Tuesday April 23, 2013

MICHELLE KARAS

Editor

BENNINGTON -- Among the shops and restaurants downtown there soon may be a store run by students from the three local colleges.

Karen Gross, president of Southern Vermont College, addressed the Bennington Select Board at its meeting Monday to gauge the board's support of the concept of a bookstore/café to be set up in a rented downtown storefront "so students would spend more time downtown."

Gross said plans include hosting evening events such as a poetry reading or open mic night at the venue, which she said would enrich the community and give hands-on experience running a business to students in different majors. The shop would be designed as a destination for college students as well as town residents and out-of-town visitors.

"This would be a benefit for students now and in their future careers," Gross said. "The idea is to enable our students to have a real-life experience."

Gross noted the store would require a regular permanent staff to ensure continuity as students graduate or go home for breaks.

Board member Thomas Jacobs said "I'd love to encourage it, because I think anything you can to do make the town vibrant and bring the students downtown ... is certainly a good thing."

"My cautions would be some of the business model sounds a little like some of the businesses that are already existing downtown trying to bring students in -- you know, the private entrepreneurs," said Board member Greg Van Houten. "So my caution would be 1) subsidizing something that is in direct competition with somebody that is on the street ... but there's things that we could do that would be complementary. The other thing would be clashing business models on the same block."

Board member Justin Corcoran summed it up by telling Gross, "I think you hear from us that we think it's a good idea."

Gross said she would share the board's feedback with the faculty at SVC and tell them that "this group is of the belief that this would enhance the community."

Anyone seeking additional information or wishing to offer feedback about the proposed student-run store may call Gross at her SVC office at 802-447-6319.

The idea of the downtown college store was also part of the Select Board's discussion about the Bennington Strategic Economic Development Plan.

Town Planning Director Dan Monks told the board the Strategic Economic Development steering committee is seeking the board's input before the plan is finalized. Monks said the committee hopes to have a draft of the plan, including a 90-day action agenda, finalized by mid-May.

Topping a list of items that might be included in that three-month action plan was a decision whether to formalize the task force to include a chairman, vice chairman and appointed members. To date, the members of the task force have been a dedicated group of 25-30 volunteers from the business and education community, according to Board Chairman Joseph L. Krawczyk Jr.

He said "We've got to pick people here who are willing to do the work. Obviously Mike Harrington (Bennington's economic and community development director) is going to be the town's representative."

Van Houten noted that the steering committee made the bike path, that has been "in talks for 22 years" happen in one year.

Harrington advised that the group, which meets of their own volition, never asked to be a town committee. The danger of making the committee too formal a structure is that it might turn off some of those who have served on it, he said.

"We can't tell who's going to be on that committee because as soon as you start saying who, they'll be off," Jacobs added.

By consensus the Select Board voted to allow Harrington to go to the steering committee and ask those on it to suggest a structure.

Next the Select Board worked to choose some of the items to include in the 90-day action plan. These included a meeting with the local school boards, identifying a rental property for the proposed college store, lengthening the hours of downtown businesses, creating free WiFi downtown, and completing the nature trail from Bennington to North Bennington that is already in the works. Those items will be revisited at the board's meeting in two weeks.

Contact Michelle Karas at mkaras@benningtonbanner.com. Follow her on Twitter @bannereditor.