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The Merchants Bank annouced Monday that it had given the 1864 building that houses its North Bennington branch to the non-profit Fund for North Bennington and the Preservation Trust of Vermont. Representatives of the three organizations later posed for a photograph outside the bank. For a video, visit benningtonbanner.com or the Banner’s Facebook page. (Peter Crabtree)
Tuesday May 21, 2013

NEAL P. GOSWAMI

Senior Staff Writer

NORTH BENNINGTON -- Merchants Bank donated to two nonprofit groups on Monday its historic bank building that has been a central part of the village since 1864.

The Fund for North Bennington and the Preservation Trust of Vermont announced the donation Monday alongside officials from Merchants Bank. The building, appraised at $350,000, will now be controlled and shared by both groups.

"We're here this morning to announce that Merchants Bank has agreed to donate this very special building to the Fund for North Bennington and the Preservation Trust of Vermont. It's an exceptionally generous gift," said Robert Woolmington, part of the Fund.

Merchants Bank CEO Michael R. Tuttle said in February that the bank would close two local branches and consolidate them in a new Northside Drive location. He said the bank chose to consolidate after reviewing options for upgrading the existing branches.

The lease on the branch at Bennington's Four Corners is set to expire, Tuttle said. That office, as well as the branch in North Bennington would require changes to match the needs of customers, he said.

"This is a little bit bittersweet for us to be deeding over the property here today. We know this has been a bank here in Bennington since 1864," Tuttle said at Monday's announcement. "In the end we're a business. We need to make decisions that are indicative of customer preferences and where we think we need to take our business to keep it relevant and to keep it vital over time and that does dictate some changes."

Tuttle said the new branch will be two miles away from the North Bennington location, and the bank has signed a lease to keep an ATM machine at the building it handed over Monday.

Bank officials began working with local residents and looking at ways to keep the bank building within the community after the decision was made to consolidate branches.

"We knew what we were going to do, but we also knew that this building was a very important piece of the community here. We wanted to make sure that we could find the right solution that could retain the character of the structure for the community. We had to figure out a way to make that happen," Tuttle said.

Woolmington said neither the Fund for North Bennington nor the Preservation Trust for Vermont have settled on a future use of the space. The deed does restrict any banking activity for three years, however.

"At this point we're not considering it as a banking facility, at least not for a period of time," Woolmington said.

Preservation Trust Executive Director Paul Bruhn said his group has worked in the past to help preserve other local landmarks, including the Park-McCullough House and the Vermont Arts Exchange. The gift from Merchants Bank ranks as one of the largest donations in the trust's history, he said.

"It's a very generous gift. It's one of the largest we've ever received and we're very grateful for it," he said.

The trust will look to preserve the facade of the historic building, which was built as the First National Bank of North Bennington in 1864. Trenor Park, who also constructed the Park-McCullough House, built the bank and provide capital after striking it rich during the California gold rush, Woolmington said.

The focus now will be on determining how the building will be used. It will remain a commercial space and on the tax rolls, Woolmington said. But no permanent use has been determined and the public's input will be a consideration, he said.

"We intend to be open to new uses. We have not selected a new use," Woolmington said. "We are looking for ideas and thoughts how this space, once it is no longer an active baking institution, can be used appropriately for the community."

Contact Neal P. Goswami at ngoswami@benningtonbanner.com, or follow on Twitter: @nealgoswami