By Tom Kearney/VTDigger
Ibjar Meneses wasn’t expecting to open a brick-and-mortar business downtown during the pandemic.
He started selling tamales out of a local church where he volunteers, and when locals started asking if he also made tacos or enchiladas, he knew he was onto something.
In downtown Rutland, which has long been working to fill a number of vacant storefronts, six businesses closed during Covid-19. Some closed because of the financial constraints that came with the time, and others were already on their way out, local business leaders say.
Those leaders are also feeling optimistic: Nine businesses have opened in downtown Rutland, or relocated there since the pandemic began, and no businesses have closed so far in 2021.
“It’s pretty safe to say that the community remained very strong considering the circumstances of the pandemic,” said Nikki Hindman, executive director of the Downtown Rutland Partnership.
In June, Meneses plans to open a full-fledged restaurant, called Delicious Tamales, serving authentic Mexican food from a storefront on the southern edge of downtown,, formerly home to a beloved hot dog stand.
Meneses, 32, is originally from Mexico. He said he’s excited to bring something new to Rutland.
“I hear all the time from people that I know, ‘I wish we had good Mexican around here’,” he said. “Now, you’re going to be able to have good Mexican.”
At first, he said, he wasn’t really serious about opening a restaurant, but he was so encouraged by customers and friends that he decided to take the leap. He was recently awarded a $5,000 grant from the Rutland Redevelopment Authority, approved by the Rutland Board of Aldermen.
“Everyone just kept saying, ‘yes’,’” he said. “Right now I’m at this moment where my inspection is next week, so things are moving along. I never imagined that happening.”
Several pubs, a skin care shop, a doughnut shop, a clothing store and an electronics repair shop have all either opened or relocated to the downtown area.
Lyle Jepson, executive director of the Chamber and Economic Development of the Rutland Region (CEDRR), said he thinks the move toward a post-Covid economy has brought “a feeling of hope and excitement with a healthy mix of caution.”
He’s seeing signs of a comeback but said the circumstances are unprecedented, and no one holds blueprints.
“We have no memory of how to get over, get through and then rebuild from this,” he said.
There’s interest in doing business in the city. He’s been referring more and more people to the Chamber’s small business development adviser.
“Particularly, we get questions about storefronts,” Jepson said. “In large part, it’s coming from the food industry, including the new pandemic food truck craze. There seems to be a lot of interest in that.”
About three minutes down the road from the new location of Delicious Tamales, Jacob Vincent has opened his new storefront. Digital Repair Surgeons opened in September but moved into a new shop on Merchant’s Row in downtown Rutland earlier this month.
He said he’s taking on new clients every day.
“I just didn’t foresee that we would grow so quickly,” he said. “Within six months, we had to move here.”
Vincent, who advocates cutting down on toxic waste by fixing personal electronics instead of buying new ones, said he can do a simple phone repair in an hour.
The location is ideal, he said. He’s always wanted to be downtown.
“People come over here to get their phone fixed, and we send them over to The Bakery to get a coffee while they wait or The Sandwich Shoppe to eat lunch,” he said. “It’s nice. It’s a nice sense of community.”
The business is growing, and he needs another technician. He’s posted the job, which pays $25 an hour, on multiple online job listing sites, as well as with the Downtown Partnership and the Rutland Chamber. So far, he hasn’t had luck finding anyone.
“I tried to hire other technicians and people that do what I do, and there’s no one,” he said. “Even for a good wage — $20 to $25 an hour. Nobody wants to do it.”
Hindman, who has been meeting monthly with other downtown organizations around the state during the pandemic, said Rutland isn’t the only city facing a staffing shortage.
“Unfortunately, it’s kind of a Catch-22,” she said. “Businesses can’t be open without the staff, and staff can’t survive without the hours, which may have been cut due to operating costs during the pandemic.”
An already-declining population exacerbated the effects of the pandemic, Jepson said, both in the state and the county. He said a website for the Real Rutland marketing initiative, which encourages people to move to the Rutland area, hosts an overflowing jobs section.
“These are livable wage jobs with benefits — more than 160 jobs on there,” he said. “But that’s not all the jobs because Rutland Regional Medical Center, in any one day, has 120 people they could hire.”
Signs of expansion in the area have given Jepson the feeling that the economy is trending upward.
General Electric is hiring again, which gives him “an indication that there is airline and or military air jet engine work that needs to begin again and continue.”
Ann Clark Cookie Cutters in Rutland has expanded into a larger manufacturing space.
“We’re seeing manufacturers, both small and large, that are in need of more space,” Jepson said. “That is a clear indicator that the economy is growing.”
Center Street, in the heart of downtown Rutland, is set to receive another facelift this summer. Wooden parklets surrounded by planters will once again serve as extended outdoor seating areas for restaurants, occupying parking spaces on the street. Pedestrians will be directed toward colorful painted crosswalks.
“People get antsy already with winter being over,” Hindman said, “and I think they’re going to be extra excited now that the pandemic is kind of coming to an end, to get back into those restaurants.”