My WebGrocer: Bringing New Life to an Old Building
The Champlain Mill in downtown Winooski was once a bustling hub of the textiles industry, attracting workers from all over the world. In 1954, the Mill closed with the decline of textile manufacturing in Winooski. The building lay mostly dormant until the late 1970s, when the space was converted into a retail shopping mall. Though initially successful, in the 1990s the building suffered from deferred maintenance and was substantially underutilized. In 2011, My Web Grocer, a Vermont-based technology firm that matches shoppers with grocery stores online, was growing quickly and needed space. Founder and CFO Jerry Tarrant decided to buy the Mill to house his and other growing businesses.
Rehabilitation costs can be difficult to predict, so Tarrant applied for federal historic and state downtown tax credits. He joined the ranks of hundreds of other owners of abandoned or underused historic schools, warehouses, factories, churches, stores, apartments, hotels, and houses that use the program to hedge their risk and bring buildings back to life. Had it not been for the credits, Tarrant said, “We would have done the project, but significantly reduced our investment in the building improvements -- which obviously means we would not have hired as many Vermonters to work on the project.” In sum, he added, “[The program] improved an historic building, put local people to work, and incentivized us to take on the added risk.
When compared to new construction, rehabbing an old building expends more on labor than materials and more of the money and jobs stay local. The Downtown Tax Credits Program enables nine out of ten projects to happen that otherwise would not. The program leverages private investment and creates jobs: in fact, every $1 in tax credits brings an additional $16 in outside investment, and an analysis by the University of Vermont indicates that every $1 million of tax credits distributed results in the creation of 109 jobs. Lastly, as seen in communities across the state, the rehabilitation of one prominent building helps return downtowns and communities to prosperity and economic vitality.
Additional employment incentives from the Vermont Economic Progress Council also played an important role in the success of the Champlain Mill and My Web Grocer. In 2009, the company was uncertain whether remaining in Vermont was the best choice for their tech-based business. The State approved over $450,000 in Vermont Employment Growth Incentives to help ensure that Vermont stayed on the top of their list. These incentives are only earned if headcount, payroll, and capital investment targets are met and maintained. “[Our business] is a growing company with a ten-year history in Vermont,” said My Web Grocer’s Chief Operating Officer, Tim Kenney. “We are proud of our Vermont heritage and appreciate the vote of confidence from the Vermont Economic Progress Council. We are looking forward to utilizing these incentives to continue our growth within the state.”
Have these state programs been effective? The numbers speak for themselves. For $390,000 in tax credits (in addition to private sector funding), the Grand List value of the Mill increased dramatically from $910,400 to $2,019,512. Today My Web Grocer employs approximately 150 workers in the Champlain Mill building, with 20 additional positions currently open. Between June of 2011 and March of 2012, the company hired 63 new employees – all of them Vermonters. There is a renewed hustle and bustle in downtown Winooski. My Web Grocer recently hosted a downtown volleyball tournament, the coffee shops and lunch spots in the neighborhood are booming, and a skating rink is set to appear in downtown this coming winter.