BRADFORD, Vt. — A key piece in the future of Bradford’s downtown is falling into place.
Valley Floors owner Ryan Chase recently purchased the former Aubuchon Hardware building at 200 N. Main St. at auction for $269,500. The prominent downtown storefront has remained vacant since the Westminster, Mass.-based hardware store chain closed its Bradford outlet a year ago because of declining business.
Even after Aubuchon said it couldn’t attract enough customer traffic at the location, Chase believes he’s making a solid business bet.
“It’s a good investment, a good opportunity,” Chase said last week about acquiring the 28,000-square-foot building, which he expects to close on within a month. “I was born and raised in Bradford, own a successful business now, and I’m concerned about the future of our town. … I’m committed to owning and keeping this building.”
Assessed at $400,000, the property has 14,000 square feet of space on two floors, with the top level divided into three units, one of which is currently occupied by a taekwondo studio. On the lower level, which is accessed around the back of the building and below street level, is a bottle redemption center.
Chase’s pending purchase is the latest commercial real estate reincarnation since downtown Bradford lost three mainstay businesses, first when Perry’s Oil Service and appliance store, then Hill’s 5 & 10 department store, both closed in 2015, and then Aubuchon’s early in 2020 before the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
“Those three were huge and threw a lot of traffic to Main Street,” said Marvin Harrison, retired vice president of commercial loans at Wells River Savings Bank and now board member of the Cohase Chamber of Commerce.
The closings of the three family-owned businesses was in line with the grim reality repeated across other Upper Valley towns, from Claremont to Randolph and even to tony Hanover, where big-box stores and online shopping have sucked away customers from the Friday night and weekend shopping sprees.
But the past two years have witnessed, if not exactly a roaring comeback, a serious effort among a new entrepreneurial generation that is seeking to revive Bradford’s North Main Street, which greets drivers coming from the south with a three-story red brick with a castle-like turret — a former bank building dating to 1891 — and guideposts the way out with a row of 19th-century Greek revival homes headed north on Route 5.
“I can’t tell you the number of people I’ve seen in my 22 years here who stop and get out of their car to photograph the bank building and turret,” said Mark Johnson, who runs the Bliss Village Store & Deli on North Main Street.
The attempt at revival began in 2017 when Orford trucking, timber harvesting and heavy equipment operator Stacey Thomson bought the former Perry’s property, which was assessed at $570,000, at auction for $139,000 and reopened the only gas pumps in the center of town and launched a home fuel heating business. That was followed by the opening of the coworking and event venue The Space on Main in 2018 and, in 2019, the opening of a women’s boutique, a cheese shop and an antique and collectibles store.
“Things are coming back slowly,” Johnson said. “It’s a start.”
Since he won the bidding at the auction on Jan. 28 — attended by about two dozen people but only three were actively bidding at the end — Chase has been on a tour of sorts, meeting with members of the Bradford business community to exchange ideas on renting out the building. He met with Space on Main founder Monique Priestley and on Tuesday night with members of the Cohase business chamber on a Zoom call.
“I’ve been bumping into people already throwing ideas at me,” Chase said.
For his part, Chase said any retail space needs to be adapted to today’s economy, rather than trying the same products and business models that sent previous stores packing.
“Retail has changed. You can’t have the usual things any longer. That doesn’t work, not when you can get it at a box store or jump online and have it delivered to your home in a couple days,” he said.
Among his ideas is setting aside a portion of the street-level space to “kiosk spaces” which merchants can rent a month at a time, like a pop-up store.
Space on Main’s Priestley said one model she has pointed Chase to is the The Soda Plant in Burlington’s South End Arts District, market of about 30 small businesses sharing space in a former factory and which span artist studios, shops, galleries and food stalls.
“Say you get a taco shop next to a bike shop next to an arts organization. They all get customers and feed ideas off each other. It’s like a farmer’s market, only a little more permanent,” Priestley said.
Harrison said before the auction there had been talk in town about converting the Aubuchon building into a “food hub,” with food vendors and a commercial kitchen. “Food is one of the things that is hot right now,” Harrison noted, as carry-out ordering has soared during the pandemic and the locavore movement has flourished in Vermont.
At one time, Ryan Chase’s life plan didn’t include taking over the family business located near the intersection of routes 5 and 25 in Bradford’s Lower Plain from his dad, Dean Chase. The elder Chase had started Valley Floors, which designs and installs hardwood, vinyl and stone floors as well as carpet and tile, in 1981.
The younger Chase, a 1997 Oxbow High School grad, went off to study at Colorado State University with the intention “never to return to Bradford. I said I would never live here. But life changes.”
After a “couple years in Colorado camping, biking and having too much fun,” Chase said he “called it quits and came back home,” working as a substitute teacher for a couple years before “my father asked me to come on board.
“I fell in love with the town again and realized I wanted to stay here,” said Chase, who bought the business from his father five years ago (Chase’s old brother, Chris Chase, also works as an installer at the company).
Those deep Bradford roots bode well for the former Aubuchon building, according to Harrison.
“The nice thing is that Ryan is in it for the long term,” Harrison said. “There’s no knee-jerking going on. That sure is better than having someone come in from the outside who doesn’t know what we need.”
Contact John Lippman at [email protected]