Tuesday April 9, 2013

The Bennington strategic economic development plan has just been released by the BCRC and, I believe, Mullin Associates. I do question whether Mr. Mullin even read the report, or had any part in writing it. The $18,000 grant that went to pay for this, in my humble opinion, was wasted. I hope the new Select Board, after reading this report, will ask for a return of that money so that they can hire someone else to take a fresh look at Bennington’s economic future, and not just reiterate our existing town plan.

I urge readers to go out, get a copy of the plan from the town or the BCRC, and then make up your own mind as to whether there is anything fresh or new in it. Without going into details, the plan repeats itself over and over, never looking at key issues that face our town. It never mentions how we can or can’t benefit from the new bypass; it never even talks about our commercial district on Northside Drive. However, our downtown gets prominent mention without ever discussing how Bennington can fill the growing number of empty storefronts.

Bennington’s downtown designation was renewed once again, according to Community Development Director Michael Harrington. Mr. Harrington took special pains to note that the district has been expanded to include the old Catamount Elementary school, which is now acting as a soccer-training facility (with the potential for it to have a bar/lounge in the facility).

But what does it bring to our downtown? Or even to the rest of the town. New business? New tax revenues? New traffic from which existing businesses can kickstart some growth? I think Bennington needs more than just that.

Let me fill in my own version of Bennington’s economic development plan. Where the $18,000 report didn’t go, I’ll provide some insight for free.

First, if we want to save the taxpayers of Bennington $1,000 or more per week, let’s get rid of the Community Development Director position. That money could be better spent to hire a professional recruiter of business for the town.

Next, if we want to get our youth interested in both business and preserving downtown, why not provide a handful of students with vending permits to allow them to sell various foods along Main Street. This would give them a stake in the town, a leg up on college savings, and perhaps an incentive to return to Bennington and start their own business that could benefit all of us. It would also be a cheap way of getting more interest and foot traffic downtown, which might also help our struggling businesses.

For entertainment downtown this year, why can’t we enlist our talented high-school students to put together evening music programs. Perhaps we could even provide the kids with a small financial stipend to both help them cover expenses and provide a bit of additional incentive.

Perhaps we could use a portion of the $200,000 coming from the Wal-Mart settlement to offset a portion of the rent for any new businesses that come to Bennington and occupy a vacant storefront downtown.

And finally, we need to consider hiring a lobbyist to engage the state legislature to get the funding needed to fix Northside Drive and turn it into the commercial center it should be for this town. For too long, it has suffered from neglect as the state refuses to put money into paving or improvements, and the town refuses to take responsibility for a state road. This must change if Bennington is ever to develop a balanced and viable town-wide economy.

The plan also states that a community cannot grow without a good school system. I went to the last Bennington School District meeting, and they are working hard to bring the budget in line with voter demands. The school board’s responsibility is to educate our children as best as possible. However, it is not the role of the school board to boost growth in the town. Without raising the grand list, we cannot adequately support our schools to give our kids the first-rate education they and the town need for future success. That, in the end, is the job of Bennington’s Select Board.

Mike Bethel is a resident of Bennington.