For years, residents of Montpelier have complained about empty storefronts lining the city’s most prominent downtown streets, fingering one landlord in particular for the numerous vacancies: Jeff Jacobs.
Many cited Jacobs’ high rents and complex leases for holding back capital-city commerce. Last January, some artists protested by papering over the windows of empty storefronts with drawings of lively café scenes — visualizing, ostensibly, what could be there instead.
“People were always puzzled that he hadn’t chosen to rent them,” says Montpelier Mayor John Hollar, who noted that demand wasn’t the issue. “It has been a vexing problem.”
But in the last few months, at least seven new businesses have signed leases to rent Jacobs properties. Between now and the holidays, downtown will welcome a new sushi bar, fitness studio, chocolate shop and art gallery. To Hollar, the development is a huge relief.
“There was never consensus as to how to approach this,” the mayor says, “so for me it’s wonderful that the problem solved itself by the landowner letting the market work.”
So what happened?
By all accounts, credit goes to Jesse Jacobs, the 28-year-old son and business partner of Jeff Jacobs at the family’s real estate company, Montpelier Property Management. Rather than lowering rents by a significant amount, Jesse Jacobs lured new business with flexible leases, interest-free loans and help securing building permits.
Amy Leventhal will soon move her fitness business, Studio Zenith, into the Jacobs-owned property at 50 Main Street. Across from Montpelier city hall, the prominent space had been vacant for three years. Leventhal initially worried it wouldn’t work for her, but to address her concerns, Jacobs rewrote the lease agreement four times in five months and divided the vacant 2400-square-foot space in half.
The clincher was Jesse Jacobs’ offer of an interest-free loan to help Leventhal build the studio. She used the money to create what she describes as a “stunningly beautiful” fitness studio with bamboo flooring, sandblasted brick walls, a shower and changing room, and all the strength-training equipment she needs for her signature “intense” fitness classes.
“Jesse Jacobs scooped me up, and he has been the most pleasant person to work with,” says Leventhal, who has five years to pay back the loan. Without that, she says, “I never would have been able to do it. He’s really taking a step out on the line for me.”
Like others in the community, though, Leventhal was initially put off by the Jacobs name. “I got afraid of his reputation probably six months ago. I told Jesse, ‘I’m not comfortable with your dad’s reputation.’ And he says, ‘That’s not fair. You don’t know me, and you don’t know us.’”
Jesse Jacobs, who runs the business day to day from a second-floor office at 70 Main Street, is well aware of the negative reactions his family’s name engenders. Jeff Jacobs is the landlord who years ago tried to put a McDonald’s — and a three-story fryer vent — in a historic downtown building. He forced Capitol Grounds to move from its longtime location to a less-than-ideal one by raising the rent $500 for a basement the coffee shop couldn’t use. More recently, some in Montpelier blamed Jeff Jacobs for the demise of Langdon Street Café, a popular meeting spot for artists and musicians housed in a building he owned.
But Jesse Jacobs asserts that, like everyone else, members of his family were adversely affected by the economic downturn that paralyzed new business and discouraged banks from lending money. “A lot of spaces went vacant at the same time the economy fell apart. So all of a sudden, we had a lot of spaces,” he recalls. “In the last five years, the environment has been stagnant in downtown Montpelier. It’s partly a result of tough lending practices.”
Jacobs says he hasn’t lowered rents but was able to attract new tenants by offering “incentive packages.”
For the owners of Asiana House, a sushi restaurant that will open in November in the former Chittenden Bank building, Jacobs offered to help customize the space that has been vacant for six years. “Banks being so tough in terms of lending, we figured it would be really difficult to get the money together to build out the front of the house and kitchen,” he says.
None of the Jacobs’ new tenants would discuss the terms of their leases, and many were reluctant to say much about their experiences with the landlords. Jane Delia, who with her husband, Wally, is opening a chocolate shop called the Cocoa Bean at 40 State Street, called Jesse Jacobs “overwhelmingly positive and very helpful.” Theo Kennedy, who plans to open a gelato shop, Chill, next door in late September, says the landlord has been “very supportive.”
Last winter, Goddard College president Barbara Vacarr met with the Jacobs family while she was in Florida — Jeff Jacobs and his wife, Jody, spend a portion of each year there — to brainstorm ways to reintegrate the college with the city as Goddard celebrates its 150th anniversary.
The elder Jacobs is a Goddard alum, notes Vacarr. “He clearly has respect for Goddard, and for downtown.” The result: a Goddard-curated art gallery at 54 Main Street. A forthcoming exhibition of photographs there will illustrate the college’s anniversary.
Also coming soon to Jacobs-owned properties: a shared workspace called Local 64 that will expand into bigger digs at 5 State Street.
Sarah Jarvis, a former Montpelier city councilor and board member of Montpelier Alive, believes some in the community have lost sight of how much the Jacobs family has contributed to Montpelier over the last 35 years, from saving historic buildings to creating rental units.
“People like to have a scapegoat; he was put in that role,” she says of Jeff Jacobs. “Whether or not it’s an earned reputation, he’s been trying to swim upstream in terms of how people have treated his family.”
With the new businesses coming online, she remarks, “It feels like a brand-new day in Montpelier, honestly.”
If there has been a shift, Jesse Jacobs attributes it to “more of a shift in people’s perceptions than a shift in goals for us and our family.
“The vitality of Montpelier is entirely integral to our success,” he says, “and we work very hard to make it as successful as possible.”