Donovan’s Food & Spirits has taken over what was once Nick’s Bar & Grill in downtown Bellows Falls.(Kayla Rice/Reformer)
Donovan's Food & Spirits has taken over what was once Nick's Bar & Grill in downtown Bellows Falls. (Kayla Rice/Reformer)

BELLOWS FALLS -- Josh Hearne has a while to go before he earns veteran status at 65 Rockingham St.

Nick's Pub opened on that spot in February 1943 and its owner held the reins for 47 years before Wayne Ryan bought it and operated the business for another 32. Hearne started working there when he was 21 and after bouncing around for several years the former employee is now the owner of the newly named enterprise.

Hearne opened Donovan's Food & Spirits on Thursday, Aug. 29, in the same building he was hired to work in 20 years ago. He said business has started smoothly and the reception from the community was very warm.

"Things have been going great -- right on track of where I anticipated to be," he said. "It's like being home for me.

"I'm starting to bring in some bands, starting to get into a more substantial menu, doing a lot more food specials," he continued. "Everybody's starting to figure out that we will serve food right up until last call, which is not really something you find any other place."

Hearne worked at Nick's from 1993 to about 2000. He then managed a bar in Bennington before coming home to manage PK's Pub, down the street from Donovan's. He said he thinks the world of his former employer and isn't trying to take away of dollar of its business. He believes there is room in Rockingham for two distinct watering holes.

Hearne tried to start a premier music venue in Brattleboro with the company Barnaby's Presents. Named Barnaby's, the business hosted live entertainment five to six nights a week and Hearne had hoped Brattleboro's 13,000 residents and artsy environment would help it thrive. But he and others decided after two months of struggling that it was time to pull the plug on the venture.

"It was weird. I knew this (place) was sitting here and available. I knew my own track record here in Bellows Falls, I knew it was, in my opinion, a no-lose situation for me. In Brattleboro, I probably jumped the gun going down there. I probably didn't do enough market research," he said. "As far as drinking establishments go, within a five-minute walk you could have drank at five other establishments. Our focus wasn't really going to be the drinking end, it was going to the music and entertainment end."

Bartender Natasha Hastings worked for Hearne in Brattleboro and said it is a shame the emphasis on music didn't take off at Barnaby's. She said she hopes Donovan's, in some ways, picks up where Barnaby's left off.

"It was awesome, wonderful. I'm excited to be a part of it. I can't wait to do more here," she said. "It's been great. I like the small community, where everybody knows everybody -- like Cheers. It definitely is like Cheers."

Hearne recently, in his role as a Rockingham Selectboard member, defended an "All Male Revue" held at Donovan's. He said he received a private Facebook message after the event expressing shock and disappointment and stating Hearne was not working to move the community forward in the best possible way.

Hearne quoted the messenger as saying there "is no doubt 'adult entertainment' can draw an element of society that runs up time, energy and costs of a police department" and that Hearne does not even live in the village.

Hearne, who told the Reformer the event was simply "a choreographed dance routine with really buff dudes," read a statement and defended the sold-out "All Male Revue." He said there was no nudity and the men wore attire similar to that of a swim meet, boxing match or mixed martial arts fight. He also said the amount of taxes on the building he leases contributes to Bellows Falls.

Though he has never researched it, Hearne thinks anyone would be hard-pressed to find a bar in Vermont that has operated continuously as long as Nick's/Donovan's. And he has aligned himself with a group of people advocating for a local issue that would help keep it that way.

The Vilas Bridge, linking Bellows Falls to Walpole, N.H., was closed following a semi-annual inspection that found continued deterioration of the reinforced bridge deck, according to a statement released by the New Hampshire Department of Transportation in March 2009.

The 635-foot-long bridge built circa 1930 as a "Symbol of Friendship" between Vermont and New Hampshire, was closed to vehicular traffic in 2009, and many residents and business owners are frustrated that plans to repair or replace it have been deferred. Hearne said a reported 4,600 vehicles crossed the structure on an average day and village residents are suffering because the traffic from Walpole has been cut off. There is, however, another bridge less than a mile away.

The issue has become a hot-button topic in the village and Hearne wants as much as anyone to see the bridge rehabilitated.

"With the economic strains both states are feeling, I feel that for this project to move forward the real investment needs to be made on the engineering costs," he said. "For this project to move forward it's probably going to have to be earmarked into some federal bill, which even if there was something that came out today that was going to give money to shovel-ready projects, this wouldn't qualify because the engineering hasn't been done. I think we need to get our ducks in a row.

"It's been such a vital part of the success of this community," he added.

He said he has not become a member of the Bellows Falls Downtown Development Alliance, but he plans to.

Domenic Poli can be reached at dpoli@reformer.com; or 802-254-2311, ext. 277. You can follow Domenic on Twitter @dpoli_reformer