Downtown Bethel building changes hands

New owners of the Arnold Block building in Bethel, Vt., Chris and Amanda Helali, of Vershire, Vt. replace a light bulb on Tuesday,  Oct. 31, 2023. The room is used as a community meeting space.(Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

New owners of the Arnold Block building in Bethel, Vt., Chris and Amanda Helali, of Vershire, Vt. replace a light bulb on Tuesday, Oct. 31, 2023. The room is used as a community meeting space.(Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News - Jennifer Hauck photos

Sitting between two larger buildings, the Arnold Block building in Bethel Vt., has been sold to Chris and Amanda Helali. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Sitting between two larger buildings, the Arnold Block building in Bethel Vt., has been sold to Chris and Amanda Helali. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Chris and Amanda Helali, of Vershire, Vt., stand outside the Arnold Block building in Bethel on Tuesday,  Oct. 31, 2023 in Bethel,  Vt. The couple have purchased the building, which was built in 1878.(Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Chris and Amanda Helali, of Vershire, Vt., stand outside the Arnold Block building in Bethel on Tuesday, Oct. 31, 2023 in Bethel, Vt. The couple have purchased the building, which was built in 1878.(Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News photos - Jennifer Hauck

A short walk from the Arnold Block, new owner Chris Helali chooses a light bulb with the help of Brad Andrews, owner of Mills Hardware in Bethel, Vt. on Tuesday, Oct. 31, 2023. Helali and his wife of Vershire, Vt., purchased the historic building, built in 1878.(Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

A short walk from the Arnold Block, new owner Chris Helali chooses a light bulb with the help of Brad Andrews, owner of Mills Hardware in Bethel, Vt. on Tuesday, Oct. 31, 2023. Helali and his wife of Vershire, Vt., purchased the historic building, built in 1878.(Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

By CHRISTINA DOLAN

Valley News Correspondent

Published: 11-03-2023 5:29 PM

BETHEL — When Lindley Brainard and three other partners purchased Bethel’s Arnold Block building in 2018, they knew it was a “really strange business model,” said Brainard, who is also a member of the Bethel Selectboard. 

Their vision was to create a business that would serve Bethel and the surrounding communities with meeting and working spaces, as well as a start-up incubator aimed at populating downtown storefronts with local businesses. 

But on Oct. 17 Brainard and partners Lylee Rauch-Kacenski and Lisa and Tom Warhol, announced on social media that they had decided to sell the business. The slowdown caused by the COVID-19 pandemic followed by the effort to bring the business back on line took a toll on the partners’ time and energy. 

“This is a labor of love,” said Brainard, “and we all have other jobs. We just felt like we weren't doing it justice. We weren't giving the community what we wanted to be giving.”  

Built in 1878, the 4,400-square-foot building was first used as a harness shop, with owner Fred Arnold running his life insurance building on the second floor. Since then it has hosted a law practice, furniture shop, a marketing firm and a catering business. 

Its storefront is now occupied by Hailbrook's Broken Stove Bakery, and the remaining space is used as a movement studio for dance, yoga and martial arts classes as well as meeting and office space. There is also a two-bedroom apartment upstairs that until recently housed a family of Ukrainian refugees. 

Now the building is in new hands. On Oct. 13, the sale of the Arnold Block building was finalized and Vershire residents Christopher and Amanda Helali took ownership. While the details are still in process, they plan to continue its identity as a multiple-use building. Listed at $375,000, the property sold for $350,000.

“It’s a phenomenal opportunity for us,” said Christopher, adding that he and Amanda are “very, very excited to steward the building for the next phase of its life.” 

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When Brainard and her partners purchased the building in 2018, Bethel faced a downtown full of vacant buildings and underutilized resources. Along with several municipal entities including the Conservation Commission and Recreation Committee, they were looking at ways to revitalize the downtown area and improve the town’s economic vitality. 

“We were listening to the community and hearing what was missing and we wanted to support that,” said Brainard. 

But not everyone agreed that things were so dire. 

“It’s always been awesome,” says Kevin Barry, referring to Bethel. Barry owns both the Levere Block and Blossom Block in the downtown area and dislikes the word “revitalization.”  

“Things have never been bad; it’s an authentic Vermont town that’s had its ups and downs,” which, he said, he believes is a normal cyclical pattern in the life of a commercial center. 

Still, he praised the Arnold Block partners for giving life to the building and opening it to the community, and he is delighted to see more businesses opening to the point at which there are currently no vacant buildings downtown at all. 

“These old buildings are the heritage of Vermont,” he said, “and they need to be taken care of.”

Barry himself has been working to renovate the Blossom Block building for the past five years and says that the work progresses at a snail’s pace. “And sometimes the snail sits down and takes a nap.”

Brainard praised Bethel’s Town Manager and several town committees for their hard work in applying for and receiving grants.

“We are so lucky to have Therese Kirby as our town manager,” said Brainard. “She's really honest and realistic with people” and is effective at helping residents understand that although the wheels of municipal government may turn slowly, that does not mean that people aren’t doing the hard work.

In 2021, the town was awarded a Better Connections Grant by the Vermont Agency on Transportation to support the development of a master plan to improve accessibility and safety and to revitalize the village center. The next year, the town received a $331,809 Vermont Outdoor Recreation Economic Collaborative Grant to plan and build an interconnected network of multi-use trails, with a focus on making it possible to get through downtown exclusively on trails. 

One of the new owners, Christopher Helali, is a former officer in the U.S. Army who is currently a first-year law student at the Vermont Law and Graduate School in South Royalton. He ran as a member of the Party of Communists USA against Peter Welch in 2020 for Vermont’s seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, receiving 3,432, or 0.93%, of the total votes cast, according to the Vermont Secretary of State’s office. Amanda is a program coordinator at Dartmouth College’s Geisel School of Medicine. 

When they looked at the building, Christopher said that “we fell in love with it and I knew it was the right fit.” He sees it as a gathering space for community events, as well as office space.  

Acutely aware of the region’s housing needs, Christopher said that the couple is looking at the building as a mixed space that may include “some level of housing” that would be affordable and centrally located. They are considering “what would serve the most people and have the greatest impact,” Christopher said.

“Our hope is to be a place where all Vermonters can feel at home and to be a hub for progressive movements.”

Christina Dolan can be reached at cdolan18020@gmail.com.

CORRECTION: Lindley Brainard is one of the partners selling Bethel’s Arnold Block. Brainard’s first name was misspelled in an earlier version of this story.