BENNINGTON -- Rep. Peter Welch spent more than an hour on Wednesday visiting several businesses on Main Street. Impressed with what he saw, Welch emphasized that local leadership is key to economic development.
Welch stopped at the Bennington Town Office Wednesday afternoon to start his foot tour, after also visiting WBTN, the Bennington Welcome Center and holding a Congress in Your Community event at Jensen's restaurant on Northside Drive.
The official group on the tour consisted of Welch and an aide, Bennington Select Board Chairman Joseph Krawczyk, Economic and Community Development Director Michael Harrington, and Planning Director Daniel Monks.
Stops included Knapp's, a musical instrument and toy store; Crazy Russian Girls Neighborhood Bakery; Shaffe's Men's Shop, all on the south side of Main Street. Then the group crossed the street to the north side at the 500 block and entered Bringing You Vermont, a specialty grocery, toy, and gift shop; and further west down Main Street they stopped in at Evans' News.
Waiting for the signal to walk at the Four Corners, Krawczyk told Welch: "People remember 50 years ago the thriving downtown, what they forget is that was a bank, there was a bank here, a bank there," he said, gesturing. "There was no direct deposit; you got paid on Friday, you had to come down here to cash your check. The A&P was right over there, the new department stores were right there. It was thriving. Everybody does things online now."
Still proceeding west and crossing diagonally at the Four Corners back to the south side of Main, the group spoke briefly with two men who were entering Jones' Barber Shop and then visited the Owl's Nest Upholstery and Antiques, taking particular note of a stuffed lion and buffalo head in the store.
The last stop was Oldcastle Theatre Company, where Producing Artistic Director Eric Peterson showed Welch around the company's new home. "We love it here," Peterson said. "We love being downtown."
"I want to see a play," Welch replied.
Stopping for a time at the Town Offices, Welch said he's impressed with the efforts Benningtonians are making: "Downtowns are really critical to the economic well-being of the entire area."
He added, "We need to keep our young people here and attract young people, and they need good downtown locations that attract them. So all of this effort to have [things] like Oldcastle Theater and decent restaurants and decent retail is really quite essential ... to attracting people."
Having government policies to help attract downtown developers is important, Welch said. To this end, he is one of the sponsors of the Main Street Fairness Act -- "that's all about having a level playing field for our brick and mortar retailers."
This bill would make it much easier for states to collect sales and use taxes from out-of-state online sellers. He is also sponsoring energy efficiency legislation to provide grants to commercial building owners who want to retrofit downtown buildings.
"I think that's another thing that's so essential because the buildings in our downtowns are oftentimes iconic buildings, but they're old and there's no way you can make them economical without retrofitting, and I'd like to establish much more of a public-private partnership," he said. "Ultimately, leadership at the local level is the most essential, but I'd like the federal government to provide some tools for our local private sector developers and our local public sector advocates to have a fair shot at revitalizing their downtowns."
He praised the Bennington Welcome Center, which he had just seen for the first time, but said efforts need to continue. "It's one step. It gives you a little bit of a platform to take the next step."
Welch acknowledged the difficulties faced by non-corporate retailers, such as those he had just visited.
"The challenges folks have who go into retail makes me ask the question: ‘Where do they get the will to do it?' because it is an uphill battle when everything's going right, yet they've got the will," he said. "That's why the leadership ultimately has to come from the local level because you might have the best store in the world, but if you don't have a good person who's committed to make it work and the skills, it won't happen."
"I see us in Washington as really having the job of trying to have responsible policies," Welch said, "so that when they need the financing tools or they need the tax credits to revive a historic building or when they are asking for nothing more than a level playing field on the sales taxes, that we give them that level playing field, that we give them a shot."
Harrington spoke about the successes and the needs of the downtown. Successes specifically come from small businesses that have either in the past year relocated to the downtown or have started. "We're seeing that resurgence of the small, family-owned shop that employs anywhere from one to five people, and so I think that's a positive thing for the downtown," he said.
The biggest challenge is making sure there's regular foot traffic downtown -- and has the amenities people are looking for, he said. Making sure all that all the available spots for businesses are filled is another challenge.
"We have spaces that need some major renovation and major investment to make them occupiable," Harrington said. "The task here is "finding the investors and the funding to rehab some of these spaces."
Contact Mark Rondeau at email@example.com; Find him on Twitter @banner_religion.