Back in the 1980s and '90s, Manchester became known as a retail outlet hub, with national brand name stores opening up and attracting crowds of shoppers and tourists.
Now a new boom is underway in the scenic Bennington County town of 4,000 residents — but this one is driven by lodging, not retail.
Three new hotels are in the works and when all of them are constructed, they will add more than 200 new rooms to the existing inventory offered by lodging establishments. These businesses range from the historic Equinox Resort – which just announced plans for an additional 300 rooms – to small, independently owned "mom and pop"-style motels.
For some, this surge of new interest in Manchester is signaling economic opportunity, but others are not so sure. One group of motel owners sought a moratorium on new lodging construction earlier this year. The attempt was unsuccessful, but indicated a concern about how the new hotels could affect their businesses. And they have some supporters in town who aren't sure that this is the kind of change that's best for Manchester.
Only one of three hotels, called the Taconic Hotel, is currently under construction, with its 87 rooms scheduled to be open for business this coming October. Project supervisor Chris Wilcox, of South Burlington-based PC Construction, says the work is on schedule.
"We had a very difficult winter, as you know. Colder-than-normal temperatures, quite a bit of snow, but the guys worked really hard throughout the winter," he said. "We were able to get things going now that the weather has broken. And we're on track for an October opening."
Clark French is one of the managing partners in the investment group that's constructing the new hotel, which is expected to cost around $30 million to build by the time it opens. That will make it the largest permitted project ever in Manchester Village. As construction work goes on around him, French says there's strong demand for more lodging in the area.
"We believe strongly in both the local Manchester market and the overall Vermont market. As you know, Vermont has been named the fasting-growing state economy in New England, and Vermont as a brand is really burgeoning," he said.
Some existing lodging owners have said occupancy rates are flat or even declining. But French cites marketing studies that he make him confident there's enough demand for the new hotel.
"The concentration of quality lodging facilities will create a critical mass and drive new visitors and businesses to the area," he said.
A short distance down Main Street from the Taconic construction site is an empty shopping plaza where another group of investors in a 98-room Hampton Inn and Suites is hoping to break ground soon. This project will bring the national brand hotel to Manchester. Tricia Hayes, a marketing consultant who's working with the developers of the project, says a Hampton Inn will fill a niche in the travel and lodging lineup that is not currently being served in the town.
"And that is the niche that is looking for a known product. Hampton Inn is part of the Hilton family of hotels. And there are Hampton Inns across the country," she said. "And there is a certain standard that has to be met for a property to be labeled a Hilton."
On the other side of town, a third group of investors is hoping to see a 42-room Mediterranean-themed spa rise out of the ground. This project is still in the process of obtaining a needed wastewater disposal permit, which is under appeal in state Environmental Court. The ownership group is hopeful of clearing that last hurdle relatively soon.
The Casablanca Motel is across the street from the planned site of the new spa. Linda Benway is the co-owner. She says she's ready for the new competition.
"There is no doubt that this many additional hotel rooms will affect our business to a certain extent. But what that impact will be remains to be seen," she said. "I, for one, am determined to remain positive in the face of this change."
Caught somewhere in the middle of this is the local chamber of commerce. Berta Magginniss, the executive director of the Manchester and the Mountains Regional Chamber of Commerce, said she wants to boost all the businesses in town, and the existing inns and motels already have a solid clientele.
"I think the new hotels present an opportunity to this community to gain a new audience, the bus tours which can't be accommodated perhaps in other smaller properties," she said.
Back at the Taconic hotel site, workers are pushing forward. If nothing else, by this time next year, if all goes according to plan, visitors to Manchester may have several more lodging options to choose from. Several of the motel owners say the fight is over and it's a "done deal." However, the local discussion, along with the construction, continues.
Andrew McKeever is editor of the Manchester Journal.
Correction 2:05 p.m., May 21. The story was updated to note that the Mediterranean-themed hotel project needs a wastewater disposal permit, not an Act 250 permit.