BENNINGTON -- A member of the Select Board wants more detailed information about business recruitment efforts made by the town's economic development team, but not all of the requested information may be shared with the public.
At Monday's Select Board meeting, board member John McFadden asked if there had been any discussion on a request he made of Economic and Community Development Director Michael Harrington to provide a list of businesses he had spoken with about possibly coming to Bennington and what those entities needed to make the move.
McFadden, who made the request in January, was not present at the board's first meeting in February. He said there was no indication the topic had been discussed in the minutes, and so asked to speak about it Monday.
The list Harrington provided shows he had contact with 16 companies in January. He redacted their names because their conversations have been held in confidence. Included are coffee shops, gas stations, and restaurants, but at the top of the list is, "A major clothing store looking to acquire a 50,000 +/- sq/ft space."
McFadden wanted to know if that meant the business would be opening if it could find such a space.
"In terms of that specific one, if they can find a location with the space under certain terms and conditions they are looking for, they will come, I've been told," said Harrington.
It was then asked by McFadden if the board should enter executive session to talk about what the company requires. The board never entered executive session.
"There is nothing they're asking for right now from the town to facilitate their move," said Town Manager Stuart Hurd.
"That's exactly my point, why is this town not asking what can we do to help facilitate this?" asked McFadden.
According to Harrington, it's not necessarily a case of what the town can do. "Many times where we see things break down is between the actual property owner and the business," he said. "What ends up happening is they're looking for specific amenities at the space, they're looking for a size, they're looking at cost, and the property owner is unable to meet the requirements."
He said at the meeting and in a later interview with the Banner that private entities are not required to come before his office and so conversations between companies and developers routinely occur in private. Furthermore, the town cannot negotiate on behalf of a business or developer.
Harrington said he does not "cold call" large numbers of businesses to recruit them and instead targets his efforts on entities that have shown an interest in town. He said this is more effective than some mass marketing strategy, plus the town walks a fine line when it comes to business recruitment. It wants to be welcoming and helpful, but also has to keep in mind the businesses already here who will see competition from newcomers.
"He gave me the list, but he never gave me the second piece, what they need from us to come here," said McFadden in an interview Wednesday. "That's the next piece of the puzzle, because then us as a Select Board can decide if it happens to be they need a building here and the property is not zoned correctly, it's a commercial space zoned industrial or whatever it might be, we can start to really consider whether or not we want to change that for this person."
Harrington told the Banner Friday he will be happy to prove McFadden and the board a list of businesses he has contacted on a regular basis, but noted that it is not as if he is speaking to 20 new entities each month. Many are the same from month to month, and he is not at liberty to discuss the nature of their talks with developers. He said sharing such information can cause negotiations to break down.
McFadden said he feels Harrington and the other economic development agencies in town do substantial work, but he would like to have it more widely known.
Contact Keith Whitcomb Jr. at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @KWhitcombjr.