Land Of Milk And Armani

Ah, Vermont. Covered bridges and country lanes, steeples and snow, green pastures dotted with Holsteins. That's the postcard state where my mother, Virginia Brewster Coy, was born in 1933. She left to raise a family in Connecticut but returned a dozen years ago. She loved to quilt, garden, ski, jog, tend her beehives, or just stoke the wood stove.

But right on Mom's heels came the shoppers. Her hometown of Manchester, a quiet resort famed since the mid-1800s for wealthy summer visitors and excellent fly-fishing, became a mecca of upscale-clothing discount stores. Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein, Donna Karan, Brooks Brothers, J. Crew, and others started opening factory outlets within half a mile of each other in the early 1980s. There was an acquisitive buzz in the air, and traffic was jamming more frequently at the crossroads of Route 7A and the merged 11 and 30: Malfunction Junction, as it's known locally. Such urban problems led the National Trust for Historic Preservation to designate Vermont this year as one of America's 11 most "endangered historic places," the first time an entire state made the list.

Mom felt it. Even though she had a job in retail, as a salesclerk for the locally based Orvis Co., she decided to take a stand against overdevelopment by running for a seat on the town planning commission. She never got the chance. Last May, during the most glorious spring weather I can remember in Vermont, Mom died in a hospital in Bennington from a virus that attacked her heart. I decided to write about Manchester, not so much to take up her campaign as to explore what's happening to the place she loved.

Designer-clothing outlets now are packed into the valley like cordwood. Word of Manchester has even reached Milan, Italy, where executives of Giorgio Armani chose it for their first factory outlet. Among the items on sale there recently: a brocaded jacket with skirt for $2,600, half the New York price.

SMALL SIGNS. The outlets have brought some good. At a time when many Vermont towns are dying, Manchester is pulsing. With a population of less than 4,000, the town should ring up $200 million in sales of goods and services this year. Retail growth has helped keep residential property taxes flat. And there are actually more jobs in town than residents.

Manchester Center is no wasteland shopping strip, either. Signs are small. Retail development is contained within a 110-acre downtown, less than 1% of Manchester's land area, so people can walk between shops. At Malfunction Junction, a park is going in where a car dealership once stood.

In fact, many locals are pleased. Bob Stannard, an eighth-generation Vermonter who's a town selectman, admits he would rather hunt than shop and misses the old Combination Cash store (now an Overland Outfitters boutique) where he bought model airplanes as a child. Still, he says, "I do what most Vermonters do. I adapt to what's around us." As for the traffic, he asks: "Would I rather be in a town that has a traffic concern, or a town that has no traffic and everybody out of work?" Vermont's jobless understand that. IBM, General Electric, and Digital Equipment have cut their Vermont payrolls, and the dairy industry is hurting.

So what's wrong with Manchester's boom? People who want to slow its growth say something precious and irreplaceable--a quiet dignity--is being cast away. And they question those who justify overdevelopment here by pointing to other towns' economic depression as the alternative. One skeptic is 70-year-old Ferdinand "Nundy" Bongartz, a friend of my parents and lead author of Manchester's zoning laws back in 1970. Bongartz argues that out-of-towners have been the main winners from Manchester's boom: developers, retailers, and even employees, most of whom live elsewhere. In any case, pay is hardly munificent: Despite its "gold town" reputation, he notes, Manchester's average annual pay per worker is below the state average. And, he says, rising rents are squeezing businesses that serve locals.

As for the retail architecture, which tends to use more glass than your traditional Vermont building, Bongartz snipes: "If Manchester aspires to look like suburban Westchester [County, N.Y.], we're doing nicely."

Such frankness proved costly this year to the crusty Bongartz, who sold woodcrafts in town for 42 years. The Board of Selectmen booted him off the appointed planning commission after he deep-sixed one developer's project by having the commission denounce it before a state panel. Such battles have broken bonds of friendship that are important in small towns.

"REAR-GUARD ACTION." The conflicts pain First Selectman Ivan Beattie, who has come out in favor of developers in several critical decisions. Beattie breeds Morgan horses on the north end of town. His father and my grandfather used to hitch their Morgans to sulkies and trot them together. When I go out to meet him, Beattie is changing the oil on a beat-up tractor. He observes that it's nothing new for the people of Manchester to depend on the money of outsiders. "My father had 17 brothers and sisters," he says. "Most of the sisters were maids. Most of the brothers were caretakers and handymen."

As Beattie says, the real change is a change in American society. Yesterday's visitors came to fish, golf, ski, or maybe just to inhale. Today, many come for one thing alone: fantastic bargains on racks and racks of designer labels. And Manchester is accommodating them.

Nundy Bongartz isn't hopeful about arresting the trend: "I look on planning as a rear-guard action. You can't gain ground. You can only lose it little by little." If that's so, then my mother's Manchester is destined to shrink away like the last pockets of snow on Mt. Equinox next May.