Lisais will run store in Putney
A late night fire on May 3, 2008, destroyed the top two floors of the historic building. In the days and weeks following the blaze, the commercial and social center of Putney lay in a charred heap.
It was unclear if the structure could be saved or whether the former owner had enough insurance coverage to rebuild, and some wondered if it was the end of the town's more-than-200-year-old institution.
The Putney Historical Society ended up buying the property, and with the first phase of the renovation now almost complete, project manager and historical society member Lyssa Papazian said that not only will the store live again, but it is poised to emerge even stronger than it was before the fire.
The Lisai family, which operates markets and butcher shops in Bellows Falls and Chester, is close to inking an agreement with the Historical Society to manage the Putney General Store once renovations are complete.
The Lisais hope to feature their full-service meat case as the centerpiece of the new store, as well as stocking the market with all the provisions that have been served to Putney residents for more than two centuries.
Papazian said the historical society had a handful of qualified people lined up to operate the store and the Lisais were chosen because of their reputation and proven ability to operate successful Vermont markets.
Tony and Lena Lisai opened the Bellows Falls market in 1924 and four generations have operated the business ever since. The stores are known for their fresh and varied selections of beef, pork, chicken and deli meats.
Details on the business arrangement still have to be worked out, but Papazian said just getting to this point has taken a lot of work and luck.
As a nonprofit organization, the Putney Historical Society has been able to leverage grants and donations to purchase and renovate the property.
The group has received about $290,000 in grants, $18,000 worth of in-kind professional services and another $70,000 in local donations from about 100 different families and individuals.
"It's amazing to me we have been able to do this," Papazian said Wednesday. "The more this has gone on, and the more I see how much this costs, I realize that if we hadn't done this, we would not have had a store."
The building has a new roof. The fire-damaged interior has been cleared and the structure has been stabilized, and the group has largely made it through the first phase without owing any debt.
But Papazian said there is still a long way to go before the store opens again.
The historical society put all of its funding into completing phase one of the project and an architect has not yet been hired to design the interior.
Papazian thinks it will cost another $500,000 to get the doors opened.
"The building is in very good shape and we were able to get more work done with the money we had than we originally thought," she said. "We're in a very good position but we have a ways to go."
Still, she is hopeful the new Putney General Store can be open for business on May 3, 2010, the second anniversary of the fire.
The group is still working out plans for the second floor.
It could end up as an apartment or offices, but that decision, Papazian said, is being put off so the group can put all of their resources into getting the store ready.
The group is about to kick off its next phase of fundraising and hopes to work closely with the community in the coming months to raise the $500,000 needed to finish the project.
"I am very encouraged, and hopeful," said Papazian. "Success breeds success and once you start things moving others are more willing to hop on the bandwagon."
Paul Bruhn, executive director of the Preservation Trust of Vermont, has been working closely with the Putney Historical Society.
He said what is happening in Putney could work for other small towns in Vermont that are trying to save their general stores.
Vermont's historic general stores were built in the days before strip malls and sprawl, when there were few options to purchase groceries.
As the state grew, the stores lost their niche, and while in many cases they have become the social centers of communities, it is hard to meet the monthly bills selling coffee and six packs.
Too often new residents from out of state buy general stores, only to realize the challenge of keeping them in the black, and financial obligations too often threaten the stores' survival.
Bruhn said Putney is showing that a town can rally behind a business and keep it alive, and he said other stores in the state might look to adopt a similar model.
"They have worked very hard and have done a great deal of work to move this project along. It can be daunting, but they've stuck with it," said Bruhn. "When you look at these projects you realize that the best solution is to have community organizations own the real estate, then the community can be assured it will always have a general store."
Donors and volunteers are encouraged to contact the historical society at www.putneygeneralstore.org for more information.
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