Locals rally around General Store, charting a new path for sustainable community development
A place to send and receive mail. Somewhere to catch up with neighbors and pick up provisions. A lifeline during the pandemic. The Elmore Store serves many purposes, depending on who you ask, but for everyone in rural Elmore, Vt. (Population: 886), the country store is a symbol of local history and identity.
All this was at stake when the store’s long-time owners couldn’t find a successor.
On a recent episode of “The Rural Business Show,” host Ben Rowley gets the story from Elmore resident Trevor Braun, who is a member of the board of trustees for the Elmore Community Trust. Braun gives listeners an inside look at the unique solution the trust found to keep the Elmore Store afloat, while also revitalizing the space to meet the needs of the community for years to come.
“Having institutions like the one-room schoolhouse, the Post Office and the store allow communities to connect with each other — that’s really what we see as the heart of our rural towns moving forward,” Braun said.
Welcome to Elmore, Vermont
Braun takes listeners to Elmore, a town in north central Vermont about 45 miles south of the Canadian border. Located on the shores of Lake Elmore and with the Worcester Mountains as a backdrop, Elmore calls itself “The Beauty Spot of Vermont.” Braun describes the community as small and serene, a popular spot for vacationers and a home for farmers and commuters. Visitors can pass through without hitting a single traffic light.
“It’s a pretty quiet community,” he said. “We’ve got one main business, which is the Elmore store in the middle of town. There’s a one-room schoolhouse that’s still functioning … And the town hall right next to the store and the school, all in one very small village center.”
Braun grew up in Elmore and returned after taking a job as a mechanical engineer in a neighboring town. Today he also wears many hats in the community, including board trustee, member of the Regional Planning Commission and volunteer firefighter.
“Everybody always imagines going out and moving onto bigger and better things when you live in a small, rural town,” Braun said. “I did go to college in a few different areas around the country and worked in a couple of different places, but I couldn’t find anything as nice as Elmore, Vermont.”
Saving the Elmore Store
The Elmore Store has been a mainstay of the community for over 200 years. Its most recent owners ran daily operations for the last 35 years. Recognizing the cultural significance of their business, the owners knew they couldn’t pass it on to just anybody when they retired. Their successor needed to be able to maintain both the spirit of the business and the balance sheet. “It’s tough times trying to run a country store in Vermont, and all over the country, right now,” Braun said. “It takes a lot of work.”
While the hunt for the right candidate dragged on, the owners continued to run the store. Eventually, the community turned to the Preservation Trust of Vermont, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving Vermont’s architectural heritage. That’s where community leaders learned they could form a nonprofit to preserve local institutions, and the Elmore Community Trust was born. The nonprofit would purchase the property and serve as the steward of the building while leasing the space to a storekeeper to take over operations. The structure would allow the community to fundraise and seek grant funding for building restoration, alleviating the operator from the challenges of maintaining a 200-year-old space.
Residents weren’t immediately sold on the unconventional model, especially because the trust needed to fundraise $400,000 to purchase the property and get started. However, because the model ensures continuity, allowing the store to continue services uninterrupted when the business changes hands in the future, residents eventually got on board. “Once we made that clear, everybody understood by contributing they’d really have part ownership of the future of the store,” Braun said.
The Trust was promptly put to the test when the U.S. Postal Service decided to terminate the Post Office in the Elmore Store. The news was a devastating blow. The store’s 150 Post Office boxes added a certain vibrance to the store, generated foot traffic, gave residents an excuse to drop in and functioned as a social hub. Braun also feared it would reflect poorly on the newly formed nonprofit.
The trustees sprung into action, organizing a local letter-writing campaign and engaging the entire Vermont congressional delegation in their efforts. Hundreds of letters and petition signatures later, residents won over the Postmaster General. The decision was reversed; the store could keep its Post Office.
“That was a huge relief and proved the value of this model,” Braun said. “If it had been an individual operator who had bought the business, I’m not sure they would have had the bandwidth and resources to have that kind of campaign.”
Since winning back the Post Office, the Elmore Community Trust has turned its attention to upgrading and repairing the Elmore Store building. First up are repairs to the septic system, electrical system and foundation, as well as adding a new public restroom and a public dining area. It’s all part of a vision to foster organic growth and resilience.
“It’s our goal to preserve and restore and renovate the store so it can be around for another 200 years,” Braun said.
Braun believes the process of establishing the nonprofit and preserving the Elmore Store illustrates why it’s so important to pay attention to the unique needs of each community. He advises others living in rural towns to get in touch with their own communities, through town meetings, surveys and informal conversations, to identify important projects and get involved. He also recommends testing alternative business models, like the nonprofit model used in Elmore, as an avenue for sustainable community development.
To learn more about the Elmore Community Trust and find updates on the Elmore Store, visit elmorecommunitytrust.org.