About That Amazing Art Installation…

“Oh, great!” was my initial reaction to news of a massive art installation planned for the Essex Experience, a rather depressing retail sprawl just off Route 2A and Highway 289. The project, named Babaroosa, is inspired by the insanely successful Meow Wolf multisensory environments in Santa Fe, Denver, and Las Vegas.

Creators Teresa and Robert Davis promise “a labyrinth of over 60 rooms intricately woven through a 20,000 square foot complex.” It might sound like an artistic fever dream, but it’s got some serious money behind it. They’ve secured $7.25 million in loans from the Vermont Economic Development Authority and the Vermont State Employees Credit Union. Essex Experience owner Peter Edelmann will contribute $5 million in real estate, about which more below. The Davises are raising nearly $11 million in investor equity.

I’m looking forward to a visit if it comes to pass. However… the location is a terrible place to put a major tourist attraction.

The Davises foresee a half million visitors a year. Seems like a stretch, but Meow Wolf has become an entertainment phenomenon in a few short years. Let’s take their word for it.

The most popular tourist attraction in Vermont is the Ben & Jerry’s factory on Route 100 in Waterbury.with 350,000 visitors per year. It contributes substantially to the horrendous traffic on Route 100, but at least it’s only a short hop from the interstate.

The Essex Experience is six miles north of I-89 Exit 12. Doesn’t sound like much, but those six miles include the sprawling mallage just off the freeway, the busy US-2/2A intersection, a crawl into Essex, the Five Corners junction, and another crawl to 289. Virtually all of it is two-lane road. It takes 15-20 minutes to make the trip if traffic is unusually light.

I know because I made the trip in 16 minutes on Monday morning at about 10:00 a.m. Rush hour was over, and retail traffic had yet to pick up. Still, traffic moved consistently below the speed limit — which varied from 25 to 40 mph.

The Davises are talking about nearly doubling traffic along that route. Yikes.

The Seven Days article about Babaroosa appeared in the Arts section, which doesn’t normally focus on suburban planning. But this kinda seems like a problem, doesn’t it?

Babaroosa is projected to open in 2024. Are elected officials in Williston and Essex preparing for this? Considering their track record, I doubt it. Both communities have reaped the tax revenue from retail and residential sprawl while underbuilding the necessary infrastructure. They treat 2A like it’s a rural connector, not a major artery.

The result is traffic that moves at a snail’s pace. If the Davises’ estimates are correct, Babaroosa would add almost 15,000 vehicles per day. There are multiple ways to get there, but 2A is the most obvious. The underused capacity of Route 289 would help, but that would require tourists to figure out how to find it. Other approaches, like Route 15, are just as packed as 2A.

How much traffic does 2A already bear? VTrans keeps careful record of such things. 2020 was a low year for traffic because Covid, so I’m using 2019 figures.

I-89 exit 12: 20,000 vehicles per day.

Exit 12 to Marshall Avenue (1st traffic signal north of I-89): 16,400 per day.

Intersection of 2A and US-2: 16,400.

Essex Five Corners (Route 2A only): 17,000.

Route 2A at 289: 16,600.

Now, that’s consistency. Now imagine double the congestion.

That’s if the visits are spread evenly throughout the year, which won’t be the case. The effect would be much worse on weekends, which would be fine for commuters but not for local residents or shoppers in a retail-heavy corridor. And the tourist traffic would largely be concentrated in the traditional tourism months, from May to October.

In other words, on a Saturday in mid-summer you might be tripling or quadrupling the Route 2A traffic.

Sounds like a real headache. I hope somebody is planning for this.

Postscript: Mall owner Peter Edelmann has committed $5 million in real estate to Babaroosa, which seems amazingly generous. But I can tell you, after driving around the Essex Experience, he desperately needs something to turn around his property’s fortunes. The Experience, for those who haven’t, um, experienced it, is the northernmost mall in an extremely dense concentration of large retail spaces. It’s a big sprawling thing with several strip-mall type buildings on both sides of an access road and huge parking lots throughout.

And the only business that seems to be prospering is a Hannaford’s at the front of the mall.

Otherwise, you see all the indications of the mall industry’s decline. Empty storefronts. Large spaces devoted to service businesses like a physical therapy center, pilates and yoga studios, and even that bellwether of low rents, a nail salon. Quite a few restaurants; precious little traditional retail. I can see why Edelmann is giving away real estate. He’s got it coming out his ears anyway, and Babaroosa would be a creative solution to the development’s problems.

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