Underhill Country Store closing on Dec. 6

New Jericho Market eyes 2016 opening

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By Phyl Newbeck
For The Essex Reporter

There’s good news and bad news for shoppers in Jericho and Underhill. The good news is the Jericho Market, proposed for an existing building on Route 15, is likely to become a reality in 2016. The bad news is that the much-beloved Underhill Country Store will be closing its doors on Dec. 6.

Roughly a year ago, landowner David Villeneuve and entrepreneur Mike Comeau first presented their plans for a 17,600-square-foot Jericho Market to be repurposed from an existing structure on Route 15 in the Riverside section of Jericho. The steel truss portion of the building, which currently serves as a garage, will be retained with an attached wood section removed. Comeau, the owner of the Richmond Market, Johnson’s Sterling Market, Shelburne Supermarket and the Village Market in Waterbury, plans to create a store similar to those establishments, complete with a deli and food service.

Trudell Engineering submitted a design to the Jericho Development Review Board for a barn-like building that will also include green space at the southwest corner of the lot and sidewalks. The board issued a decision in April approving the plan with conditions, and a municipal permit has been issued, but the market has yet to receive its Act 250 permit. Since that hearing was held in August, Comeau is more than a little frustrated with the pace of the process, having heard several different reasons for the delay. “I don’t know what to believe,” he said. “We need to start as soon as we get the permit but it’s getting late.” Comeau said he will weigh the higher cost of building during the winter months versus the possibility that a delay in construction will bring more objections to the project from community members.

Underhill store closing

The potentially good news out of Jericho may be partially to blame for the news that the Underhill Country Store is set to close this month. The Underhill Country Store at the corner of Pleasant Valley and River Roads has been a constant presence in town for approximately 130 years. Nancy and Peter Davis purchased the iconic establishment four and a half years ago, but the couple intends to retire, so they placed it on the market for $325,000. The price includes the 4,190-square-foot retail space and two upstairs apartments. The couple made a number of changes to the store, including a screen door for better air circulation, more ready-to-go meals, craft beers and a growler station. They enjoyed their time behind the counter but would like to spend more time with their grandchildren, so in January they posted the store on Craigslist. Since that time they have hired a broker and put up a small sign with the goal of selling to someone in the community. Since no buyer has stepped forward, they intend to close the shop on Dec. 6.

Concerned about the store closing, community members have taken matters into their own hands. Scott Tower of Underhill convened a meeting of citizens to discuss the future of the store. Thirty people attended the first meeting and talked about forming a co-op, and either leasing or purchasing the building. Discussion also touched upon the possibility of changing the format to a café, bakery or deli in light of the expected new market down the road.

Several meeting participants volunteered to survey the store’s customers to learn what they wanted to see for the building. Other assigned tasks included looking at the zoning regulations to determine whether changes would impact the sewer capacity, visiting and researching successful co-ops, and analyzing the store’s financial statements. A survey was circulated on-line and at the store. Many of the 186 respondents expressed an interest in a café or bistro and others wanted a place to purchase good quality meat.

On Nov. 30, 35 people came to Town Hall to hear Paul Bruhn, executive director of the Preservation Trust of Vermont speak about half a dozen similar cooperative efforts across the state. Kyle Clark of Underhill offered to establish a format for people to donate money for any potential project. A steering committee was formed and will meet with Clark to review his ideas. In the interim, a small group will meet with the Davises in the hope that the store can stay open beyond the Dec. 6 deadline.

For his part, Comeau offers a cautionary note regarding the proposed Jericho Market.

“It’s going to take about six to eight months to build this thing and get it all the way to open,” he said. If Comeau can break ground in the winter, the store might open in the late spring or early summer, but if the builders opt to wait until the ground thaws, a late fall opening is more likely. “That’s not what I’m in favor of,” said Comeau. “But it will probably be the case. If interest rates go up or someone raises another objection that makes us spend more money, I’m going to be out. I can’t throw more money at this.”