Developer Peter Edelmann unveiled a new direction for the Essex Outlets on Monday that ditches a push for density and instead focuses on creating a “community experience.”
Edelmann’s goal is to leverage music, art, dining and shopping into a destination for both tourists and locals — and he’s banking a multi-million-dollar investment on its success.
“People still want to commune; people still want to get together and people like to shop,” he said. “But they’re only going to go somewhere, I believe, if you can make it interesting.”
Anchoring his revised project is a music and performing arts venue that will take over the Essex Cinemas’ T-Rex Theater when it isn’t showing blockbuster hits, and a new restaurant and bar in the former Take 2 location where The Mad Taco will open its first Chittenden County storefront.
Edelmann outlined the plans during a press conference Monday. He was joined by Higher Ground co-founder Kevin Statesir and Essex resident Eric Koval, all of whom combined to form T-Rex Productions, a company that will run the restaurant and performance venue that’s been branded “The Essex Experience.”
“We want to craft an experience,” said Koval, whose father owned a shop in the outlets when Edelmann first assumed ownership 25 years ago. “Not music coming at you, but concerts for cause, performance with purpose and music with a message – a message that can bring people together.”
Statesir, who helped run Higher Ground for nearly two decades, said he believes the new location’s intimacy will differentiate itself from the “nightclub experience” at the South Burlington venue and the large scale of the Flynn Theater.
The theater’s first concert is planned for May 16 and will feature local artists to benefit keyboardist Ray Paczkowski. From there, it plans to operate a few days a week and “see what the responses are,” Statesir said.
Monday’s announcement comes eight months after Edelmann first shared his conceptual plan for a major redevelopment in the outlets. The ambitious plan boasted hundreds of residential units spread across three six-story buildings.
But it didn’t conform to the town’s zoning codes, which currently only allow up to four stories. And while those are up for revisions now, that process could take years, Edelmann said. Faced with an influx of housing already hitting the Chittenden County market, he said the project started to make less economic sense.
“I also listened to the public,” he said, referring to a handful of residents who cringed at the buildings’ height and questioned their fit during an August planning commission meeting.
Some tenets of the initial plan remain. He still wants to shift away from outlets to more boutiques and Vermont-based units — a response to the flagging retail market and the expectations of tourists who come wanting a unique experience.
Edelmann said some changes to his tenants will be due to the “financial trouble” of their parent companies, while other changes will look to address duplicated services.
He also still plans on new landscape and building façade improvement, and new roads for a better traffic configuration. He wants to bring in some public amenities, like a fire pit, skating rink and green space that could accommodate a farmers’ market. And he’s powering the entire area with solar, planning two arrays above the cinema and new restaurant.
There’s no doubt Edelmann’s revised project represents a watered-down version of his initial concept, which he told The Reporter last year would help him hit the critical mass needed to reinvigorate the area. Trading in demolitions and density for food and entertainment, he believes this new project will achieve that same goal.
But when asked whether any residential-focused project still had legs, Edelmann wasn’t exactly firm in his answer.
“Everything changes in time,” he said.