By LISA SCAGLIOTTI
A transformation is underway in Charlotte where a new development including a restaurant could create a gathering place for locals and travelers alike.
Construction has begun on the west side of U.S. Route 7 just south of Ferry Road on a parcel that was the longtime home of the Vermont Wildflower Farm.
Thompson’s Point Road residents Mike Dunbar and Debbie Kassabian own the 5-acre parcel and their plans for a commercial building they’re calling Charlotte Crossings are beginning to gel.
The project calls for office and retail space and a full-service sit-down restaurant – something Charlotte currently lacks.
So far, one tenant is on board: Chef Barbara Cote, who runs Shelburne Tap House about 8 miles to the north on Route 7, is planning her second restaurant, aptly dubbed Charlotte Tap House.
Owners Dunbar and Kassabian hope the project will be a destination.
“We hope people in town will go there several times a week for various reasons,” Dubar said. “Mostly for people to see each other.”
Burgers, beer and kids
This is the couple’s first foray into commercial real estate development they said sprang from a desire to have a spot to simply “have a burger and a beer”, where kids would be welcome, even if they got up to run around a bit.
Dunbar owns Middlebury Fence Company and a construction company called Renovate. Kassabian works for the pharmaceutical company Novartis from home with regular travels to a corporate office in Boston.
In 2015, the wildflower business put its property up for sale and eventually relocated to Hinesburg. Its Charlotte home for several decades was a combination of open field and forest along the busy state highway; wildflower farm visitors remember paths through the woods and along a pond.
Kassabian said she and her husband thought the spot had potential. By the end of 2016, the pair formed Gemini Properties and purchased the property, intending to renovate the multi-level wood structure on site to be used as commercial space with an apartment.
Issues with the old building however – structural, electrical, and a serious rat infestation due to seeds and bulbs stored there – made renovating more expensive and difficult.
The newly-minted developers decided instead to start fresh.
Charlotte Volunteer Fire and Rescue helped take down the old building in a controlled-burn training exercise in December involving multiple area fire crews.
With the goal of building on the footprint of the former structure, the permitting process was relatively straightforward through local planning and zoning review, along with permitting for water and wastewater systems.
As of this week, a new foundation is in place and site work to install wastewater infrastructure was progressing.
A peek at the plans
In the kitchen at Dunbar and Kassabian’s home recently, the business partners looked over the building plans.
On the ground level, 1,800 square feet is marked for the Charlotte Tap House. Cote is still lining up investors while she plans to create a similar format and menu serving lunch and dinner as she does in Shelburne. She said to expect fare that’s “well-rounded, eclectic, with some surprises” – likely more oysters, for example. It also will be “heavy on craft beers and spirits,” she added.
With permitting in place for 30 seats, the new eatery will be about half the size of its Shelburne namesake, however a 1,250-square-foot outdoor patio will provide more room for patrons in fair weather.
The design also includes a takeout window. Boaters themselves, Dunbar and Kassabian said they hope take-out food will appeal to people headed to and from the nearby marina, or those out on nearby town and state hiking and biking trails.
“We see this as a comfortable, safe, come-as-you-are, laid-back, family-centric place,” Kassabian said.
She added that she pictures people on the patio and kids running around in the grass or playing on a play structure. Kassabian said they would like to work with the town trail committee to figure out how people might reach their new place on foot or two wheels and not just by car.
So far, there are no tenants lined up for the 1,250 square feet of retail space in the building’s middle level or for the 1,850-square-foot office space on the top floor. A conference room is on the plans for the middle level as well.
Dunbar and Kassabian have ideas such as a bike shop or a small market selling snacks, bait, and even beer, wine and liquor.
While one tenant could easily fill the upper-level office space, Dunbar and Kassabian said the spot could be co-working space where people who otherwise work from home might like to come for convenience and community.
“I work from home,” Kassabian said. “It gets lonely.”
Together, the three spaces of the Crossings development could support more than 20 jobs. Cote said the restaurant would likely take about 12-15 staff, three or four of those full-time.
Septic regulations govern the number of people who could use the building at any given time, Dunbar explained. For example, under the project’s permits, the office space could support up to 10 people.
The construction timeline aims for completion by early summer.
Dunbar and Kassabian noted that they have been in touch with neighboring business owner Peter Carreiro, who plans to branch out just up Route 7 at the corner of Church Hill Road. He runs his Rise ‘n Shine milk delivery business there and is purchasing the rest of the corner lot where he has proposed replacing the former auto body shop and snack bar with a mini-farm and an ice cream stand.
Dunbar and Kassabian said they hope the two new projects will draw people and complement each other.
All of this is music to the ears of those who have brainstormed for years on how to attract economic growth to Charlotte.
Dana Hanley is a professional community planner who lives in Charlotte and works as the Community Development Director for the town of Essex. Since the early 1990s, Hanley has served on the Charlotte Planning Commission and various committees with an eye toward encouraging new businesses in town. Ironically, one past group was a “pub committee,” she recalled.
“We all wanted a pub,” she said. “We all wanted someplace to gather.”
And while the town plan envisions growth in the nearby west village along Ferry Road, Charlotte Crossings and even Carreiro’s farm project seem to be new business ventures that should fit well with the character and needs in the area, Hanley said.
“It’s been a dream for a really long time,” Hanley said. “I say hear, hear – it’s great.”