped ideas Monday night at Shelburne Vineyard. By Tuesday, their discussion had the attention of the Shelburne Selectboard.
Selectboard Chair Jerry Storey and member Mary Kehoe attended the gathering at the vineyard Monday hosted by the Shelburne Business and Professional Association. The group included local entrepreneurs and business owners involved in retail, arts, maple sugaring, spirits and more, along with representatives of larger enterprises such as Vermont Teddy Bear, People’s Bank and Shelburne Farms.
Wendy Knight, commissioner of the state Department of Tourism and Marketing, attended alongside state Rep. Jessica Brumsted, D-Shelburne, town manager Lee Krohn and town planning and zoning director Dean Pierce, who jotted down notes.
Association president Tod Whitaker explained that the Shelburne business group originally formed to launch the Shelburne Farmers Market.
“But we’re much more now,” he said. “We want to help get businesses established and jump through the hoops.”
Everyone had ideas. Better parking in the village was a popular suggestion. Others discussed public transportation for people to move about the Route 7 corridor between Vermont Teddy Bear to the south, into the village and further north, as well as to other destinations in town.
Kehoe chimed in with an observation that took the conversation in another direction.
“We’re missing an opportunity in Shelburne for recreation,” she said, suggesting kayak and paddleboard rentals could be popular.
Talk then shifted to hiking trails needing better signage and the possibility for a visitor center along Shelburne Road.
Chris Robinson, Shelburne’s water quality superintendent, noted that Vergennes has community docks for visitors to arrive by water. Shelburne Country Store owner Steve Mayfield said he’s had Canadian customers arrive by boat in Shelburne Bay, transfer to kayaks to paddle up the LaPlatte, and then shop in the village on foot before making their way back.
Storey related that anecdote at Tuesday’s selectboard meeting.
“That visitor is doing far more than we could honestly expect any visitor to have to do,” he said.
Commissioner Knight said tourism is a $2.8 billion sector of Vermont’s economy. Shelburne already attracts tourists with destinations such as Shelburne Museum, Shelburne Farms, Vermont Teddy Bear factory and smaller local retailers, food and beverage outlets.
Knight mentioned a few opportunities for municipal grants that could help launch new initiatives aimed at recreation, business and tourism. She also noted that Shelburne could take better advantage of the state’s marketing resources that could go beyond local brochures or word-of-mouth referrals.
Kehoe noted that presently, housing development is slow so growing the tax base is important. She pointed to plans by Healthy Living market to build a Shelburne store along Route 7 as one example. Still, many commercial properties sit vacant along that corridor, she added.
When the conversation turned to permitting, the words “scary” and “confusing” popped up. Pierce offered a simplified description of the town’s “form-based” or “character” zoning philosophy that he said aims to emphasize size and shape of structures on sites, not what’s inside. It still makes for a complex process that Pierce said “hasn’t taken off.”
The lively conversation inspired Storey, who brought up economic development at Tuesday’s selectboard meeting.
“Should the town as a matter of policy take action?” he asked. “We need to move this discussion forward.”
Storey suggested that town officials consider three steps: promoting “sustainable visitation,” conducting a review of local regulations as they pertain to new and growing businesses, and exploring possible tax incentives to start and grow businesses.
“What does it take for a person who wishes to open up an addition X to a business Y in Shelburne? And should it take that long and be that complicated and expensive? What’s our answer?” Storey posed. “We don’t know. We’ve never discussed it.”
Storey posed several models for involving the community, including a committee, tapping into local groups and volunteers, surveying, roundtable discussions or even engaging a consultant. Town manager Krohn was tasked to review the suggestions and make a recommendation at an upcoming meeting.