Runnings to open in old Walmart building

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HINSDALE, N.H. — For more than four years, Deborah George, developer of George's Field on Route 119, has been in negotiations to fill the space that was vacated after Walmart moved into its new store, just down the road.

And, if not for a serendipitous sales flyer that her father, Ted George, received, she might still be looking for a major anchor for the center.

"In May of 2015, I walked into Dad's house in Vernon at 2 a.m. after traveling from California," George told the Reformer from her home in Pacific Palisades. "I had been in very tough negotiations with a large, well-known grocery store chain and just kept hitting a brick wall with them. Dad greeted me with his famous smile and said 'Look at this,' showing me a mailing advertisement for the grand opening of Runnings in Claremont, which was occurring the next day. He said 'They might be just perfect for George's Field.'"

The next morning they loaded into their car and drove up to Claremont for the grand opening.

"I walked in that door and thought, 'Oh, geez. This is fantastic,'" said George. "They had me at the baby ducks and chicks."

Runnings, a Minnesota-based retailer with more than 40 stores, had been making forays into the Northeast since 2014, primarily in New York State. The store in Claremont was the first store in New Hampshire. George's Field will be the Granite State's second Runnings, said George, opening in the Spring.

Upon arriving at the the Claremont store, another serendipitous event occurred that would bring the future of George's Field into focus, but this didn't happen in the store — it happened in the store's parking lot.

"As I started walking towards the store, with Dad well in front of me due to his anxiousness to see the place, I asked a fellow in the parking lot putting away shopping carts, if there was someone from the corporate office visiting the area that I could talk to," explained George. "The man replied he was from the corporate office. I then introduced myself and explained that I have this former vacant Walmart building at a shopping center named George's Field about an hour south. This unassuming man then asked me to repeat my name and said 'We've been looking for you.'"

It turns out he was the son of the owner. Shortly thereafter, Dan Herrmann, COO, flew out to visit the site.

For the next two years, George went back and forth with the two potential tenants, before reaching a deal with Runnings. George said she preferred not to name "the large, well-known grocer," who was the other suitor. "It always pays to do the right thing" said George, who went on to explain how five years prior she negotiated with Walmart to release them from their lease, once it was determined they were leaving George's Field for larger space.

"I was really afraid for the town of Hinsdale and for the future of George's Field," said George. "I needed to make sure Walmart was not going to just exercise their options for the next 30 years allowing the building to stay dark as a barrier to entry of other retailers. It would have blighted this wonderful location which also serves as the gateway to southern New Hampshire, since it is the first retail location along the Vermont and Massachusetts borders."

The new store is expected to employ nearly 70 people.

"It has been worth the wait," said George. "The quality and selection of the products carried by Runnings is a perfect fit for the tri-state area of New England and it has a nice home-town feel. They have everything from toys to my favorite licorice, to DeWalt tools to sporting goods and women's clothing, which is definitely needed in this area. I don't know a woman in Brattleboro who hasn't asked me to find a women's clothing retailer for George's Field."

"We're very excited to move into this location," said Herrmann. "George's Field fits perfectly into our model for opening new stores with its New Hampshire-Vermont border location and close proximity to Interstate 91 and Massachusetts. We can't wait to open our doors and serve as a retail destination for customers looking for top quality products at a fair price."

Founded in 1947, Runnings is a privately held general merchandise retailer owned by the Dennis and Adele Reed Family. The company currently has 41 stores and employs more than 2,000 workers across Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana, with six locations now open in the Northeast.

George said she is aware that some business owners in the area might consider the new store a threat to their customer base, but she believes in the long run, like that of Walmart when it first arrived in the area, it will be good for both Brattleboro and the entire tri-state region.

"Runnings carries products that other stores in the area don't carry, like a larger variety of ladies wear," said George. "When Walmart first announced a store at George's Field there was great apprehension, but it created retail synergy for the entire region with the majority of customers traveling through Brattleboro to shop sales-tax free in Hinsdale."

George added one of the keys to attracting Runnings was the announcement by the New Hampshire Department of Transportation of funding for the long-awaited new bridge connecting New Hampshire and Vermont, which is scheduled for completion in 2020. "This new bridge will increase the trade area of Hinsdale to include Interstate 91 and will be a big plus for the entire Hinsdale retail corridor," she said.

The George family is part of the history of Brattleboro. The family started N. George & Sons Fruit and Produce in the 1930s in Boston. George's grandfather, Nicholas George, had the first Chiquita Banana franchise in the tri-state area. The business was based in Brattleboro for more than 60 years. George's father, Ted, and his brother, Eli George, ran N. George & Sons for many years. In 1986, Eli died when his helicopter crashed in Guilford, Vt., while en route to Boston to conduct purchasing for the business.

"After my grandfather's death I purchased the property from our family trust, The Nicholas George Family Trust," said George. "My grandmother, Victoria, made sure I paid full price for George's Field since she had a very strong work ethic and believed things including property should be earned. That philosophy has served me well."

The name George's Field has been with the property from before Deborah George was even born. "As the story was told to me each year, the Shrine Circus would come to Brattleboro and needed a location with ample parking. My grandfather would allow the Shrine to use 'The Field' free of charge each year. He said that will provide provide more money for the children at the Shrine Hospital, which was the beneficiary of the Shrine Circus proceeds. The advertising and in particular the Circus posters would say 'Shrine Circus at George's Field.' When Sam Walton heard this story, he said 'I want to make sure we always keep that name.'"

George is not done with developing property in Hinsdale. She owns the pad sites on 3.5 acres at the entrance of the new Walmart — which she has named "George's Outfield," where she will be developing space for smaller retailers.

George is a real estate developer with 22 years of development experience. She earned her MBA in Finance from the Marshall School of Business at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, and dual BA degrees in Journalism and Political Science also from USC. She has postgraduate certificates in negotiations and real estate from The Harvard Business School, which is currently writing a case study on her recent negotiations with Wal-Mart.

George has other development projects currently underway in Boston and Vermont.

Bob Audette can be contacted at 802-254-2311, ext. 160.


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