BENNINGTON >> It could be that a commercial real estate surge is creeping up on the town of Bennington.
A flurry of interest in business property in three locations, a new super-size Walmart and its facilitating roundabout, and a handful of multi-million dollar sales have some optimistic that the town's excruciatingly slow market recovery has arrived.
"There are different spots in Bennington," said Kathy Hoisington, owner of Hoisington Realty. "On Northside Drive, where Walmart is expanding, we call that ground zero for that type of commercial activity."
She said the town "is seeing an increase in traffic all along Route 67A (Northside Drive) and Route 7A. When you get that type of stimulation, the area becomes a magnet."
Hoisington said she remembers a few decades ago when a shopping center was created off nearby Kocher Drive and a burst of business activity followed, similar to what she believes is happening today. "I think [Northside Drive] is looking very, very healthy now," she said.
The outlook for the Main Street market is more guarded but still promising, she said. Hoisington said the downtown is looking for something to increase traffic — in that case foot traffic.
"That's why we are all interested in what will happen with the Putnam Hotel building," she said.
A group called the Bennington Redevelopment Group, LLC, has a purchase and sale agreement to purchase not only the historic hotel building at Bennington's iconic Four Corners intersection but also the nearby Old Courthouse and Pennysaver building, the Winslow Building, Oldcastle Theatre building, the former H. Greenberg & Son Hardware store and lumber yard, and the large adjacent parking lot located to the rear of the former hotel.
The investment group is made up of several community organizations, including the Bank of Bennington, Southwestern Vermont Health Care, Bennington College, Southern Vermont College, Global-Z International, D.B. McKenna and Co.; Anthony and Jacqueline Marro, and other individuals.
The group, which has made it clear that one of its prime goals to do something to benefit the community, has completed a first phase of its environmental review of the properties involved, and recently extended its option to purchase for another 90 days while a second phase of that review continues.
The estimated overall cost of the project is in the $20 million range. The vision calls for a mix of uses, including downtown housing, restaurants and office and retail space.
Bennington County Regional Commission Assistant Director Bill Colvin was one of those who said he senses optimism throughout the local economy because of the Putnam Hotel proposal and other recent developments. "I am certainly hearing those things," he said. "People are a little more willing to be speculative."
"We don't have hard data yet," said Michael Harrington, the town's economic development director, "but what I am feeling and hearing is that there is an increasing interest in the downtown. There is a lot of excitement over the possible revitalization of the old Putnam building."
There is, however, some real estate data in the form of impressive prices paid in recent months for commercial property. Exactly what the figures mean could be debated, but they show properties going for more than the assessed value.
Those sales include two Carbone Auto Group dealership complexes located near one another on North Bennington Road, housing four major auto brands. The properties sold in September to a national dealership group for $4.1 million and $2.9 million respectively. The respective assessed values for the two properties were $2.76 million and $2.38 million.
About a week earlier, the Bennington Health and Rehab Center nursing home property on Blackberry Lane sold to a national health services group for $6.8 million, well above the assessed value of $3.4 million.
In August, the Best Western motel on Northside Drive was sold for $3.6 million. It was assessed at $1.76 million.
Interest in the downtown extends beyond the Putnam building and the Four Corners, Harrington said. He noted the purchase in September of the building at 431 Main St. that housed the former Rehm-Brandt Design, with plans by the new owners for commercial space for tenants, and the purchase of the historic Gibney Block at 528 Main St., with plans from the new owner for both residential and commercial space there.
The three-story Gibney block is on the National Register of Historic Places.
And this week, plans were announced by two nonprofit housing groups for renovation of the former Stark Hose No. 1 firehouse building for both gallery and living space.
While both the Gibney and Rehm-Brandt buildings were purchased at far below the assessed value, the changes were seen as indicative of the sense among investors that a revival of the area is in progress and the market has hit bottom and is coming back.
In addition, Harrington said, there was swift movement when two long-established downtown businesses announced they were closing. The Vermont Department of Motor Vehicles office in Bennington quickly announced a move into the Panache space at 530 Main St., he said, and "there already is a lot of interest in Evans' News," located at 434 Main St., after the owners announced they would close the retail outlet of the business.
"I think there is a lot of interest and an underlying feeling of momentum in revitalization and economic development," Harrington said.
Concerning Northside Drive, he and the real estate professionals interviewed cited the new roundabout in front of the Monument Square Center, which includes the new 112-square-foot Walmart (replacing a 51,000-square-foot store), as a key to the higher traffic volume. The circle replaces a set of traffic lights that resulted in routine backups fanning out in both directions from the center's entrance/exit onto Northside Drive and causing frustrating delays. Those slowdowns appear to have largely disappeared, which officials said gives shoppers more incentive to visit the area.
Kathy Sollien, owner of Maple Leaf Realty, sees similar trends in commercial real estate.
"In general, things are happening around here," she said. "It is very encouraging."
Besides the expanded Walmart, which opened in August, and its effect boosting overall traffic along Northside Drive, she noted that Cumberland Farms recently replaced its store with a larger one in that area, and Stewart's Shops built a larger store in the downtown, moving to a Main Street location with a larger parking lot/fuel pump area and easier access.
The convenience store chains both invested heavily in Bennington, Sollien said, "and they don't do that unless they think it's worth it."
Ted Bird, who focuses on commercial real estate for Hoisington Realty, and Ed Woods, co-owner of the Knotty Pine Hotel on Northside Drive and president of the Bennington Area Chamber of Commerce, both spoke of the possibility that what is happening is the area finally emerging from the depths of the Great Recession.
Referring to the lengthy list of commercial properties on the market in Bennington, Bird said, "It shows we were still recovering from the drought of a number of years, but Bennington is getting more and more interest than before."
Northside Drive "is going to be very healthy," he said, but the downtown area also is generating "an enormous amount of interest," evidenced by new ownership for the Gibney Block and the former Rehm-Brandt building.
Along Northside Drive, Bird said there is significant interest in the spacious former Aaron's store building — previously a warehouse for Haynes & Kane Furniture at the intersection of Route 67A and Route 7A. And he referred to a 6.2-acre parcel just west and across Northside Drive from the Walmart center, which once served as a drive-in theater.
"I don't know why someone hasn't jumped on that," Bird said.
Woods said he had heard a real estate agent say that it would take a decade for the area market to recover from the depths of the Great Recession, "and we are just about there now."
"From the Chamber's perspective," Woods said, "there is a lot of positive news."
In his immediate neighborhood is the Best Western motel, as well as a previously vacant building on Northside Drive that once housed a restaurant. It was purchased in 2014, and an Asian eatery recently opened there.
Kathy Hoisington and Harrington also referred to a third commercial hot spot that has emerged — centered around sections of Benmont Avenue and County Street, which meets it to form a T.
The historic Vermont Mill Properties site at 160 Benmont Ave. is located at the T of the intersection, and the rambling brick structure, owned by developer Jon Goodrich, has become home to dozens of small businesses.
Just two blocks to the east, where Route 7 and County Street intersect, is becoming known as "Four Corners North," Hoisington said, and businesses flourishing there include Bennington Potters and Catamount Glass and Taphouse on County Street and Hawkins House at the Route 7 intersection.
Jim Therrien writes for the Bennington Banner and VtDigger.org. He can be reached at 802-447-7567, Ext. 114.