Franklin County Economic Report: Opportunity and bustling tourism meets workforce and housing issues

Photo by Joy Choquette: Downtown St Albans.

by Joy Choquette, Vermont Business Magazine Franklin County is a diverse mix of industries, businesses and socioeconomic experiences. While farming continues to be a prominent industry in the county, many other businesses are also present.

Resting against the border of Canada, Franklin County comprises the towns of Bakersfield, Berkshire, Enosburg, Fairfax, Fairfield, Fletcher, Franklin, Georgia, Highgate, Montgomery, Richford, St Albans, Sheldon and Swanton.

According to 2020 US Census figures, the county has a population of 50,325 and a median household income of slightly more than $65,000 — both slight increases over 2017 numbers. Employers, both businesses and nonprofits, total 1,018, and the average time spent traveling to work each day is just over 25 minutes.

As the pandemic winds down, many residents are watching closely for signs of economic recovery and contemplating what lessons have been learned during the crisis.

Lisamarie Charlesworth, manager of the Franklin County Regional Chamber of Commerce, said she is encouraged by what she has seen in recent months.

“All indications are that the downtown corridor is thriving,” she said. “Foot traffic and visitors are robust; retail shops are reporting strong sales, despite a sagging economy nationwide; and restaurants appear busy.”

Ashley Cleare, owner of Rail City Market at Main and Lake streets in St Albans, credits the tourist traffic for much of the recent uptick.

Rail City Market owner Ashley Cleare. Photo by Joy Choquette.

“Something I didn’t realize before owning Rail City Market was how many tourists come to St Albans,” she said. “They’ve helped give the store the extra sales a small business in this area needs to keep going.”

The support of locals has also proved indispensable, Cleare is quick to add.

“There has been a push to support local food producers and retailers,” she said, even as stores continue to struggle getting supplies delivered. Customers, she added, have been noticeably patient during this stressful time for the business community.

“We’ve learned that it’s just not possible to get what we need the second we need it anymore,” she said.

Like Cleare, Charlesworth has noted an uptick in tourism during the summer months — with rail increasingly becoming a popular transportation option.

“I’ve been receiving more calls from people who are taking the train into Vermont and exploring this way as an alternative to driving and spending money on gas,” she noted.

The opening of the new community pool at Hard’Ack Recreation Area off Congress Street and regular events in the downtown areas and St Albans Bay have been magnets for visitors and locals alike, Charlesworth added.

Photo: Hard’Ack Ski Hill looking down at the new pool. Photo by Katie Kittell.

Elsewhere in the county, towns such as Richford and Enosburg are bustling with redevelopment and experiencing an uptick in new businesses and industry,” Charlesworth said.

“It’s nice to see that the entire county has caught the ‘refresh’ bug,” she said.

In Richford, new Town Administrator Michael Olio said one of his priorities is creating a safer, more walkable downtown area. He’s also working with Efficiency Vermont to make some of the town’s key buildings, such as the library and fire station, more environmentally friendly. This will positively impact not only the planet but also Richford’s bottom line.

Enosburg, meanwhile, recently saw the opening of a tractor supply store near the existing Hannaford, with more new businesses and store expansions planned around town to serve new and existing customers.

Construction site of Tractor Supply Store in Enosburg Falls. Photo by Katie Kittell.

Impact of COVID-19

As throughout the state, Franklin County businesses struggled through the early onslaught of changes that the pandemic required. Now, in what is hoped to be the tail end of COVID-19, business owners and city leaders are reflecting on the impact on the county.

“The COVID housing market and the recreational opportunities of our region have steadily brought in a stream of new residents, visitors and tourists,” said Chip Sawyer, director of planning and development for the city of St Albans. “There are great jobs available and open commercial spaces that have yet to be scooped up for new ventures and businesses.”

Several underutilized housing units are being renovated throughout the city, and 150 new housing units have been permitted over the next three years, Sawyer said.

As Charlesworth noted, the new community pool — open year-round — has attracted hundreds of visitors to St Albans. Likewise, the completion of the Lamoille Valley Rail Trail, which connects to the Missisquoi Valley Rail Trail in Sheldon, is expected to bring more recreational tourism to the area, Sawyer said.

Doing business at Rail City Market has changed significantly during the pandemic.

“Pre-pandemic, the store had no website,” owner Cleare noted. “I placed all orders by walking around the store with a clipboard, making notes of what products were needed. Potential customers were calling the store to find out what kinds of items we carried because this information wasn’t available online and ordering was close to impossible.

“The pandemic forced me to adapt quickly,” she added, “but now that I’ve been through that experience it is clear that changes needed to be made in the way we do business.”

So, she launched a professional website and introduced a new point-of-sale system.

“Things are more organized, and I feel we’re better equipped to handle challenges that may come our way now,” Cleare said.

Not surprisingly, a few challenges brought on by the pandemic proved insurmountable. The worst of those resulted in the permanent closing of some businesses. Of those that survived, many changed hours, offered new services or streamlined existing ones to remain open.

Staffing shortages continue to be problematic too. In fact, Sawyer calls this the biggest barrier to economic growth in the area right now. If prospective business owners had an easier time finding employees, he said, more of the city’s vacant downtown storefronts would be occupied.

“Large employers are also feeling the crunch and likely holding back on growth,” Sawyer added.

Challenges exist outside of downtown St Albans as well, as evidenced by the record number of vacant stores in the Highgate Shopping Plaza. Officials also cite a tight housing market that continues to make it difficult to find affordable places to buy or rent.

Reason for Hope

Despite current challenges though, there are many good reasons to seek out a business location in Franklin County. Cleare stated that the area has real potential and is a great place to own a business.

“The community here is unique and supportive,” she said. In St Albans, Charlesworth said that several new businesses will be opening: Hangry the Donut Bar and Off the Rails are just two of these.

“I’m also eager to see what develops from new business initiatives currently in progress in Alburgh, Richford and Enosburg,” said Charlesworth.

Additionally, area resources are in place for new business owners or those looking to move their businesses to the county.

The Franklin County Regional Chamber of Commerce, Enosburg Business Association, Swanton Chamber of Commerce, Franklin County Industrial Development Corporation, and other groups and organizations are ready and willing to help business owners in any way possible, she said.

Further education is also available.

“Organizations and institutions like the Community College of Vermont, Northwest Career and Technical Center, HireAbility Vermont and Vermont Adult Learning have leaned heavily into providing training, courses and certificate programs to broaden the workforce here, for both young people and adults,” said Charlesworth . “There are a variety of educational offerings available for anyone looking to augment a career or learn a new skill.”

As business owners in Franklin County look to the future and the challenges it holds, they’re likely to draw on that continued grit and perseverance that Vermonters are known for, the business leaders agreed. Thankfully, business resources, a robust and supportive community, and further opportunities for education are all available in this northwestern corner of the state.

Joy Choquette is a freelance writer from Franklin County.

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