Bennington greeted new faces, initiatives in 2012

Saturday January 26, 2013




Staff Writer

BENNINGTON -- Bennington experienced a host of infrastructure improvements, challenges for local institutions and the passing of notable residents in 2012.

The executive director of the local community radio station, John Likakis, stepped down in March after two years on the job. He noted several accomplishments during his tenure, including guiding the station out of debt, a successful capital campaign and upgraded equipment.

Michael Harrington was selected as the town’s economic and community development director in April, replacing Scott Murphy, who left the position to become town manager of Wilmington. Harrington had previously worked for his family’s management consulting business.

Select Board members Jim Carroll and Greg van Houten joined the board in April after winning election in March. Former Vice Chairman Matthew Maroney opted against seeking re-election, and John Zink was defeated in a five-person race for the two available seats.

The Vermont Council on Rural Development’s Community Visit Program held nine community meetings in March to help the town select long-term goals for improvement. In April, residents culled a list of 22 action items down to four. Committees made up of local volunteers continue to work on them. The goals are:

* Develop a Bennington vision statement, improve communications and create a positive town image.

* Make downtown Bennington a destination, and build a new town green.

* Collaborate with local groups to address poverty and expand dental care.

* Build a community center, renew and expand the town recreation center and build a skate park.

Kaman Composites in Bennington announced in April that it landed an $8.1 million Navy contract. Kaman’s contract is a portion of a major contract to provide parts for the Sikorsky MH-60R helicopter. The chopper is a newer version of the Navy’s SH-60B Seahawks, according to Sen. Patrick Leahy’s office. Kaman is producing the chopper’s radomes, an enclosure designed to protect and house a helicopter’s radar antenna. The radomes are made of composite materials that allow radar waves to pass through the material.

Welcome center under way

Construction on a new welcome center that will sit inside the Bennington Bypass system interchange began in April. The new facility is expected to be completed this summer. The Bennington Area Chamber of Commerce will manage the new site and look to provide motorists with information about Bennington and the surrounding area.

The Vermont Environmental Court ruled in April for a local citizens group that was denied party status in the Act 250 proceedings for a larger Walmart store in Bennington. The Vermont Natural Resources Council and the citizens group, called Citizens for a Greater Bennington, tried to gain party status from the District 8 Act 250 Commission before hearings began on the Walmart expansion project. The commission denied that status, however, offering a "Friends of the Commission" status, instead. The case is still in mediation.

The town reached a one-year labor deal with unionized police and public works employees in April after negotiations failed to net a longer contract. Under the negotiated contract, employees received a 3 percent pay increase. They must now pay an additional $100 of their heath care plan deductible, however.

A new state office building was opened in early May nearly six years after state employees reported an abnormally high rate of a rare disease contracted by people inside the now-demolished former state complex. Five employees first came forward in July 2006 to report their diagnoses of sarcoidosis, a rare disease of unknown origin that impacts various organs. The construction project included demolition and reconstruction of an older section of the former structure built in 1978, and gutting the inside of a newer addition, constructed in 1992, and rebuilding the inside.

GOP lawmaker

Manfred "Fred" Ehrich, a longtime local attorney and former state legislator, died in May at the age of 97. Ehrich fathered four children, a daughter and three sons, one of whom was the late Terry Ehrich, publisher of the Hemmings Motor News and founder of the First Day Foundation.

T. Garry Buckley, a former lieutenant governor of Vermont, died in May. Buckley, born on Sept. 13, 1922, was elected lieutenant governor in 1976. His election was notable because he finished second in the vote tally, but because no candidate received a majority the election was decided by the Vermont Legislature. The Republican-controlled Legislature selected Buckley, who was a Republican. Buckley was defeated in a Republican primary for lieutenant governor in 1978 by Peter Smith. He lost his race for the U.S. Senate in 1980. Buckley served as a Bennington selectman beginning in 1952. He also served Bennington County in the Vermont Senate, serving as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

WBTN change

Spencer Sweet was hired in June as the new general manager at WBTN-1370 AM to oversee operations and guide its continued transition to a nonprofit, community radio station. Sweet, the former manager of H. Greenberg & Son, was hired because of his local connections and management experience, according to a station official.

Bennington Police Chief Paul Doucette was selected in June by the American Legion to receive its Law Enforcement Officer of the Year award. He was presented with the honor at an August convention in Indianapolis. Doucette, 44, was first selected as the state-level officer of the year in 2011. His name was then forwarded on to the regional level by American Legion officials in Vermont. Doucette was then picked as the top officer in the Northeast region.

A local couple reopened a familiar fish fry restaurant in July that generations of local residents had previously enjoyed. TJ Greene and his wife, Ann, reopened TJ’s Fish Fry at the corner of Main and Depot streets. The site had previously been the home of Vern’s Fish Fry, and before that, Paul’s Fish Fry.

In July, the Federal Emergency Management Agency rejected the town’s request for reimbursement of about $4 million in emergency work following Tropical Storm Irene, potentially leaving local taxpayers on the hook for the bill. Town officials said work completed on the Roaring Branch, known as emergency protective work, was deemed to be ineligible for reimbursement. The rejection came as a shock because FEMA regulations, and FEMA officials themselves, had led the town to believe the work would be at least partially reimbursed. Town staff are still working with FEMA to resolve the issue.

Stephen Rucinski, the owner of a Chrysler, Dodge, Ram and Jeep dealership in Greenwich, N.Y., opened a sister dealership on North Street in Bennington in August. The dealership offer models to the public not previously available in the immediate area.

The northern leg of Vermont Route 279 opened to the public in late August with fanfare after five years of construction and $72 million of state and federal money pumped into the project. Local, state and federal officials gathered on a grassy spot along the 3-mile stretch of road. The northern leg connects Route 9 on the eastern edge of Bennington with the Route 279 systems interchange, allowing trucks and other traffic to head north toward Manchester or west to New York, without traveling through the downtown. The western leg from New York was opened to the public in 2004. The southern leg remains unfunded, and its prospects for construction unclear.

Rec Center renovation

The Bennington Recreation Center reopened in September following a major renovation project to shore up a wall around the pool. Voters approved a ballot measure by a 3 to 1 margin in March 2011 to borrow up to $680,000 to repair the facility. Town officials originally thought the cost of repairing three walls around the pool, roofs and installing a new ventilation system to prevent the problem from reoccurring would cost about $672,000, including a 15 percent contingency. The town received a low bid of about $350,000, however.

In September, the Select Board opted against a change to the zoning designation of the former Johnson Controls site. The Select Board set the wheels in motion in 2011 for a potential change when it voted 4 to 3 in favor of beginning the process of altering the property’s zoning designation. The makeup of the board changed, however, and the prospects of the board voting in favor of that were dim.

Still, the Planning Commission voted in June to forward a proposed zoning change, despite taking a position against the proposal. The plan developed by the commission would have expanded the existing planned commercial district to include the former Johnson Controls parcel, owned by the Gladstone Development Corp. It would also have allowed for some manufacturing and research and development, making it, in effect, a mixed-used designation.

The Vermont Veterans Home was found to be in compliance with federal regulations after a last-ditch inspection in September. That meant the home did not lose Medicare and Medicaid funding, ending a looming disaster that would have disrupted the lives of residents, staff and the community. The Board of Trustees revealed earlier in September that the facility faced decertification because of issues identified during several inspections since March. The state-run home had to correct at least three deficiencies, including an alleged assault of a resident by a nurse, that were identified by inspectors. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services had threatened to cut off about $12 million in annual funding if the home did not pass another surprise inspection by Sept. 28.

James Colgate "J.C." Jerome, 88, a former Select Board member and owner of the Mount Anthony Country Club, died in October. Jerome and his family owned and operated the Mount Anthony Country Club for more than 50 years. He was an accomplished golfer, winning several Vermont Amateur Championships, and finishing in second place at the 1951 New England Amateur. He played in the 1954 U.S. Open Championship at Baltusrol Golf Club in Springfield, N.J.

Armory agreement

The Select Board approved an agreement in October with the Vermont National Guard that will allow the town to acquire the Bennington armory if and when a new facility is constructed for the local unit. The nonbinding memorandum of understanding approved unanimously by the board is premised on a land swap. The town would exchange the former Jard site in exchange for the historic armory located behind the town office. The town broached the idea of exchanging the properties in June 2011 as a potential spot for a new readiness center to replace the local Vermont National Guard headquarters.

The Regional Affordable Housing Corp. formally opened its newest apartments in late October. RAHC Executive Director John Broderick was joined by Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin and others involved in the project on the grounds of RAHC’s new North Branch Street development. The 26 units are split between 12 rehabilitated, two-bedroom apartments on Benmont Avenue and seven new duplexes on North Branch Street. The combined projects had a cost of about than $6.5 million.


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