How Manchester Designer Outlets influenced the past, present, and future of a treasured Vermont town
STORY BY BENJAMIN LERNER
PHOTOGRAPHY BY JIMMY IENNER, JR.
If you walk down Main Street and Depot Street in Manchester on a beautiful morning or afternoon, you will likely encounter crowds of people wandering at a leisurely pace with shopping bags in their hands and smiles on their faces. Locals and tourists happily browse the windows and shelves of designer brand outlet stores and locally-owned boutiques, restaurants, and shops, which are housed inside both historic and newly-constructed buildings. Visitors who come to Manchester are able to bask in the bucolic beauty of the Green Mountains while enjoying a relaxing and unforgettable shopping experience. Make no mistake, however – this retail oasis was brought into existence through decades of hard work and persistence.
Ben and Lana Hauben, the founders of Manchester Designer Outlets (MDO), opened their first store in 1983. They recognized that Manchester presented a priceless opportunity for the potential development of designer outlets, which was then a novel trend in the retail world. Rather than creating an “artificial village” outside of town, the Haubens made the critical decision to build MDO in the heart of Manchester’s historic town center. By providing beautiful, high-quality new spaces for designer outlet stores, they were able to strengthen the economic vitality of the entire region. In the process, they changed the landscape of the retail industry on a vast and global scale. MDO also profoundly influenced the trajectory of Manchester’s future, paving the way for countless new restaurants, clothing stores, hotels, and other attractions that came to Manchester over the following years. In addition to high-end designer outlets, MDO’s buildings now house many successful independent Vermont businesses – all of which have greatly benefitted from the creation of the magnificent “retail tourism” empire that the Haubens brought into existence.
A Vision Unfolds
In 1979, a year after they married, Lana Hauben and her late husband, Ben, spent a romantic weekend at a historic inn an hour and a half northeast of Manchester. On the way back to New York City, they drove through Manchester and saw a sign in a realtor’s window for Ice Pond Farm, a historic property in nearby East Arlington. Soon after, they went to see the property, fell in love with it at first sight, and purchased the home. After acquiring Ice Pond Farm, they formed very close relationships with their neighbors. “Following many trips back and forth to New York City, we found a way to become permanent residents of Vermont – and that way was to create a source of income,” says Lana Hauben. Hauben recalls that Ben experienced a pivotal epiphany at an intersection in Downtown Manchester. It was there that he realized that it would be possible to bring designer outlets to Southern Vermont. “One day, Ben came into the kitchen at the farm and told me he wanted to show me something. We drove to the corner of Route 7A and Route 11/30 in Manchester, parked on the corner, and stepped out of the car together. Ben pointed eastward in the direction of Bromley Mountain and Stratton Mountain, and said, ‘Is this 5th Avenue and 57th Street in Manhattan, or am I dreaming?’” Lana, who was head over heels in love with her new husband, looked into his eyes and immediately said, “Yes.” At that moment, Ben had already envisioned MDO along that route. In the years that followed, his vision materialized, and MDO became one of the largest attractions in the State of Vermont.
The Haubens quickly acquired their first properties in the early 1980s, including the Battenkill Arcade, which formerly housed Harrington’s of Vermont, The Cupola Deli, Manchester Country Properties, and Business World, Inc. On a weekday afternoon in 1983, they opened their first store: Polo/Ralph Lauren. To the utter amazement of the Haubens, over 400 people showed up on opening day. Unbeknownst to them, some of those in attendance were retail and manufacturing executives who had second homes in Stratton. The executives called the headquarters of their companies from Maine to California, took some pictures, and sent them off. Afterwards, word of the Manchester Designer Outlets began to quickly spread throughout the retail industry.
As Ben worked tirelessly with architects, builders, and local tradespeople to get the plans for additional buildings done, Lana Hauben went back to their New York office. With the help of a dedicated staff member, she sent out hundreds of letters to major companies and invited them to come and see what was being built in Southern Vermont. While Ben was going through the extremely-challenging permitting process, Lana traveled around the country trying to create interest in retail in Manchester. “The idea of locating major companies in a beautiful town in Vermont – and actually opening up designer outlets hours away from major populations – was foreign to these corporations who already had full-price stores in New York City, Boston, and other big cities,” notes Lana Hauben. “Only skiers knew about Manchester, because of its proximity to Stratton, but most of them thought we were crazy. They queried, ‘Manchester where?’ However, when we were able to convince these companies to drive up to meet us, they understood the opportunity immediately. After they saw how beautiful the Polo/Ralph Lauren building was, major companies began to really respond to what us two kids from Brooklyn and the Bronx were trying to do.”
Over the course of the next decade, the Haubens acquired and renovated many additional buildings, including a former factory at the intersection of Depot Street and Richville Road that became known as Manchester Square. Manchester Square opened to the public in the summer of 1991, with popular retailers such as Esprit, Adrienne Vittadini, Maidenform, and Brooks Brothers. Eventually, the first Giorgio Armani outlet store in the world was also opened there. Shoppers were ecstatic and drove from New York and Boston just to shop in Manchester. The commercial momentum generated by the outlets resulted in an economic windfall for Manchester, Bennington County, and the entire State of Vermont.
In 1997, an article in The New York Times, entitled “Looking for an Outlet,” reported that Manchester had secured a position as the fifth-largest contributor of sales tax revenue in the State of Vermont. The New York Times article brought with it a whole new population of shoppers, which led to a burgeoning boom of “retail tourism” in Manchester. After that, developers from all over the world used Manchester Designer Outlets as the model for their outlet centers. Ben and Lana were contacted by several other cities in the U.S. and abroad to develop outlet centers for them. They declined and opted instead to continue working diligently to expand MDO’s offerings and retail spaces.
Small Town to Global to Local
As time passed, the Haubens built upon their success by continuing to beautify Manchester’s historic downtown district with phenomenal new buildings. In 2014, they opened the 20,000 square foot “Marble Mill” complex on the northern side of Depot Street. It serves as a breathtaking embodiment of the Haubens’ commitment to Manchester’s continual prosperity. The structure features elegant and timeless architectural features, such as serpentine stone sitting walls and vaulted ceilings. Its design also incorporates elements of environmentally-sustainable “Green Development.” Vibrant outdoor gardens add to the scenic ambience, and the Marble Mill is located directly adjacent to a river that runs through the center of town. Several popular outlet stores stand on its grounds, including Eddie Bauer, Le Creuset, and Giorgio Armani. Lana Hauben says that after the Marble Mill was constructed, a longstanding local resident recognized their efforts with a friendly gesture of heartfelt validation. “We wanted the community to enjoy what we were creating – and in truth, we wanted their approval,” says Hauben. “It came at a high cost, but when we opened the Marble Mill 30 years after we opened Polo/Ralph Lauren, a prominent gentleman from nearby Dorset came over to Ben, shook his hand, and said, ‘Good job, Ben.’ I don’t think he truly realized how much that meant to us.”
As MDO moves forward into the future, Lana Hauben is also grateful to be able to work with her family members to continue the successful trajectory of their generational business. “My beautiful daughter, Alissa, grew up watching her creative father’s dreams and successes come to fruition and ‘inherited’ his hard-work ethic.” Hauben adds: “We are currently riding the wave of the ever-changing business landscape in our community and around the world. Unimaginable challenges have been presented recently on a global scale, but those challenges have not stopped us from working hard to provide visitors and locals with a world-class shopping experience that interweaves local, independent stores with world-renowned brands.”
MDO’s properties now encompass 135,000 square feet of retail space and house 24 shops, restaurants, and cultural attractions. In recent years, the MDO buildings have become the home of the Southern Vermont Ballet, which provides a studio space where young aspiring dancers can hone their ballet skills, and Helmholz Fine Art, which showcases exceptional artworks in a refined and distinctive setting. “Ben and I have supported Manchester’s local cultural organizations for decades, including the Manchester Music Festival, the Dorset Theatre Festival, and the Weston Theater Company,” says Lana Hauben. “Art is vitally important to the community. We were happy to provide a young, energetic, and savvy Lisa Helmholz with gallery space and a wonderful space for the ballet studio to a young mother and dancer. We were also happy to be able to provide spaces for Depot Street Burgers, which is run by a young, hard-working couple who created a delicious and very affordable menu for both locals and visitors, and Pastime Pinball, which is also owned by a young couple with a fabulous collection of vintage and modern pinball machines. They offer great, clean American fun for individuals and families alike.”
MDO’s striking buildings also host several flourishing independently-owned Vermont-based retail businesses, the newest of which include Smuggler’s Notch Distillery, Aunt Bonnie’s CBD, and Sabi Mercantile.
MDO changed the landscape of the retail industry decades ago by bringing high-fashion outlets to Southern Vermont when it was deemed impossible. Building on that original ethos of courageous innovation, MDO is now providing a new blueprint for sustainable commercial prosperity. By integrating blossoming Vermont-based companies into their business model, they are helping them to achieve their dreams of commercial success. “Ben’s spirit lives on today, and encourages us to be positive, to work hard, and to prevail,” says Lana Hauben. “We want everyone to know that they should work hard to make their dreams come true. Ben worked at the Vanderbilt Equities Office in New York City, and there was a sign there that he placed in a prominent spot. It said, ‘NOTHING HAPPENS UNLESS YOU MAKE IT HAPPEN.’ We take great pleasure in giving opportunities to new young entrepreneurs, seeing young families move to our area, and watching our community and schools continue to grow and prosper. It’s wonderful to be able to know that we played a part in the stewardship of our beloved Manchester.”
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