Hopes still alive for a new market in Johnson village

A survey to gather information regarding a new grocery store in Johnson has been scrapped although according to the Friends of Johnson newsletter, town officials “remain cautiously optimistic that we can help to make the grocery store in downtown Johnson a reality.”

That hope hinges most recently on Vermont grocer Mike Comeau, who owns markets in Richmond and Waterbury and has expressed interest in opening another in the now-vacant Grand Union building on Main Street. The need is certainly there. The question now lies in risk versus reward.

“The key to making the venture work is lowering Mike’s risk,” said Ben Waterman, Johnson resident and UVM Extension business planning consultant. “He is very reluctant to put his personal assets at risk if the Johnson grocery fails. He needs sources of capital that do not require that he guarantee his personal assets as collateral. He also does not want to put his other stores or their employees at risk, and he is reluctant to use equipment at his other stores as collateral.”

The absence of a grocery store in Johnson since the flood in April of 2011 has been a major blow to a community used to having a supermarket in the center of town. Residents have had to travel at least eight miles to Morrisville for groceries.

Since the store’s closing, the municipality of Johnson has been working on ways to reopen that store, most recently on loan and grant applications to aid Mike Comeau. “We at the municipality can help Mike access some resources which are more in the lines of unconventional financing,” said Lea Kilvadyova, community economic development coordinator for the town of Johnson. “That means for projects like this which are obviously beneficial to the community, we can work with some funders that would provide an interest rate that is lower than a conventional bank and we can work with funders that can provide a loan that has a longer repayment term than a conventional bank would.”

Among possible resources, according to Kilvadyova, is the Vermont Community Development Program, which will provide financial support projects that can create jobs and support downtown areas. “We also have some other options,” said Kilvadyova. “The village of Johnson has its own revolving loan fund and we can provide a loan for that purpose as well. In the end, the finance package will not be just one funder. It will be a group of funders that are all able and willing to provide financing to Mike in a way that is acceptable to his business model.”

Pomerleau Real Estate, which owns the property, has said that they will make necessary improvements to the building to address flooding concerns. “They will water resist, or flood-proof the building up to three feet,” said Kilvadyova. “There is also mention of installing flood gates at the doors. So there will be process to remedy future floods although I can’t say for sure that this will prevent the floods again. But there is an effort being put in place to mitigate future floods, as well as an investment on behalf of the property owners to improve the aesthetics of the building inside and out to bring it up to the grocer’s standards.”