Busy Summer for Construction in Largest Vt. City

(NECN: Jack Thurston, Burlington, Vt.) - The construction of a new Hilton Garden Inn on Main Street in downtown Burlington, Vermont is part of what many will notice as something of a building boom in the state's largest city this summer. Work on the 139-room hotel, slated to open this winter, is now providing jobs for about 80 construction workers, said Jeff Daigneault of Opechee Construction Corp., based in Belmont, New Hampshire.

"The views from up top are pretty unique, especially of the downtown area," Daigneault beamed.

A few blocks away, a new L.L. Bean store is in the works on Cherry Street. It is attached to the Burlington Town Center Mall, whose new owner has additional redevelopment plans. And on the Church Street Marketplace, a prime destination for shopping and eating, the buildings are close to full.

"It's a huge deal for us," said Ron Redmond of the Church Street Marketplace Commission.

Redmond told New England Cable News that ground floor real estate on the Church Street Marketplace is now 99 percent occupied. He said that is the lowest vacancy rate on the marketplace since the year 2000, and is way down from the 11 or 12 percent vacancy rate during the recession.

The retailers Gap and Athleta recently said they'll move to the top block of Church Street, Redmond noted.

"What it says is, we're a destination," Redmond said of the high occupancy rate. "You want to create an experience for locals and tourists, where they come down and enjoy themselves and have a unique experience. Here they have the shopping, they have dining, they have entertainment--street performers and more - it's a true experience."

Redmond added that the new L.L. Bean store, expected to open in October, should reinforce downtown Burlington as a destination for shoppers looking for items related to outdoor recreation. Several other retailers already serve that market, Redmond said, and L.L. Bean should provide additional options.

"This will cement Burlington's dominance in that area," he told NECN.

Tom Torti of the Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce said he sees these projects and others as signs of recovery from the long and sluggish recession. Torti said the new hotel will help address what's long been a complaint held by visitors: a lack of beds.

"We've had far too few over the last couple of decades," Torti said. "We're getting up to the level now where this area needs to be."

Torti noted that the recently-opened Hotel Vermont on Cherry Street also boosted the amount of rooms visitors have been clamoring for, while adding to Burlington's nightlife. The Hilton on Battery Street recently unveiled new renovations and additions, and the adjacent Courtyard Burlington Harbor hotel houses a new restaurant, called Bleu Northeast Seafood.

"There's a new vibrancy and exuberance in downtown Burlington," Torti said.

Torti told NECN the discussions are in very preliminary stages, but developers are also eyeing another hotel project in the city.

"There are discussions, once again, about a convention center, perhaps, located in the downtown," Torti added, saying that, too, is in very preliminary stages.

"Relative to where we've been, it may look like an explosion, but this is really just the beginning of something larger," said Peter Owens, the director of Burlington's CEDO, the community and economic development office.

Owens said much of the building now underway fits in with a comprehensive long-term land use and development vision called planBTV. It called for a new set of zoning regulations, Owens explained, for the waterfront and downtown areas.

"For all of Burlington's great reputation; great qualities, we still have enormous potential to do even better," Owens said.

Owens said moving forward, the test for Burlington will be achieving growth while still holding onto its neighborly character.

As much as all the visible development steps appear positive, the city has acknowledged it is lagging in at least one area. Mayor Miro Weinberger, D-Burlington, recently said there is an "affordability crisis" in Burlington, caused by a dearth of market-rate housing.

Click here to read a housing strategy report released in May.

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