After being in business a year, I wanted to get involved with town politics and committees. When I heard about an open seat on the Downtown Improvement Commission, I quickly penned a letter of interest, and was appointed to the DIC.
I was amazed how many tax dollars had already been spent on downtown improvement, when I first joined the DIC. As a business owner, I had a vested interest in the renaissance of downtown Bennington... and, as a business owner, I quickly identified the inefficiency and organizational dysfunction that was stymieing Main Street's growth. The lump sum of tax money collected from the Downtown Improvement District each year is given to the Better Bennington Corporation. However, I saw little accountability for those funds. Our responsibility on the DIC was to review the planning and outcomes of the BBC and recommend their funding to the Select Board for final approval; therefore, accountability was our primary duty.
Shortly after I joined, there was a shift in standard operating procedure within the DIC, from rubber stamp to accountability. Meetings were occasionally tense, as a new relationship was awkwardly forged with the BBC. Our rubric for accountability was centered around the BBC's annual work plan. They completed an extensive planning report every year, but at the end of each year, most of the goals had not been achieved. So we laid down a challenge: prepare a more modest work plan and actually achieve those goals. At the end of that year, when the majority of the goals had not been met, the DIC recommended that the Select Board withhold a portion of the BBC budget. We further recommended those funds be used for downtown activities and promotions, sponsored by other organizations or individuals. In essence, we had successfully wrested public funds from an organization that was wasting them, in hopes that those funds could be used more effectively. In reality, we were merely swatting the hornet nest.
The first sign of trouble was a suggestion by the BBC, that the DIC should merge our board meetings with theirs, into one group meeting. Then came the suggestion that the DIC and BBC should become one group. This made no sense to the DIC, since our responsibility was to oversee the apportionment of downtown taxes, which the BBC obviously wanted exclusively. So, as DIC members' terms expired, they were replaced by members stepping off the BBC board. Just as inextricably, some members of the Select Board joined the BBC board. Then came the coup de grace: the BBC (and the new DIC filled with former BBC board members) successfully lobbied to dissolve the DIC.
That was a decade ago; since then copious money, energy, and drama have continued to be expended in the name of downtown improvement. The sticky wicket in addressing revitalization is the same now as it was then -- nobody is willing to criticize the BBC. Why? Because the organization is filled with our neighbors and plenty of good intentions. The problem isn't the personnel, but rather their role in a system which thwarts accountability and propagates the status quo. It's time to reconsider ending the BBC monopoly of downtown taxes. Why automatically presume that funneling taxes to one organization is more advantageous than allocating those funds competitively? Sure, the BBC does many things well, such as planning community events. However, there are some things which others are better equipped to handle.
Each year, reports are circulated on the decreasing number of empty storefronts, yet I count a steady increase in vacancies. I know from my past involvement with these events, that Mayfest and Midnight Madness can be run by a small group of volunteers. The BBC staffs a downtown welcome center, unfortunately the welcome center isn't open when the tourists visit on the weekends. The BBC also sponsors numerous committees, studies, roundtables and initiatives. My presence on Main Street is a result of one of their studies. The 21st Century Initiative was a $50,000 study that examined how to redevelop downtown. Although the Select Board approved funding the plan, they never took steps toward implementation. I attended several other roundtables and studies in subsequent years, with the exact same outcome. A group of well-meaning citizens gets together to "study" downtown, often obtaining public funding, but inevitably the plan has no teeth and never moves forward.
The BBC has been contracted by the Select Board to manage and promote downtown for almost 20 years... that's a generation! Continuing a downtown improvement tax on a Main Street, in an old mill town with a new bypass is both an affront to the local business community and a tax burden that hasn't borne fruit. The Select Board needs to take responsibility for downtown: either end the tax, or use it more effectively!
Joel Lentzner, owner of Fiddlehead at Four Corners, is a resident of Bennington.