Tuesday December 11, 2012

KEITH WHITCOMB JR.

Staff Writer

BENNINGTON -- This year brought some new faces to town.

"There has been a spike in businesses created over the past 10 to 12 months," said Michael Harrington, Bennington economic and community development director. He said there have been at least 11 new operations, while eight have taken advantage of the Bennington Revolving Loan Fund to either expand or start up.

No accurate tracking

There is no accurate method of tracking how many businesses open their doors in all of Bennington, said Harrington, who must rely on loan applications and zoning permits to determine that level of economic activity. He said the secretary of state's office is planning to create a searchable database for registered businesses, but until that happens paperwork filed with the town and word of mouth are the only tools he has to count new operations.

The majority of businesses that have come to Bennington in the past year are small, family-owned operations. Harrington said many target a niche market, but range from consignment shops, artisan bagel shops, financial planners, and spas. Many could be seen as resurrected versions of businesses that had gone out. Full Belly Deli has reopened as Sunnyside Diner, Paul's Fish Fry is now T.J's Fish Fry, and the former Haynes and Kane's store is now LaFlamme's Inc. (complete with the famed giant chair).

"To me, that's a healthy sign," Harrington said, adding that during the worst of the recession people in a position to run a small business were holding on to their money or were not able to get a loan from a bank.

Many are still not in a position to go to a bank for traditional financing, hence the town's loan program. He said there are currently 26 businesses involved in the Revolving Loan Fund. A total of $762,926 has been loaned, and according to Harrington many using the fund could not start up or keep going without it. The loans are considered high risk, he said, and given to businesses that have had trouble getting loans in the traditional manner but the intent of the loan is job creation.

He said in the past eight months, businesses in the loan program -- not counting new businesses as a whole- have -- added about 10 jobs to the area while between five and seven have been retained.

John Shannahan, executive director of the Better Bennington Corporation, said as far as the downtown district is concerned, the numbers of businesses have been going up in the past three years. Shannahan the downtown is small enough to allow BBC personnel to physical count the businesses as well as the spaces they can occupy.

He said since 2010, there have been 40 businesses to set up in the downtown with 16 being lost, for a net gain of 24. A total of 147 jobs were added to the downtown over that three year period while 68 were lost, for a net increase of 79 jobs. Looking at each of the three years, he said, the numbers are increasing with there being a net gain of five businesses in 2010, eight in 2011, and 11 this year.

He said of the spaces businesses can set up, 87 percent are occupied. That is counting spaces on the street level. The second floor occupancy rate is 82 percent. He said these occupancy rates have not been growing quickly, as businesses are tending to share space when possible. For example, a large building with one business operating out of it would count as one space for the BBC's records. If it rents to three other businesses, the building counts as three spaces where there had been one. Shannahan said because the space "inventory" goes up, the percentage of occupied spaces overall does not move much.

Shannahan said the numbers are a good sign but what he feels are more important economic indicators are the tenants occupying Bennington's larger buildings which have been vacant for some time. He said 210 South Street is filling up, as is the Brush building. The former Catamount Elementary School, now the Bennington Sports Center, is another large building that has been put to use after being dormant, and the Oldcastle Theatre Company has moved to Main Street. Shannahan said the theater is expected to bring more foot traffic to the downtown.

He said the town still needs to work on improving walkways for pedestrians and while the economic news is good, there are still concerns such as there not being much of a "night life" for older adults who shy away from the bars open past 10 p.m.

"We may need to be concerned, but when we look at ourselves compared to other communities in our state, we are in better condition," Shannahan said.