By Steve Costello
As regular readers may recall, I am a lover of fables, stories that for generations have carried a message. With the recent news about the purchase of two key downtown buildings by MKF Properties and plans in the work for a variety of projects downtown, I am reminded of one of Aesop’s lesser-known fables, “The Bat and the Weasels.”
The coverage about MKF’s purchase of 72 Merchants Row and 77 Grove from out-of-state owners sparked a lot of positivity, signaling good things to come. While many are thrilled about the Grove Street purchase, returning the Merchants Row property to capable, long-view owners is equally exciting.
These purchases, the opening of the new popup art gallery, Space, the growth of Castleton University housing, the impending opening of The Vermont Butcher Shop a few blocks south of downtown, the Strongs Avenue revitalization project, work on the Center Street Marketplace, and new sculptures planned for installation downtown starting later this year, herald a positive trend.
Plans yet to be formally announced for a new juice bar, a new sandwich spot, and possibly a new restaurant, and improvements at several other locations, heighten the sense of optimism. Yet, some continue to play an old, negative message and criticize downtown without having set foot in it in months; some seem ready to write its obituary.
Like all downtowns, Rutland’s has gone through ebbs and flows. In my grandfather’s time and up through the 60s, downtown stores carried everything from shoes and clothing to hardware, tools, cigars and medicines — just about everything one might need to purchase. Sears and Roebuck and other catalog companies provided competition, but downtown offered personal attention and immediacy.
Back in the day there were multiple theaters, of the live and film variety — The Playhouse, which became the Paramount; the Opera House; The Strand, which now houses the Rutland Area Food Coop; and the Grand, which today houses a Japanese restaurant, among other things. As tastes and technology changed, so did the downtown.
By the 70s, the first big wave of mall development began to hit downtowns nationwide, and though Rutland’s downtown remained the center of commerce, it faced a variety of woes. Fire destroyed the Berwick Hotel. Multiplex theaters signaled the decline of historic theaters. More recently, the internet offered one-day delivery of virtually anything.
Today, Downtown Rutland is an evolving center with greater focus on dining, entertainment, the arts, and education — yet it retains a strong core of specialty retailers, high-quality clothing and jewelry, and central office suites and professional services. With more people buying everything from toilet paper to hardware online, local businesses and building owners have had to adapt. And Downtown itself has had to react to changing visitor and resident expectations.
Which brings us to “The Bat and the Weasels.”
As the story goes, a bat landed accidentally in a weasel’s nest, where the weasel prepared to pounce. The bat pleaded for his life, but the weasel, saying that he was by nature the enemy of birds, moved forward. The bat assured the weasel that he was not a bird, but a mouse, and was set free.
A little later, the bat was caught by another weasel, and the bat again begged for his life. This weasel had a special hostility toward mice, but the bat assured him that he was not a mouse, but a bat, and his life was spared again.
The moral: It is wise to turn one’s circumstances to one’s best account. Downtown Rutland is doing it now, and has done it for generations. Despite its challenges, like the bat, Downtown will continue to adjust to its situation and ensure that it lives on.
Steve Costello is a Green Mountain Power vice president who lives in Rutland Town.