When looking for my first home about 10 years ago, I accidentally stumbled upon Bennington. Having grown up in Albany, N.Y., I was familiar with the area and was looking for an affordable town that was close enough to my job and apartment in New York City to escape for weekends. Priced out of typical weekend-house markets closer to Manhattan, Bennington more than fit the bill for me.
My father accompanied me to the closing at my lawyer's office in town and after, we met my mother at Carmody's for a celebratory cocktail. RT was our bartender and that was the first of countless happy days spent at Carmody's with family and friends while one or another Carmody was behind the bar. TJ and Sue became family and have been for the last decade. I think I felt what everyone in town is reflecting on this week: TJ always makes you feel like you're the most important customer in the restaurant. No matter who you are.
He treated all his customers equally -- with true affection and joy. I know he'll recreate that in his new journey because that's not about a building and it's not about Bennington -- it's about him.
But, what about Bennington? Why is it that our downtown can't support a well-priced pub with good food? Without Carmody's, downtown will be lacking not just a gathering place but more importantly, its business center.
Without question, losing Carmody's is going to hurt what remains of Main Street, and that isn't good for anyone. We all understand many of the reasons our downtown is suffering: The bypass, a small-town economy, unemployment, less traffic on the mountains.
But, of course, the bigger question is: What are the leaders in this town going to do about it? What's our marketing strategy? With our state leaders focused on large-scale economic revitalization projects like Jay Peak, small towns need their local leaders to think creatively about their futures. Can Bennington be a second-home destination for more New Yorkers forced out of that competitive real-estate market? Maybe. So let's market to them. If it takes bringing New York money to Bennington to fuel our own economy and bring jobs to our town, so be it.
As a part-time resident, I certainly don't have the answers. But, like a lot of long-time Benningtonians, major business closures like this one cause me to question what our town leaders are doing to drive commerce downtown. Some of the pieces may already be in place: For example, bringing Oldcastle Theatre to Main Street. But is there a long-term strategy in place to support visions like this? If we continue to market these endeavors only within our own community, we risk their failure as well. Clearly our residents are struggling. As TJ cited, those who used to eat in his restaurant a few times a week were coming in once a month. That sums it up: There is not enough money in Bennington to support Bennington.
Maybe it's time for our Chamber of Commerce, Better Bennington Business Corporation, our Select Board, and our local legislators to start working together to shape creative strategies to bring money from neighboring areas that may not be suffering as much as we are to help fuel our recovery. Maybe our politicians need to take a lesson from business leaders like Vicki and Jamie Jerome at Colgate Park who have made a success out of marketing and serving clients from all over the country (in addition to serving their own community).
TJ will thrive in his new venture because he's a visionary. But when a long-time Bennington business leader as smart, dedicated, and creative as TJ Carmody struggles to maintain a Main Street business, we should all be worried.
GERI ANNE FENNESSEY
New York City and Bennington