Chittenden County’s commercial vacancy rate has doubled since 2019


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  • A message of hope from Butch + Babe’s in Burlington. The restaurant has since closed permanently.

The vacancy rate for stores and restaurants in Chittenden County has doubled since 2019, a sign that the pandemic and online shopping are hitting retailers hard.

The retail real estate market was soft before the pandemic, said Tony Blake, the senior broker at Burlington real estate company V / T Commercial. He said parking issues and security concerns had deterred customers from downtown Burlington in recent years. Online shopping has been making a dent in physical store sales everywhere for about a decade.
Next, COVID-19 security measures completely shut down stores and restaurants in 2020.

“It was almost like the perfect storm,” said Blake. “COVID really blew this thing up, and retail took it by the chin.”

The percentage of unlet commercial space in Chittenden County has increased from around 5% in June 2019 to 10% in June 2021, said Brad Minor, company director of Burlington Allen, Brooks and Minor. He noted that two very large properties are empty: a former Hannaford’s in Burlington and the former Sears store in South Burlington. If these two properties were excluded, he said, the retail vacancy rate would be around 7.1%.

This rate shows that some companies have been able to adapt better to the restrictions linked to the pandemic than others.

“In some ways it’s healthy; it’s not as bad as some might have imagined, ”Minor said. “E-commerce is a challenge, and how to operate in the post-pandemic retail world is a challenge. Some companies have really been successful in figuring out what people want now that we live life differently.

The full impact of the pandemic on businesses has not been fully determined. While it is clear that thousands of jobs have been lost, it is less clear how many businesses have closed due to pandemic-related closures, security measures and changes in consumer behavior. Montpellier’s Public Assets Institute on Friday released a report that said Vermont suffered a net loss of just 75 companies between March 2020 and March 2021.

The report, based on data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, says 2,400 Vermont companies shut down during the pandemic. But nearly all of them have reopened, likely thanks to billions of dollars in federal grants created to help businesses survive, according to the report.

The survey Minor uses for his real estate reports includes Williston, which offers a different shopping experience than downtown Burlington: one with plenty of parking and some of the police issues cited by homeowners. downtown stores.

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“It seems a little more sketchy than it used to be,” said Anya Huneke, owner of Dirt Chic, a downtown consignment store. She said she noticed more people in the store who seemed to be struggling. “I am more aware of the intentions and activity of people in the store than before,” she said. “I feel there is less oversight. ”

However, things are going well at Dirt Chic, Huneke said; she has a lot of customers and more lots of clothes than she can use. She said the biggest obstacle to her business now is the lack of qualified staff, and she believes that is holding back other businesses as well.

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Although businesses have been allowed to reopen completely, COVID-19 still plays an important role in consumer decisions. The state’s infection rate is higher than it has ever been, and although vaccinations have made many people feel safer, Huneke said, some of his clients tell him that they are always hesitant to enter stores.

“We still have people who will come and say, ‘This is my first time going to a store,’” she said. “Or we have people who will drop off a shipment and say they’re going to wait outside.”

Blake is optimistic that Burlington will continue to attract local or regional businesses, and that surrounding towns will attract chain stores and restaurants. He said downtown Burlington typically doesn’t have any retail vacancies this time of year, but this fall it does.

But “it’s definitely a lot better than 12 months ago,” he said.

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