MANCHESTER -- When Manchester was better known for small-scale manufacturing -- two centuries ago, when what is now the downtown core was known as "Factory Point" -- a small marble mill stood near a bend in the West Branch of the Batten Kill, the river that flows through town.
Several other small mills clustered nearby, but, in time, all closed or moved elsewhere. The marble mill turned into a once-popular nightspot, the Five Flies, and then a family-style restaurant called the Sirloin Saloon.
Then, two years ago, the Sirloin Saloon faded into the history books. In its place, the first new retail outlet complex built in town since the start of the economic downturn in 2008 is about to open.
Manchester has watched with some apprehension the turnover in retailers since the start of the Great Recession. For some, the vacant storefronts were troubling, but a burst of new construction, which includes a new library, a new hotel (and possibly two more) and the opening of a Starbucks seems to indicate that a more buoyant time is at hand.
Eddie Bauer will open its first retail outlet in Vermont on May 26 in Manchester. It will be part of a "soft opening" for a new 20,000-square-foot building rising steadily over the course of the past winter and spring, and called The Marble Mill. Three other stores will open soon afterward -- New Balance, a sporting goods retailer; Eileen Fisher, a women's practical yet stylish clothing shop; and Armani, a high-end men's wear line.
"We've taken a site that had a great deal of history and nostalgia and feeling for people, and we've transitioned it to something we hope people will love," said Lana Hauben, the vice president of marketing for Vanderbilt Equities, the development firm that owns and constructed the building. It already has a wide footprint in the retail outlet world of Manchester, and owns seven other properties throughout the town.
The retailing industry has matured and evolved, she said, since she and her husband, Ben Hauben, opened their first retail outlet center more than a quarter century ago, but the unique characteristics of Manchester -- a New England village in a scenic setting in close proximity to outdoor year-round recreational opportunities -- will continue to make it a desirable location to do business in.
How do stores get wooed to move here or open up new locations? The game has changed over the past 25 years, she said, as outlets have proliferated and online shopping became a factor. So developers have to adjust. Sometimes, it's serendipity: the right space becomes available at the right time for the right merchant, she said.
Eddie Bauer has one other store in Burlington, Vt., a full-price shop. This will be its first outlet shop in the state, said Susan Sacca, the district director for Eddie Bauer in New York, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and Vermont. Manchester drew them with its reputation as a four-season outdoor recreation center, as well as a town already well-known for retail clothing stores.
"Our primary claim to fame is outerwear and performance wear," she said. "There are successful outlets here, people embrace the outdoors, and that suits us."
Eddie Bauer will occupy 6,000 square feet on the ground floor of the two-story Marble Mill. Eileen Fisher, Armani and New Balance will, between them, take up all but 1,800 of the available square footage. Vanderbilt Equities is looking to find a restaurant or food outlet to join them, but so far they have not found the right tenant, said Ben Hauben, the development company's president.
But they will, he adds.
They weren't looking to build more outlet centers, but when the Sirloin Saloon closed its doors, they were approached and the opportunity was too good to pass up, he said.
"It's one of the most expensive buildings we've ever built," he said.
Finding new tenants has its challenges.
"It's hard to get anybody right now," he said, "because while the economy in general seems to be getting better, we've never gotten totally back. So it's tougher to get these brands, but we've been in the business for over 30 years, so we speak their language."
This is one of the very few stores Eileen Fisher will open, and that speaks well for Manchester and its future as a retailing center, he said.
Manchester used to enforce a strict limit of 3,000 square feet on the size of retail outlets that could be locally constructed. But the needs of contemporary retailers have changed over time, and most want more space than that. In response, the town adopted a set of incentives that allow developers, like the Haubens, to construct buildings with a larger footprint, in exchange for incorporating design elements like more green space, fewer curb cuts (planning- and zoning-speak for driveways or interruptions of the sidewalk), energy efficiencies and moving sidewalks a certain distance from the roadway.
The Marble Mill will be the first building constructed in town that will make full use of these incentives, said Allison Hopkins, the town's zoning administrator and planning director.
The incentives are intended to limit sprawl and create a pedestrian-friendly environment, she said.
The new complex, on Depot Street a short distance from the town's main traffic rotary, will have two public plazas where shoppers and pedestrians can stop for a break. The lower level plaza is wide enough to allow for musical and entertainment acts to perform, said Lana Hauben.
"Our customer is someone who appreciates what Manchester is all about," she said. "It's got history, it's a resort, a vibrant second-home community, as well as a residential community. It's a community and a village; it's not an outlet center."
If you go ...
What: Grand opening ribbon cutting for Eddie Bauer. Grand opening for entire complex is July 5.
When: 10 a.m. on Monday, May 26
Where: The Marble Mill, Depot Street
Other stores opening soon: Eileen Fisher, New Balance and Armani.