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Rutland Revival 

With its newly restored Paramount Theater, Vermont’s second city makes a play for prosperity

Any place with a name like Rutland is bound to have some image problems. And, sure enough, Vermont's second city continues to be the butt of obvious jokes. It might just turn out, however, that the beleaguered burg will have the last laugh.

This conservative, mainly working-class city has come far in the past decade — not all the way back to the preeminence it enjoyed a century ago as a manufacturing, railroad and marble quarrying center, but far enough, perhaps, to impress Queen City sophisticates willing to leave their preconceptions behind as they motor 90 minutes south.

Visitors from Chittenden County should refrain from making a U-turn once the aesthetic blight of Rutland's Route 7 strip comes into view. Downtown lies just to the west of that Shelburne Road look-alike. But before turning off, carefully scan the east side of Route 7 for the small sign marking the Chaffee Art Center.

Housed in a century-old Queen Anne mansion, this gracious gallery with a homey atmosphere puts up 10 exhibits a year, each featuring work by some of its 200 member-artists. Rutland-area children and adults also value the Chaffee for the 50 art classes it offers. Impressively, the facility has operated continuously since 1961.

“Our 39-year presence testifies to the fact that many people around here are passionate about the arts,” says Chaffee director Nick Raeburn. While acknowledging that the center’s location amidst gas stations and fast-food drive-throughs “may not be ideal,” Raeburn thinks the mix of art and commerce suits Rutland well. “I really enjoy directing an arts center in a blue-collar town,” he says.

If the visual arts helped sustain the city through past periods of economic despondency, Rutland's boosters are hoping the performing arts will accelerate the recovery of recent years. The newly reopened Paramount Theater is more than just a potential catalyst that could power downtown into a new era of style, culture and prosperity. Dark and forlorn for nearly 20 years, the lovingly restored old vaudeville house shines today as a symbol of Rutland's rebirth.

Reduced to presenting pornographic films before being shut down, the 85-year-old theater has staged a sensational comeback. The exterior is nothing special, lacking even a marquee. But inside, the reproduction pink fabric wall covering, wood-frame seats and gold filigree make the Paramount more intimate and elegant even than Burlington's Flynn Theatre.

This was no miraculous resurrection, however. It took two full decades to bring the theater back to life. Sen. James Jeffords, a native son, persuaded the federal government to kick in about one third of the $3.5 million cost of renovating the Paramount. The remainder was raised through a combination of state and city grants, along with a few big donations from anonymous benefactors and hundreds of smaller gifts from city and county residents.

“It's awesome that the Paramount's open again,” says Jen Stanley, a clerk at the Sunshine Natural Market a few doors down the street. “It'll be great having shows to go to there, but just as important is that the community came together to make it happen.”

But does the community include enough theatergoers to keep the Paramount going? The initial indicators are encouraging. The first two big shows — Arlo Guthrie with the Vermont Symphony Orchestra, and a Broadway musical revue — sold out the 850-seat hall.

Director Don Hirsch has big ambitions — hoping, for example, to arrange a reading by author Toni Morrison this fall. Hirsch is realistic enough to realize, however, that the theater won't be attracting stars of the same magnitude as Will Rogers, Ethel Barrymore and Harry Houdini — all of whom played the Paramount when it was at full sparkle.

Nor will the Paramount attempt to compete with the Flynn, which can draw from a metropolitan population at least three times larger than Rutland's. Hirsch is booking mainly smaller-time acts, while making the theater available for conferences and annual meetings. This summer's lineup includes John Chappell, a Mark Twain impersonator; the Sammy Kaye swing orchestra; the Green Mountain Men's Chorus; the Marble Valley Players' staging of Kilroy Was Here; and those old folkies, The Kingston Trio.

No matter how many patrons the Paramount may attract, the Queen City to the north won't have to worry about Rutland turning into a rival Princess City. “I wish we had more events and festivals and a lively street life like Burlington does,” says longtime Rutland resident Lori Meshi. Pausing as she prepares a tented site in downtown Depot Park for Jeffords' re-election campaign kickoff, Meshi muses, “It'd also be nice if we could just walk on the shopping streets without having to deal with cars.”

Lacking a pedestrian plaza such as the Church Street Marketplace, Rutland's downtown isn't nearly as lively or chic as Burlington's. There's also no lake to look out on, nor is Rutland's hill district home to a large university. The less-than-picturesque setting and the absence of an academic industry and its attendant student scene makes Rutland resemble any number of small American cities.

While it may not be a teenage wasteland, “Rutland's not the most happening town” for young people, says Sunshine clerk Stanley. There's no Higher Ground here, and the local youth center “doesn't do much,” observes Greg Jones, skateboarding specialist at the Sound Barrier on Center Street. Somehow, though, that outlet for punk and slacker gear has managed to survive for 15 years, partly through the proximity of Zero Gravity, an indoor skate park — an amenity Burlington lacks.

“Kids from the nearby neighborhoods are regulars here,” Jones says. “Plus, the cops don't hassle skaters downtown as much as they do in Burlington.”

Watch the traffic, though, because Rutland now eagerly kowtows to cars. As unmissable evidence of its automotive orientation, there's a 19-acre parking lot smack in the city center and opposite the handsome architectural suite of Merchants Row.

As part of a 1960s urban renewal initiative, a suburban-style shopping center called The Plaza was built on the site of the Rutland Railroad yards, which had fallen into disuse as rubber wheels supplanted steel. The underlying theory — compete with the 'burbs by bringing their conveniences into the core — may have made sense at the time. But if ever a city's heart looks hollowed-out, it's Rutland's.

Ugliness is in the eye of the beholder, however. The sight of hundreds of cars filling the shopping center's lot is positively heartwarming to local boosters. “Downtown is first and foremost a commercial center,” says Matthew Sternberg, director of the Rutland Redevelopment Authority.

By the late '80s, longtime Rutlanders recall, The Plaza had become a moribund mall, mirroring the bedraggled downtown. It was then that a group of civic saviors began devising the revitalization plan that would eventually restore the shopping center, and much else besides.

Consideration was given at that time to putting The Plaza's parking lot out of sight in the back of the stores. But the buildings were already in place and prospective retailers weren't keen on that alternative. “Customers need to see that there's plenty of parking available,” Sternberg maintains. “There's also safety and security problems with having a store's exits both in front and in back.” Besides, he adds, “a lot of thought and expense went into designing the facade of The Plaza to give it a historic look.”

Rutland's downtown formula has clearly been a success. Some 50,000 people a week — many from outside the city — come to shop at the chain stores. Wal-mart's pioneering center-city big box attracts a sizable share, but it's the Price Chopper supermarket that brought the mall back to life, notes Jeffrey Wennberg, Rutland's mayor during the makeover. At the time of its opening, the $6 million market was Vermont's biggest. It's still one of the largest, and continues to register 40 percent of all supermarket sales within a 10-mile radius.

A nine-screen movieplex in The Plaza ensures that downtown Rutland isn't entirely empty after dark. There's enough of a nighttime trade to support a few upscale restaurants, including Tapas on Merchants Row, the Wine Room bistro adjoining the Coffee Exchange and the Rutland branch of Sweet Tomatoes.

A couple of others also managed to find a sustaining clientele, even before the reopening of the Paramount a few months ago. Having a loyal customer base is vital, says Tapas owner Patty Sabotka, because “the Paramount isn't going to make as much of a difference as many people think it will.” Only about 25 percent of an 850-strong full house will dine out on show nights, and not all of them will do it downtown, Sabotka estimates. “I don't think we'll see more than a 3 to 5 percent boost in business overall. But,” she quickly adds, “that's a lot better than nothing.”

As Sabotka's hang-in-there attitude suggests, Rutland is nothing if not tenacious — and nothing ever comes easy for Rutland. It's a community comprised mostly of Reagan Democrats clinging to an industrial-era economy but refusing to be left behind, even as Burlington has come to dominate and define urban Vermont.

“Rutland is always going to be challenged,” says Dick Courcelle, former head of the Downtown Partnership. “People here have to look to the future with optimism, but there's danger in thinking Rutland is going to become another Burlington or develop into an economic dynamo. We're not going to have large, high-tech firms locating here.”

Indeed, no sizable employer of any sort has moved into the area in the past decade, notes former mayor Wennberg. He attributes the stagnation mainly to poor highway access, a source of resentment in Rutland ever since planners decided to build the interstate highway along a White River Junction-Burlington axis rather than up the western side of the state. The price of the electricity provided by Central Vermont Public Service acts as another heavy drag on the local economy, adds Wennberg, now manager of the county solid waste district.

“The principal factors impeding Rutland's growth are that you can't easily get in and out of the place, and that CVPS charges some of the highest rates in the U.S.,” Wennberg says.

But the boom reverberating throughout the country has muffled most of the muttering about Rutland's precarious economy. General Electric Aircraft Engines, the area's largest manufacturer, has so many orders these days that it's looking for temps. Some other big employers are doing well, too, but the city is nevertheless battling a budget crisis that Wennberg, a six-term Republican mayor, describes as “a perennial thing.”

Rutland voters refused in March to add a dime to an 85-cent property tax rate that hasn't risen in many years. As a result, current Mayor John Cassarino was forced to offer early-retirement incentives to veteran municipal employees. Ten of them, including five in the fire department, took the bait. Cassarino, former director of a local soup kitchen, insists that city services won't suffer significantly.

The unsuccessful tax increase proposal was intended to help compensate for a $21 million fall-off in the city's grand list. Most of that sum resulted from the closing three years ago of the Tambrands tampon factory that employed 260 people.

Reminders of Rutland's vulnerability appear with disturbing regularity. Last month, for example, the Chittenden Bank suddenly closed its branch at the intersection of Center Street and Merchants Row. How long will this sizable space remain vacant? In Burlington, a strategically situated storefront clad in polished green marble would be rented almost overnight. In Rutland, it will probably take a bit longer.

While its initiators and current overseers are quick to describe Rutland's downtown revitalization effort as an unqualified success, neutral observers might express a few reservations. The Marble Valley Regional Transportation Center, for instance, can be fairly termed a complete fiasco.

This 600-space parking garage was planned on the premise that CVPS would build a corporate headquarters nearby. That never happened. As a result, the $17 million facility remains woefully underused six months after its opening.

Another attempt to compensate for Rutland's transportation inadequacies — a downtown Amtrak station — has proven far more successful. Unlike Burlington, Rutland enjoys fairly expeditious daily rail service to New York and points south.

Rutland's proximity to two of Vermont's biggest ski areas represents a further competitive advantage. Only now, however, are city leaders turning their attention to ways of linking downtown with Pico and Killington.

“We made a conscious decision in the early '90s not to do that immediately,” redevelopment chief Sternberg explains. “The thought was that downtown should first be designed to suit the needs of the resident market. Focusing on that would also make us less subject to the fluctuations of the tourism industry.”

As the ski resorts' constituency ages, however, more vacationers are showing interest in alternate destinations after a few days on the slopes, Sternberg says. “It's our task to attract them downtown when they want a break from skiing.”

The scenario of gray-haired snow bunnies browsing Center Street boutiques remains over the horizon, however. Today, and for the next few years, Rutland will have to rely on resources already available to it: “The city is doing quite well these days ... considering,” Mayor Cassarino says. “We're seeing good things happening downtown, though I realize a lot of it is fragile.”

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About The Author

Kevin J. Kelley

Kevin J. Kelley

Kevin J. Kelley is a contributing writer for Seven Days, Vermont Business Magazine and the daily Nation of Kenya.


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