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Published February 1, 2023 at 10:00 a.m. | Updated February 8, 2023 at 10:14 a.m.
Saturday night was all right for the 400-plus music fans in the Double E Performance Center in Essex listening to the band Get Together play the music of Elton John and Queen. While front person Josh Panda belted out a powerhouse version of "Rocket Man," images of stars and galaxies drifted behind him on a 60-foot-wide movie screen.
During the slower tunes, the crowd of people mostly in their forties, fifties and older stayed in their cushy stadium seats — that is, until pianist Tyler Mast launched into a raucous rendition of "Crocodile Rock." As Mast pounded the keys of the theater's Steinway grand piano, audience members rose to their feet, many dancing in the aisles with cocktails in hand.
Theater owner Peter Edelmann, 70, danced energetically by the stage, his frizzy, salt-and-pepper ponytail bobbing to the music.
"You think people needed this?" he asked, surveying the crowd with a smile. "I feel like a kid in a candy store."
The sold-out rock show in January was a departure from the typical fare in the T-Rex Theater, a large-format movie auditorium that Edelmann opened in 2010 to showcase blockbuster movies in 3D. But Edelmann, who owns the 10-screen Essex Cinemas, the surrounding shopping center and the Essex Resort & Spa down the street, isn't a typical developer. And his latest effort to repurpose the T-Rex as one of Chittenden County's premier concert venues is just one piece of a broader vision.
Beginning in 1993 when he purchased a financially beleaguered inn and a then-dying strip mall, Edelmann has been trying different ways to make those spaces community-oriented and commercially viable. A few years ago, he rebranded the shopping center as the Essex Experience, a step toward transforming a soulless and generic outlet mall into a vibrant hub of small, locally owned businesses that focus on Vermont products and services.
Its evolution has been slow. As a businessman who invested heavily in cinemas, food, hospitality and traditional retail, Edelmann endured years of financial setbacks and disappointments. The state abandoned its decades-long plan to build a regional highway that would have sped thousands of consumers directly to his businesses. The New England Culinary Institute left his food-themed resort. Amazon decimated his brick-and-mortar retailers, and online streaming services stole his theatergoers.
When COVID-19 shuttered nearly all of his businesses in March 2020, it looked like the final nail in the coffin. Edelmann still had a $200,000 property tax bill to pay.
But now, after nearly three years of the pandemic, the Essex Experience has finally turned around and is almost fully leased. Most days its parking lot is busy, if not full, often with out-of-state vehicles.
People are flocking to its craft brewery and distillery, cannabis dispensary, therapeutic salt cave, and the state's largest gallery of locally produced art. (Yes, an oxygen bar and cidery are coming, too.)
The shopping center's tenants reflect Vermont's changing demographics and community values. Twenty-two of its 23 businesses are locally owned, including 12 by women or people of color. Its food stores and restaurants serve organic, sustainable and locally sourced meats, cheeses and produce. In warmer months, its village green hosts gourmet food trucks and live concerts in a repurposed 18th-century barn.
The driving force behind the renaissance of the Essex Experience is Edelmann himself, an entrepreneur brimming with enthusiasm and new business ideas. His tenants describe him less as a landlord than a business partner, adviser and friend. And now that his efforts are finally bearing fruit, Edelmann has attracted international attention for promoting local and sustainable business growth.
Essex town officials are rooting for him to succeed. After last year's long-anticipated divorce of the Town of Essex from what is now the City of Essex Junction, the Essex Selectboard approved a master plan that designates Butlers Corners, the area encompassing Edelmann's properties and the nearby intersection of Vermont routes 289 and 15, as its official town center. That plan, which still needs voters' approval, designates the area for economic growth that "emphasizes the human experience." The word choice doesn't seem coincidental.
With its emphasis on interesting and unique local businesses, the Essex Experience offers consumers things they won't find at the big-box stores of Williston. And with free parking and none of the public safety concerns that have plagued Burlington in recent years, some shoppers may decide that it's worth the drive. One marketing slogan Edelmann considered: "It's far out, but not that far out."
"What Peter is doing [at the Essex Experience] is making it a retail destination, where you go because the stores are worth going to," said Jean O'Sullivan, economic development coordinator for the Town of Essex, who speaks to Edelmann almost every day. "It's what all of these malls around the state should be doing."
Edelmann's plan isn't fully realized. His businesses still face headwinds, not the least of which is convincing consumers, many of whom grew accustomed to shopping online during the pandemic and remain wary of large public gatherings, that the Essex Experience deserves another look.
"Peter is a savvy guy," said Shelburne economist Jeff Carr, who lived in Essex for 29 years and served on its selectboard from 2000 to 2009. "I think if there's anyone who can pull it off, he can."
Foot traffic was slow on a snowy weekday as Edelmann walked into Purple Sage, the 7,500-square-foot salon, spa and holistic healing center that moved into the Essex Experience five years ago. When owner Kim Scofield saw Edelmann arrive, she jogged over and gave him a big hug.
Purple Sage, which has been in business for 14 years, offers a variety of personal-care and new-age services: massages, facials, ionic detoxifying foot baths and sessions in a salt cave. Edelmann said he often brings musicians to the salt cave before they perform at the Double E "for their vocal cords. Or afterwards, just to chill out."
For years, Scofield rented a smaller space next to Cody's Irish Pub & Grille in Essex, where her landlord was Rick Bove, who has tangled with tenants and local code enforcement over his properties.
"You want to talk about night and day for landlords?" Scofield said with a smirk.
"Peter's not a typical landlord," she said later, when Edelmann wasn't around. "I've had multiple businesses and rented multiple spaces. This is the first time in my 42-year career that I've worked with someone that I really like."
What's so special about Edelmann?
"He has an amazing vision," she said. "And he's been incredibly supportive."
When Scofield needed to renovate her space, Edelmann directed her to contractors who did quality work at a reasonable price.
Edelmann also includes all of his business owners in his plans and seeks their input. As Scofield explained, he holds monthly "town meetings" with them to check on their welfare and update them on new developments.
Edelmann is also conscientious about only leasing to businesses that won't compete directly with one another, she said. Purple Sage routinely gets referrals from the Essex Resort & Spa, which Scofield considers "a sister company." In turn, she sends clients there when her employees are booked.
During the pandemic, Scofield added, Edelmann never pressured her for a rent check if she was running late, nor did he charge her interest, as previous landlords had. "It's more than just business," she said. "He feels like family."
Across the parking lot, a new addition to the Essex Experience, Nusantara, opened in November. The name, the Indonesian word for Indonesia, suits the boutique's offerings: antique Chinese cabinets, Balinese sculptures, Nepalese printing blocks, and cotton wraps from India and West Timor, as well as crystals, beads and singing bowls. Hanging in the middle of the store is a large disco ball, handmade by Yolanda Baker, who also made ones for Beyoncé, Madonna, Studio 54 and the Saturday Night Fever movie set.
Nusantara itself isn't a new business, explained partner and creative director Kim Harris. Owners Steve Mustukas and Meg Clippingdale founded it 42 years ago. The couple travel the world accumulating many of the items they sell. For years, Nusantara wholesaled goods out of a Rutland warehouse, Harris explained, before the couple met Edelmann and Mustukas declared, "This is the spot." Now they have a retail space — and a showroom for their wholesale clients.
How is Edelmann as a landlord?
"Unbelievable," Harris said. "He really believes in the businesses that are here, and he puts his heart and soul into it. He checks on us every day and [asks], 'How's it going? What do you need?' He's been amazing."
Some Vermonters may bristle at the idea of designating a shopping mall as the economic and cultural heart of a community. The Essex Experience looks nothing like a stereotypical Vermont town center — there's no folksy general store, picturesque church spire or covered wooden bridge. A McDonald's restaurant and a Hannaford supermarket mark one entrance, an Ace Hardware store the other.
The place looks very different from the shopping plaza that Edelmann purchased in 1994 with business partners whom he bought out long ago. The Lang Shopping Center was home to a supermarket known as Martin's (later purchased by Hannaford) and other mom-and-pop shops. Half the storefronts were empty, and the rest were on life support. "It was falling apart," he said.
Nevertheless, Edelmann saw an opportunity. Essex was growing, and a new highway that would run right by his businesses was under construction. IBM had arrived in Essex Junction in the 1950s and drew waves of out-of-staters to work there as the information age took hold. IBM's Vermont workforce peaked at about 8,500 in the 1990s, just about the time Edelmann showed up.
Among those new arrivals were Linda Myers and her husband, Marty, who moved to Essex in 1978. An IBMer, Marty served on the Essex Selectboard and in the state legislature, while Linda, a journalist, worked at the Essex Reporter from 1984 until 2001, mostly as its managing editor.
"My husband was a very astute man in terms of business and community, and I know that he thought very highly of [Edelmann]," recalled Myers, whom then-governor Howard Dean appointed to her husband's House seat upon his death in 2001. She also served on the Essex Selectboard for 13 years.
"In my own dealings with Peter, I always found him to be easy to talk to and willing to give information," Myers added. "And his plan for that area was very reasonable."
That plan in the mid-1990s involved rebranding the center as Essex Outlets, also known over the years as Essex Outlet Fair and Essex Shoppes & Cinema. The original purpose of outlet stores was to enable large national brands — Polo, Tommy Hilfiger, Brooks Brothers, Ralph Lauren — to shed excess inventory that they couldn't sell at full price. Most outlet malls sprouted in smaller suburban communities near metro areas.
Edelmann had previously developed outlet malls in California, including his first, the 500,000-square-foot Las Americas Premium Outlets on the border of San Diego and Tijuana, Mexico. He believed that opening one in Essex could make it a tourist destination akin to Manchester Center.
Edelmann was already expanding the inn — he constructed another building in 1998 that added 26 more rooms and the spa — then opened Essex Cinemas in 2001. An outlet mall seemed like a natural fit.
"But all of that was a bet on the fact that the Circ was going to come through," said longtime Essex resident Tom Torti, who was president of the Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce from 2006 to 2020. "It would have brought a ton of traffic there and made it very easy to get to."
The Circ, or Chittenden County Circumferential Highway, was a sprawling federal highway plan conceived in the 1950s and designed in 1973 to move people in and around Burlington. It would have connected Interstate 89 in Williston to Route 127 in Colchester and the Southern Connector in Burlington, effectively creating a ring around the Queen City.
Essex and IBM favored building the artery to ferry the company's workers to and from its Essex Junction campus quickly, Torti explained. The first — and only — segment completed, now called Route 289 in Essex, has one exit at the Essex Resort and two that bookend the shopping center.
The Circ could have fundamentally changed Chittenden County, and Burlington business interests feared that it would decimate the city's downtown. The project ran into a multitude of issues, including permitting delays, environmental concerns, pushback from other communities and ballooning expenses. Its proposed bridge across the Winooski River between Williston and Essex would have cost more than the highway's original price tag, Torti noted.
It became clear that the Circ would never be completed long before 2011, when then-governor Peter Shumlin finally pulled the plug.
In the meantime, the national retail landscape was changing. By the mid-2000s, major retailers were manufacturing goods meant for their outlet stores. And as outlet malls sprouted throughout the country, their novelty wore off, and their draw as tourist attractions waned.
"People originally went [to Essex Outlets] because it was something new to do," said Torti, who served on the Essex Planning Commission from 1994 to 2000 and the Essex Selectboard from 2000 to 2006. "But it quickly became a little bit of a wasteland. There was not a lot happening."
Despite the shopping center's struggles, Torti said he was always impressed by Edelmann's stewardship. Even when stores were vacant, the center never looked blighted. Torti also appreciated Edelmann's "win-win approach" and his willingness to address town officials' concerns.
"There was always something more genuine about Peter," he added. "He's not your typical black-hat developer that people like to rail about. I think he's the real deal. And he's proven that over the years."
Carr, who knew Edelmann from his decade on the selectboard in the 2000s, noted that the developer also had to sidestep years of bickering between the town and the Village of Essex Junction, especially over where development should occur.
"Peter had to navigate all that noise, at the same time trying to stay focused on what businesses would succeed," Carr said. "I don't know who else would have had the commitment to do what he's done. I give him an A for sticking with it."
Today, the last remaining national-brand outlet store at the Essex Experience is Famous Footwear. When a national dollar-store chain offered Edelmann $1 million for an acre of land, he turned it down.
"The successful developer is someone who ... doesn't try something that's ubiquitous," he explained. "For me, the answer was community, art and music."
Edelmann agreed to meet for an interview over lunch at the Tavern, the more casual of the two eateries at the Essex Resort. He arrived wearing rimless glasses, a green sweater, jeans and hippie-like macramé bracelets on one wrist. Edelmann sports a scraggly beard, a ponytail and the tanned, weathered face of a man who spends a lot of time outdoors. An avid tennis player, he's made many contacts and business deals on the courts.
Edelmann exudes the chill vibe of a Zen surfer, which belies his vigorous work schedule and seemingly boundless entrepreneurial spirit. Behind the casual appearance is one of the biggest taxpayers in Essex. The Essex Cinemas is assessed at $4.8 million, the Essex Experience at $7.2 million and the 18-acre inn at $9.4 million.
Edelmann and his wife, Jessica Ebert Edelmann, an attorney, live on Lake Champlain in Colchester on the site of the former Buff Ledge Camp. The private girls' summer retreat earned national notoriety for the purported alien abductions of two camp instructors in 1968; UFO enthusiasts occasionally still show up in their driveway.
In retrospect, Edelmann seemed destined to run a shopping center — though it was the inn, not the mall, that first brought him to Vermont.
Edelmann was born in Germany and came to the U.S. by boat in 1956, when he was 3. His family settled near Elmira, N.Y., where Edelmann's parents went to work in a factory.
"Being a German in the '50s was a tough time because [World War II] was still very raw and very recent," he said. "We were the immigrant family who wanted to learn English as quickly as we could."
Edelmann's father went into real estate, eventually becoming the president of a company that built strip malls. In the 1960s, he developed the first indoor mall in the Elmira area.
"I kind of grew up in the shopping center world," Edelmann said. Beginning at age 12, he often joined his father at industry conventions in Miami. Yet he never intended to follow his father's path. "It just didn't interest me," he said.
Nevertheless, he learned about developers and what he called "the timbre of conversations of real estate people."
After college and graduate school, Edelmann bummed around for a few years, working odd jobs in construction and factories before landing a position with Southmark, one of the largest real estate investment firms in the country. He wound up in southern California. He and a group of investors put together a deal worth more than $160 million to develop the Vail Ranch in Temecula, Calif.
While working on that project, Edelmann was asked to go to Zurich, Switzerland, to examine the finances of another company. There he met Bob Botjer, an American expatriate who was interested in a Vermont company that bought and sold homes in Killington. Because Edelmann knew finance and real estate, Botjer asked him to visit Vermont and take a closer look. The company was also the developer of the Inn at Essex, now the Essex Resort.
Edelmann eventually advised Botjer not to get involved. However, Edelmann fell in love with Burlington and thought that the inn, which was in foreclosure, had potential. So in 1993, he put together a group of investors and acquired it.
The day they closed, what was then the IBM Credit Union announced that it had purchased the Lang Farm Shopping Center. Knowing something about that business, Edelmann approached the credit union's president. Two months later, Edelmann and his partners purchased the shopping center, too. He was officially a Vermonter.
At Junction, the Essex Resort's restaurant for fine dining, decorative place settings hang upside down from the ceiling while diners enjoy exquisitely prepared appetizers of foie de poulet, pickled peach and burrata, and charcuterie plates of housemade duck prosciutto and Vermont blue cheese.
The inn's culinary theme extends into its luxurious rooms, which are decorated with utensil-themed artwork, '50s-retro mini fridges and wall-mounted food sculptures.
For 20 years, the inn doubled as a teaching campus for the Montpelier-based NECI, with 100 students on-site until the culinary school's departure in 2009.
"NECI did a great job of teaching and preparing food," Edelmann said. "What NECI didn't do well is cost control, which was part of its demise."
The inn still bills itself as "Vermont's culinary resort," offering cooking and baking classes in its subterranean teaching kitchens.
During a tour, Edelmann popped his head into one kitchen, where a woman in a white apron stirred a pot simmering on the stove.
"Smells good. What are you making?" Edelmann asked enthusiastically.
"I'm doing Thai food. I have a class at 5," Denise Stanley answered. "Who are you?"
"I'm the owner," he replied with a smile.
Edelmann later expressed mild embarrassment. He typically knows all of his employees by name, he said; however, in the past two years, there's been a lot of turnover. The inn employs 150 to 180 people; another 150 work at the Essex Experience.
Though the Essex Resort and the Essex Experience are separate entities, in Edelmann's mind they operate synergistically. As he explained, his team developed a website that enables visitors to "create a menu" of activities for their stay: They can make reservations for restaurants at the inn and the Essex Experience, book shows at Double E, buy movie tickets, and enroll in classes at either site.
Nearly all the businesses at the Essex Experience will eventually offer some educational component, Edelmann said, such as classes on wine tasting, brewing and distilling, and cannabis cultivation techniques.
Nusantara has volunteered space for community lectures and poetry readings. A Champlain College professor plans to use the store's displays and merchandise to teach students about East Asian weaving and printing techniques.
Nusantara employee Gabriela Mendez, who's from Guatemala, intends to teach flamenco classes. Her partner, Juan Margarit, organizes tennis and wine education vacations to what he called "the Napa Valley of Argentina" — the Mendoza region. He's spoken to Edelmann, with whom he also plays tennis, about partnering on a new business venture.
Said Harris, "I want this to be a space where other people start businesses, too."
In 2019, Edelmann partnered with another tennis buddy, John Churchman, and his wife, Jennifer, to open ArtHound Gallery. Featuring the work of more than 350 Vermont artists, ArtHound is now the state's largest art gallery.
"Peter's an interesting character," said John Churchman. "He had a vision of what he wanted to do here. And he's made it happen."
Edelmann has a financial stake in "quite a few" of the businesses at the Essex Experience, though he didn't say how many or which ones. If an entrepreneur lacks enough startup capital, he'll offer to take an equity position as a minority shareholder. He also offers discounts on rent in exchange for a small percentage of their profits.
"So, if they do well, I do well," he said. "It's a symbiotic relationship."
Currently, the Essex Experience draws power from solar panels that cover the center's rooftops. In March, when the resort breaks ground on an events space for weddings and conventions, it will include a geothermal energy system that will heat and cool the inn. Edelmann hopes that a second geothermal system planned for the shopping center will eventually enable him to take both off the grid.
He sees the Essex Experience as a "beta site" for exporting business ideas elsewhere, including to other countries.
"I was very happy to have discovered the Essex Experience," said Kerry Bannigan, cofounder of Conscious Fashion and Lifestyle Network, which has invited the center to join. The network is an online program of the United Nations' Department of Economic and Social Affairs. The mission of the network, which has more than 170 members worldwide, is to help the fashion and lifestyle industries fulfill the UN's 2030 goals for sustainability.
As Bannigan explained, the network serves as a hub for sharing information around sustainable business practices through conferences and online forums. There's no paywall or membership fee, Bannigan said, though members are thoroughly vetted before they're invited to join.
"Putting people and planet first into the DNA of your business is actually good for everybody," Bannigan added. "We're really excited to have the Essex Experience become a prime point for us."
Several days after the Elton John and Queen tribute show, a group of musicians in their sixties and seventies were onstage at the Double E Performance Center for a very different musical event. Despite having access to the theater's state-of-the-art sound system, they were making music old school.
As Swanton musician Missisquoi Slim explained, they re-create the blues sound of the 1940s and '50s. They were equipped with vintage amplifiers, mics and instruments and recorded the session on a reel-to-reel tape recorder. Eventually, it'll be pressed on vinyl.
"These guys can really play in the old style of blues," Slim said. "So we're hoping to make not just a great blues album but a great blues album that sounds like it was recorded back in the '50s."
Sitting onstage was a Steinway concert series grand piano, which once toured with Bruce Hornsby. Edelmann explained that when he booked musician Elio Villafranca for a show at the Double E in March 2020, Villafranca insisted on playing a Steinway.
Edelmann went to Steinway's headquarters in Astoria, N.Y., let Villafranca pick one out and bought it for "over six figures." He named it Eve, short for "Elio Villafranca Essex," he explained, but also as a symbol of new beginnings.
Though the purchase may seem extravagant, Edelmann considers it an investment in the Double E. Ironically, Eve won't appear on the blues album recorded that day; world-renowned pianist Anthony Geraci played a 1920s upright model that was schlepped down from Swanton.
"This gear is older than all of us," said blues harp player Bob Stannard, 71, who will play a concert there with these musicians in March.
Stannard, who's been playing the blues live since 1969, met Edelmann last year while putting together a benefit concert for his longtime bandmate Joe Moore.
"Peter starts running his ideas by me for this whole place, and I was like, Whoa! I was dizzy!" recalled Stannard, who also once chaired the board of trustees of the Vermont Arts Council. "He's not just a commercial developer. He's got this artistic eye, and he's focused on the arts. And he's putting on some great shows."
Edelmann has had expert help. In 2017, he partnered with Higher Ground cofounder Kevin Statesir, who'd just sold his interest in the South Burlington concert venue the year before. Longtime Higher Ground patrons will recognize Statesir's 9-foot-tall, Grateful Dead-themed guitar in the Double E lobby.
With movie theater revenues dwindling, Edelmann wanted to repurpose the T-Rex, which often sat empty. However, he knew little about the music industry.
It's taken several years for the Double E to take off, Statesir noted. Shows have been few and far between, though those that were staged — Melvin Seals and JGB (Jerry Garcia's old band), Al Stewart and David Bromberg — were well received. Many of Statesir's former Higher Ground patrons, especially older ones, told him they preferred the stadium seats to standing on concrete.
Then the pandemic hit. The concerts stopped, and the venue pivoted to takeout food made by the Mad Taco, which later opened in its own restaurant in the Essex Experience.
As a music venue, the Double E has real promise, Statesir said. Its auditorium, built for amplified sound, holds 405 people — 700, if Edelmann decided to remove the floor seats. This summer, the Double E's village green will host nearly two dozen outdoor concerts, its busiest season yet.
About two months ago, Statesir and Edelmann were leaving the Double E when they noticed cars parked everywhere.
"I said, 'Peter, do you remember how many nights we walked out and these parking lots were empty?'" Statesir recalled. "It dawned on me that, wow! It's finally taking root."
Edelmann's vision, nearly realized, has been anything but smooth sailing. Late last year, Babaroosa, a 20,000-square-foot interactive art installation slated to open at the Essex Experience in 2024, pulled out. The $23 million project could have drawn thousands of visitors to the Essex Experience annually.
Despite his lost investment of time, money, engineering and legal services, Edelmann said he won't sue the organizers. As he told Seven Days in December, "I could probably make waves, but life is too short."
How does he maintain such equanimity?
"I came over on the boat and got seasick," he said, recalling his trip to America. "And I never got seasick again. That parallels my life."
103 Famous Footwear
106 Inspired Minds Childcare Ashley Childcare
107+119 Essex Experience Office
109 Elements of Healing
110 Oriental Wok
115 On Track/Motion Studio
201 Black Flannel Brewing
207 Black Flannel Distilling
208 Magic Nails
210 Sukho Thai
212 Peace of Mind Pilates
213 The Mad Taco
214 Vermont Cider Lab
216 Magic Mann
224 Purple Sage
300 Essex Cinemas
302 T-Rex Theater
303 Double E Performance Center
401 ArtHound Gallery
408 Uncommon Coffee
412 Salt & Bubbles Wine Bar & Market
414 Addie & Grace Boutique
418 Sweet Clover Market
B SeaComm Federal Credit Union
C Ace Hardware
The original print version of this article was headlined "Minding the Stores | Peter Edelmann is transforming an Essex mall into a town center and Vermont "experience""
Tags: Business, Peter Edelmann, Essex, Essex Experience, Magic Mann, Double E Performance Center's T-Rex Theater, Essex Cinemas & T-Rex Theater, Black Flannel Brewing & Distilling, Purple Sage, Junction, ArtHound Gallery, The Essex Culinary Resort & Spa
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