The National Conversation

The Come Back Block

The Come Back Block

The collaborative approach to revitalizing Bennington’s downtown by Heather DiLeo

Labor Day 1979 was the last truly hot day of a difficult summer marked by gas shortages, inflation, and high unemployment—the summer when President Carter named Americans’ loss of faith in the future a crisis of confidence. That Monday, “My Sharona” was number one on the radio and Hurricane David was churning toward South Florida.

Ted Bird—immediate past president of the Bennington Chamber of Commerce, the Vermont Retail Association, and the local Rotary Club, loaded his Mazda GLC wagon and drove south from Bennington a defeated man. “It was over,” he says, “pretty much the worst day of my life.”

Bird was by every measure an extremely successful business owner and a mainstay of Main Street. A clerk at Noveck’s music and photography shop at 15 years old, he bought the business in his early 20s, renamed it for himself, and ran it for 17 years. 

Bird’s was one of nine stores on Bennington’s Main Street to close that year, amounting to roughly 25% of downtown businesses. He had expanded his store several times over the years to meet customer demand. Suddenly, he found he had more merchandise than customers. The town was no longer growing. Unable to pay his loans, Bird was forced to let the bank auction off his stock. “I was a born optimist and I had just grown and grown and it never occurred to me that that growth would stop,” he says. The radio station interviewed him. The local paper printed an editorial on the trouble with downtown. 

Some of what compelled Bird to leave Bennington without ceremony in 1979—on Labor Day, of all days—didn’t change much over the next 35 years. 

Today Bennington College, Southern Vermont College (SVC), Southern Vermont Medical Center (SVMC), the Bank of Bennington, and smaller businesses and residents have joined forces to fundamentally address the town’s vitality and sustainability, issues that have preoccupied Bennington for decades.

These local leaders, together with town planners, have developed the Putnam Block Project, which entirely reimagines four acres in the heart of downtown Bennington—offering market-rate housing and new retail, office, and gallery spaces. The Putnam Block, a 205,000-square-foot development that includes the august Putnam Hotel and now retired Greenberg hardware and building supply, intends to attract new dwellers and businesses, and to encourage greater integration of the colleges and the town.

Looking Back,Moving Forward

Like cities and towns across the country, Bennington has suffered from the gradual disappearance of manufacturing jobs. Known in the 19th and early 20th century for textiles and paper, its mills employed hundreds of employees per shift and up to three shifts a day. 

Eventually, Bennington area mills evolved to make things like tools, gift wrap, and batteries. But in the 1980s and 90s businesses continued to leave; several of the largest left the area, including Stanley Tools in Shaftsbury, Benmont Paper in Bennington, and Johnson Controls (formerly Globe-Union). They moved for various reasons, including the cost of remediating environmental issues.

So began a vicious circle. Fewer jobs discouraged some working-age folks from putting down roots. Fewer workers and customers made the area less attractive for businesses. Each trend aggravated the other. Over time, both Bennington County and the Southwestern Vermont region as a whole have steadily aged. 

Through these vicissitudes, area colleges have remained a constant. Colleges benefit communities in economic terms because they’re immobile and uncommonly stable enterprises. Unlike for-profit businesses, higher ed institutions don’t relocate and often weather business down cycles. Indeed, just last year alone, private colleges contributed $2.1 billion to the Vermont state economy.

“Colleges and universities are essential economic and community anchors, particularly in small towns,” Bennington College President Mariko Silver says. Since joining Bennington four years ago, she has engaged area leaders and the Bennington campus on community engagement matters, aware that students and staff want to be meaningfully involved in the places that they live.

“The role that institutions of higher ed play in engaging with the community shapes not just the growth trajectory but also the ongoing community development of the places where they’re located. The students coming in today want to be engaged in their communities and that includes while they’re in college. They participate in community events and community organizations and their lives are changed by it. We should make the most of that from both sides of the equation. The more we can engage directly with the concerns and interests and ideas of the community and the more there can be a back and forth, the better.”

Southern Vermont College president David Evans agrees. His institution is situated just less than two miles from downtown Bennington, and his students also converge in the town for jobs and internships, participate in volunteer days and power charity drives as well, some even start businesses downtown. But Evans cites what other leaders in his position also point to: that students want to do more than contribute and work downtown, they want to consume locally as well.

“Our students want an engaging community to be involved in and diverse places to eat and access to amenities,” he says.

Student surveys over the years have also shared as much, many resulting in a common issue: affordable rentals, vibrant downtown nightlife, and reliable public transportation. And until recently, those calls have been more difficult to address.

The Town/Gown Exchange 

Despite the advantages colleges provide communities and vice versa, the “town and gown” relationship is not always an easy one. 

Janet Lillie is President of the International Town and Gown Association (ITGA), an information resource and meeting point for institutions of higher learning and their communities. She also works as assistant vice president for community relations at Michigan State University. MSU and East Lansing, Michigan were among the ITGA’s first members.

Initially, Lillie says, many of the conversations the ITGA facilitated between colleges and towns all over the country were motivated by friction between local residents and students. These town-gown discussions were likely to be focused on student behavior and off campus housing, particularly at larger institutions, and their impact on the community.

Lillie cites a typical example of the kinds of public safety issues the ITGA helped mediate at its founding: “There was a decade where students across the country were going crazy celebrating a sports season loss or victory.”

Today, the ITGA is increasingly focused on hosting proactive conversations between colleges and communities about their mutual thriving—something she sees in Bennington.

“What impresses me about Bennington is the high level of entrepreneurship,” Lillie says. “I see the inverse issue [of addressing unwelcome student impact on a community at Bennington].” Instead of mediating unwelcomed behavior by college students or townspeople, at Bennington, “It’s about economic development.”

According to Lillie, economic development is the distinct opportunity colleges and towns can focus their efforts. When it comes to economic development, schools of every size, she says, face similar issues. “The region I’m from is much, much bigger than Bennington but we’re not growing as much as we should. We’re graduating several thousand students a year and asking ourselves what can we do to make this region more attractive so they stay?”

These are some of the same issues Bennington’s local business and education leaders began talking about several years ago: how to revitalize downtown and balance the needs of its various constituencies. 

Colleges in town are not the only institutions with a reason to want to engage in community planning. Southwestern Vermont Medical Center (SVMC)—the town’s top employer—faces similar challenges when it comes to recruiting and retaining highly educated medical professionals to the area.

“We’re in a very competitive market in terms of talent. We need to make sure not only that we’re performing well as an organization and that we have the right opportunities but that we have reasons that people will want to come here,” SVMC CEO Tom Dee explains. 

Dee points out that professionals who relocate to the area do so for a better quality of life, but can later find friction when it comes to finding affordable and updated rental housing, access to common retail goods, regular public transportation, and an active downtown nightlife.

“You have to be able to live and work in an area that meets your needs,” Dee says. “Having to leave for services in Albany does not work in the long haul. We have to be able to become a self-sustaining community that has a high quality of life and that attracts people. That means having a downtown area that people live in and one that stays open after dark.” 

A Revitalized Downtown

In 2015, the Town hired the Bennington County Regional Commission (BCRC) to devise a downtown-area-wide revitalization plan, taking into account Brownfields—a term used to describe land previously used for industrial or commercial purposes with known or suspected pollution including soil contamination due to hazardous waste. Brownfields represent a particular development challenge for urban and town planners, including in Bennington where virtually every property in a historic downtown falls in that category.

BCRC director Jim Sullivan and assistant director Bill Colvin completed the public planning process, which included substantial public input, in January of 2016, generating conceptual redevelopment scenarios, a market study, and an analysis of existing conditions downtown.  Together they met with local leaders to discuss strategies that would move the needle on the local economy. 

Colvin and Sullivan had to solve a difficult puzzle: identifying the features of a viable, sustainable community and fitting them together in a way that works for everyone. They envision “a place where folks can walk to get their food, walk to dinner, and get their basic services without having to get in a car,” says Colvin.

Around the same time, The Bennington Redevelopment Group LLC formed. The group—which includes the Bank of Bennington, Southwestern Vermont Health Care, Bennington College, and Southern Vermont College, as well as several prominent local business leaders—was also weighing how to revitalize downtown and balance the needs of its various constituencies. Like many efforts in Bennington, two different groups were working in parallel course towards a similar goal when a rare opportunity presented itself in the form of the Greenberg properties, approximately four acres primely located in the heart of downtown that includes the Putnam Hotel, the Old Courthouse/Pennysaver office, the Winslow Building, Oldcastle Theatre, H. Greenberg and Son Hardware, and the Mobil station. Now with a vision that meets many of the needs expressed by the stakeholders and citizens, the group has helped to engine the project with actual downtown investment. 

“Our group first met about a year ago,” said Jim Brown, CEO of Bank of Bennington, “We had a common understanding that Bennington was struggling and something needed to be done to change that. We also had a belief that private investors would have to lead that with a civic mindset in order for it to be successful. We recognized that the Putnam Block and its redevelopment was the transformative project that needed to happen in Bennington to change the momentum.”

Not only was there a chance to invest collectively in a significant portion of downtown with the sale of the Greenberg properties, it was a chance to begin to operate these connected and highly visible locations with a similar set of leaders. “Having four acres on the market in the heart of a downtown in ostensibly single ownership is a unique opportunity,” Colvin says. “It didn’t take me very long to convince the group that maybe making a run at redeveloping the Putnam block would be the way to go. We’d be hard pressed to find something that would be more significant both psychologically and in very real financial terms.” 

Work on the second phase is planned to begin in early 2019. Once started, the block will constitute slightly less than half the entire 205,000-square-foot redevelopment project and will commence the first phase of the project which will include approximately 26,000 square feet of retail/restaurant and 7,000 square feet of office, along with five two-bedroom apartments and 24 one-bedroom apartments.

Work on a second project phase is planned to begin next fall, with the site expected to include six downtown structures on four acres, also including a former hardware store and lumber yard, a gas station/convenience store and a large parking lot—all located to the west of the former hotel and bordering on Washington Avenue. 

Anticipating that new residents will work and shop and eat locally, Colvin and Sullivan have also developed more office space and commercial storefronts. They’ve been working to attract employers, restaurateurs, a grocer, and other businesses to complete the picture. The most difficult task, Colvin says, is to bring in brick and mortar retail: “That’s kind of the last piece to fill in. In the world of Amazon, retail anywhere is challenging but particularly in rural communities.” 

The Come Back

Bennington College has already relocated its Institutional Advancement office across the street from the Putnam Hotel this summer, and also has plans to locate future faculty housing in town in the coming year. Southern Vermont College is exploring moving its nursing and radiologic services program to downtown facilities as well. SVMC is also considering adding a satellite location to the area. Between the three major employer groups, and the young, highly educated people these groups attract, the institutions are helping to bring the very people that the town (and state on the whole) have lost in the commonly referred to “brain drain.” While Bennington College, SVC, and SVMC primarily serve the highly educated, young, and middle aged, their investment and vision has inspired private investments from individuals and groups catering to retirees. 

Tony and Jackie Marro, also members of the Bennington Redevelopment Group, were among the first to invest in the Putnam Block. They grew up in the area and went on to great things—Jackie as a fashion designer and Tony as a Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist. As aspiring young people they felt they had to leave, not because they were un-happy with Vermont but because of their work. In retirement, the Marros chose Bennington mainly because of family but also because the town suits them well. 

“When we discuss this with people our age, they’re all very intrigued with the idea of having culture so close and so easy. Vermont rates really high on places to retire—it’s a very healthy state. You have a hospital that’s only one mile away. For those who want to stretch out, Williamstown is only 14 miles away. MASS MoCA is there and Saratoga is only 45 miles to the west.” 

Ted Bird also returned to Bennington in the late 90s, a clear-eyed commercial realtor and local historian. Bird sees the Putnam project as a watershed: “It is the most important thing to happen in downtown Bennington in its history—more important than building the Opera House, more important than building the Hotel in the 1870s.”

Largely seen as one of the most significant developments in the town’s history, and with real investments brought to bear on  the vision of a revitalized downtown, the project has generated major momentum that has driven support from state officials.

In August, the project earned a $1 million dollar grant from the state of Vermont. Governor Phil Scott came to town to praise the project, surrounded by an enthusiastic crowd and the project’s key partners. In his remarks, he lauded the Putnam Block’s job creation potential, its promise to provide much needed housing, and thoughtful downtown renewal. But, like many others, the most celebrated aspect was the unprecedented collaboration between colleges, civic boards, private investors, and regional groups. “This is truly a joint effort that we’re here to celebrate today,” Governor Scott said. “It shows what we can achieve when we work together and all pull in the same direction.”

The Come Back Block