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Q&A: Community Group Looking to Reopen Williamstown Landmark
By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff
01:15PM / Sunday, December 26, 2021
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A nonprofit group is hoping to purchase and maintain the historic Store at Five Corners and lease out the store and cafe.

WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — If all goes according to plan, a South Williamstown institution will have new life as soon as late spring.
 
The Store at Five Corners Stewardship Association is moving forward with plans to purchase and revive the historic store at the junction of Routes 7 and 43.
 
And it is still accepting donations to help meet a $1.5 million fund-raising goal that will establish an endowment to maintain the store, which began as a tavern in 1770.
 
Association President Karen Charbonneau said recently that the directors of the nonprofit have no doubt the store — closed since summer 2020 due the COVID-19 pandemic — once again can be a successful business.
 
"First of all, there's nothing else down here," Charbonneau said. "There's a long stretch of Route 7 where there's nothing. If we run out of milk — pasteurized milk — we have to go into town. Bread, anything, we have to go into town. Or just to get a good cup of coffee or whatever.
 
"More so, this was a community meeting place. We held events there. People met for lunch or coffee. People held business meetings there. It's recognized as a community space. And it also was a tourist space. People came year after year and wanted to shop there and get certain things — products from Massachusetts that people like to buy and give as gifts or whatever."
 
The association plans to own the property and lease the store space to an operator who will operate the business in accordance with the non-profit's vision for the store.
 
It is not a business model without precedent.
 
In 2013, the Guilford Country Store near Brattleboro, Vt., reopened under the stewardship of the non-profit Friends of Algiers Village, which bought the early 19th-century building a few years earlier.
 
The Store at Five Corners does not need a major renovation to get ready to open its doors, but it does need some TLC and the endowment, which makes up the majority of the $1.5 million funding goal, will help keep the historic building sustainable for generations to come, association members hope.
 
Charbonneau recently chatted with iBerkshires.com about how the association came to be and what it plans for the future of the Store at Five Corners.
 
Question: Tell me about how all this got started?
 
Charbonneau: I'm on the South Williamstown Community Association board, and I've been on it for a number of years. In 2011, when the store closed for the first time, I was part of a subcommittee for the South Williamstown Community Association that approached [Green River Farm owner] Frank Lewis to buy the store. At that time, he was not interested in separating the farm from the store.
 
We wrote a grant to the Community Preservation Committee, but there wasn't enough money. The whole thing got dropped because he wasn't willing to talk about the store.
 
Periodically, I have contacted him. We have had holiday tree lighting events at the store for years. He has always been gracious and generous about allowing us to put lights on the tree, and he supplies electricity. We have a lighting ceremony and go into the store and have refreshments provided by him. He's been a great supporter of the South Williamstown Community Association for a long time.
 
I'd ask him over the years, 'Would you consider selling the store separately?' I think I asked him three or four times. This last time he said he would.
 
I went back to the South Williamstown Community Association board with a proposal that we do a fundraiser, buy the store and then lease it to an operator, so we'd be able to maintain it forever. It is such an important space for us. We feel like it's the gateway to Williamstown. Everybody loves the store.
 
I made the proposal to the board, and right away five other members said we're in. The rest of the board was supportive. Everyone wants the store to be open and operating, but they were unsure they wanted the board to own real estate. It's a huge project.
 
[The SWCA has] acted as a fiscal partner for other projects, but never done anything on this scale. So the six of us got together and we decided to go back to the board to discuss the concerns they had and asked, if we formed a separate entity, would they be willing to support us in that effort and be our fiscal sponsor. It takes months to get 501(c)3 status — up to a year — and sometimes [the IRS] says no. The [SWCA] board voted unanimously they wanted to be the fiscal sponsor for the stewardship corporation.
 
In the interim between the initial proposal to the board and going back to the board for approval as our sponsor, we did a survey. I think there were five people who responded that they were indifferent to it. Everybody else had such strong support and wanted the store to be open again.
 
Q: Even before the pandemic, the store had gone through some transitions in recent years. What about this business model do you think will be more successful and sustainable than past iterations?
 
Charbonneau: I met with [Tom Masone and Meredith Woodyard], who were the previous owners, and asked, was it a money issue? Because several people have said that to me: that it hasn't seemed to be viable. What they told me was they were able to make a living there running the store together but couldn't get ahead because they had a large mortgage on the property.
 
The operator we lease to won't have a mortgage because we will own the building.
 
Q: So your fund-raising efforts will allow you to own the building free and clear and lower the overhead ...
 
Charbonneau: That's why we're doing the fund-raising so we can own it outright, also doing a fairly large endowment. We will be able to offer lower rent to an operator. As the store gets more successful, then the rent would go up, of course. We want to maintain it forever. We want to make sure there is money there to support it. We want it to be open.
 
Q: And also have the endowment for maintenance.
 
Charbonneau: The building has been closed since July 2020. Actually it closed in March right when the pandemic hit and they briefly opened for a couple of weeks in July so see if people could preorder dinners and pick them up outside. It just didn't work. It's really been closed for almost two years so there are repairs that need to be made because it's sitting there. We are going to have to do repairs. We're hoping a good-sized endowment so we can draw off the interest year after year.
 
We had an inspection done by someone who does colonial buildings, and he said it has good bones. He said this needs to be done within a year or that needs be done in 10 years.
 
Q: You mentioned that back in 2011 you looked at a co-op model and decided not to go that route. One could see someone who gives a five-figure donation — which I'm sure you'd love —wanting to have a little bit of say in the operation.
 
Charbonneau: We've been really clear that the operator will be the responsible one for the full operation of the store. We have had some big donations and have not had anyone say they want to have some say.
 
The say we're listening to is the results of that survey we did where people almost unanimously say they want to see it open as a store and a cafe. Our full intention is to hire an operator who we feel will be right to run the business as a store and a cafe.
 
Q: Have you or will you seek grant funding — either from historic preservation groups or from the town's Community Preservation Act funds?
 
Charbonneau: Yes we are. We are planning to apply for a CPA grant. We haven't yet [approached other granting agencies], but we will. It's been so busy.
 
We will close at the end of January, so we're trying to have the fundraising be pretty much done at the end of January. We're actively now seeking operators. We have a packet put together and are actively seeking operators now. The application period also will close at the end of January.
 
We're hoping to reach our goal with fund-raising, but if we don't the endowment will be whatever it is. If it is less than we hope, we probably will have to do fundraising every year. Our preference would be to do one giant fundraising campaign, meet our goal so we don't have to do that.
 
As far as the CPA proposal, we wouldn't get that money for some time. But when we had the inspection done, we asked the inspector to tell us what should we anticipate doing in the next five years.
 
Q: Your news release mentions a 'solid base' of early donations. Can you elaborate on that?
 
Charbonneau: The last time we checked, we had raised over $550,000 and the cost of the store is $400,000. To sign the purchase-and-sale agreement, we wanted to make sure we could it.
 
We are just now sending out townwide donation cards. We haven't even done that piece of the fund-raising. The fundraising we have now is people approaching us or us approaching friends and neighbors. As I said there's been a tremendous amount of support. People have just been great.
 
Now we're just beginning with the more public fund-raising effort.
 
To donate to the cause or volunteer, visit storeatfivecorners.org.
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