Chris Parker, a Vermont social worker and parent of young twins, confessed that it had been a long, exhausting day when she sat down one evening and posted this plea on her mommy blog:
"For the love of all that is holy. Please, TARGET, COME TO VERMONT ALREADY!"
Target has more than 1,700 stores in 49 states. It has a store in Manhattan, home to some of the most expensive real estate in the world. It has five stores in Maine, including one in Augusta, population 18,444, and two stores in Wyoming, the least populous state in the country.
All of which makes Target's absence in Vermont conspicuous and somewhat galling to some residents of the Green Mountain State.
"I get more calls asking, 'Have you heard anything about Target?' than I do about anything else," said Ken Belliveau, planning director for the town of Williston, Vt., five miles east of Burlington.
To the rest of the country, Vermont is the land of red barns, covered bridges and flinty natives or former hippies who are united in their opposition to sprawl and big-box retailers. Heck, one of Vermont's U.S. senators really is a socialist, and the town of St. Albans (not to be confused with the city, which sits in the middle of the town) has waged a 16-year fight to block Wal-Mart from paving over a cornfield.
In truth, Target is one of just a few big-box or category killer retailers with no presence in Vermont.
Home Depot, Lowe's, Staples, Kmart, Best Buy, Dick's Sporting Goods and Costco all have at least one store in state. Even Wal-Mart has four and Sam's Club one.
But building a store is more difficult in Vermont than in many other parts of the country. Act 250, passed in 1970, gives regional environmental commissions the power to deny building permits for large-scale projects that don't meet 10 criteria designed to safeguard "the environment, community life and aesthetic character of the state."
Act 250 is not specifically an anti- big-box measure. The Wal-Mart store planned for St. Albans, for example, was granted an Act 250 permit. Still, for merchant princes such as Target and Ikea accustomed to all manner of pleading and exhortations, Act 250 can be a bit of a comeuppance. Instead of being welcomed with rose petals, they have to contend with criteria that can be highly subjective, such as not having "an undue adverse effect on aesthetics, scenic beauty, historic sites or natural areas ...." It also means having to comply with local design standards that can vary from one community to the next.
The town of Williston, for example, would not look favorably on any store proposal that includes tilt-up, prefab concrete walls and acres of surface parking. So a new Target project might have to be part of a mixed-use project that includes covered parking.
And any retailer should not even bother asking about subsidies for site improvements or new or expanded highway interchanges.
Belliveau says many state communities adopted or strengthened their design standards beginning in the 1990s, when national retailers, hungry for new store growth, began marching on Vermont. While Vermont's largest metro area, Burlington, has only 210,000 people, the state's demographics, which include many high-income families with children, are especially desirable.
For retailers, the development restrictions also lessen the likelihood that they'll have to worry about being outflanked by competitors. "It's very hard to overbuild" in Vermont, Belliveau said.
Three years ago one of Target's real estate executives told the Reuters news service that the company was planning to open its first stores in Alaska and Hawaii, and was working on finding a location in Vermont.
Since then, Target's imminent arrival in Williston or the Burlington area has been predicted many times, most recently after Linens 'N Things and Circuit City closed.
Belliveau has never talked to Target executives. "You're in Minneapolis, so talking to you is the closest I've come to talking to Target," he said. But Belliveau has heard through the developer grapevine that Target officials were scouting possible locations in the area a few months ago.
Until then, Vermont residents must content themselves with Target.com, or hit the road. Some get their fix in Plattsburgh, N.Y., but that requires a ferry ride across Lake Champlain.
Parker's family lives in Barre, near Montpelier. Any family travel outside Vermont's borders always includes stops at Target. Last summer they visited friends in the Twin Cities, a trip that took on pilgrimage-like proportions in Parker's mind.
Target spokeswoman Amy Reilly insists the retailer would "love" to open a store in Vermont -- "some day" -- and that its design template, which includes a new small-store format, is flexible enough to respond to local guidelines. Beyond that, Target declined to offer a timeline for when it might finally be able to say it is in all 50 states.
Parker and her friends thought that day was coming when bankrupt Ames Department Store vacated its space at the Price Chopper Plaza in Barre. It didn't even have to be a SuperTarget.
Instead, they got T.J. Maxx.
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