Bennington: Year in Review
BENNINGTON >> "Change" was the operative word for Bennington in 2015. What it will amount to remains to be seen.
No more business as usual
One of the first things Thomas Jacobs said in April after being voted in as chairman of the Bennington Select Board was that under his leadership, things would be done differently.
"The board must be seen as the catalyst for change and encourage innovation, risk-taking, and new ways to accomplish the town's goals," he said.
One of the first visible signs of a shift in attitude came before Jacobs' proclamation, when Bennington economic and civic leaders gathered to hear from St. Albans City Manager Dominic Cloud talk about how his town reversed its fortunes after decades of decline.
Cloud said many things, but at the core of his message was that a town can not expect others to invest in it, if the town refuses to do so itself.
He said these investments are risks, which became apparent for Bennington in July when the Select Board voted to approve the spending of $18,000 from the Economic Development Fund to conduct a study on the former Mount Anthony Union Middle School, to see if it could be used for housing.
About $11,000 was spent before the consultant stopped, saying the numbers would not work for the developer.
We also saw town leaders making more of an effort to open an dialogue with the business community. In addition to a business climate survey, which did not bring good, or unexpected, news, the board hosted at business leaders summit at Bennington College.
The gathering was noteworthy not only for its size and the wide range of industries represented, but also because the private groups in attendance appointed a chairman to organize them and to take further action independent of the local government.
It was another point Cloud made, and that was said again at the December meeting, that government alone can not turn things around, that a public-private partnership is needed.
When Cloud spoke, he talked about the renovation of the St. Albans House in the St. Albans downtown. It was a dilapidated building that, with investment of public funds, came to be privately developed and spurred more such activity both public and private.
In many ways, it's similar to Bennington's former Putnam Hotel, part of the "Greenberg Block" at the Four Corners, which those at the summit largely agreed was in need of revitalization.
Open, closed, moved
In terms of job losses, Bennington started the year with a familiar kind of pain. In February, Plasan North America announced it would be moving to Michigan in the summer when its contracts ran out. It was more or less the same story that came a year before, when Plasan Carbon Composites said that it, too, was off to Michigan.
While not as hefty in terms of jobs lost, the closures of Star Electric and Rehm-Brandt's Design, both long-time businesses, left holes on Main Street.
The long-awaited Walmart expansion on Northside Drive started late this fall, with construction to begin in earnest next year. The project will double the size of the existing building and go hand-in-hand with the construction of a roundabout.
Cumberland Farms on Northside Drive moved one lot to the east and expanded. Stewart's Shops on Main Street did the same.
Several new businesses opened up. Among them, Two Brews on North Street, Downtown Lost and Found on Main Street, and the Tap House at Catamount Glass on County Street.
Tropical Rayz on Main Street got new owners and changed its name to the Glow Lounge. South Street Cafe got new owners as well.
The Lightning Jar, a collaborative office space, opened in the VSECU credit union on North Street, was hailed by many as something that will spur entrepreneurship on a local level. The credit union is also new to Bennington.
While they were proposed last year, it was only this summer that citizen complaints got the Select Board to take notice of two solar projects slated for a 27-acre parcel in the Apple Hill neighborhood, east of Route 7. The projects are legally considered separate, but will abut each other and are backed by the same developer. Locals say they will ruin the neighborhood and convinced the board to oppose them, even though their permitting is up to the state Public Service Board.
This year, municipalities were given the ability to craft solar siting ordinances which can influence the PSB. Bennington has one now, but several smaller projects have been already proposed and been met with varying levels of criticism.
After nearly 25 years, the debate over rezoning the industrial Johnson Controls site to a commercial designation ended with the board voting for the change 5-2.
The Benmont Avenue bridge was reduced to one lane while crews replace it. They expect to finish next year.
In May, John Broderick, former executive director of Shires Housing, took a new job in New York. His replacement, Stephanie Lane, was hired this fall to fill his position. Shires Housing generated much controversy last year with its proposal to built a new housing complex off Silver Street and Eden Way. That controversy continues with its pending Act 250 application.
Joann Erenhouse retired from her job as executive director of the Bennington Area Chamber of Commerce after helming it for 10 years. she left to care for her ailing father. Recently, Matt Harrington, brother of Bennington Economic and Community Development Director Michael Harrington, was named as her replacement.
Before Erenhouse's departure, the Chamber made waves when it announced it would not be putting on the Bennington Car Show, a 48-year tradition. Chamber leaders said the event was getting to be too much for volunteers given the growth of the immensely popular Southern Vermont Garlic and Herb Festival. The Chamber said it hopes another group takes up the car show mantle.
Voters in March offered up a resounding "no" to a ballot article asking if the town would add fluoride to the drinking water. This came after many months of rather heated controversy.
Early in the year, Bennington mourned the loss of Tim Hunt, a member of the Bennington Rural Fire Department best known for his photography, which he shared with thousands of people via Facebook.
It was announced late last year that Bennington would be getting a drug addiction treatment center in the form of expanded services at Hawthorn Recovery Center. The services came much later than expected and will instead be offered through United Counseling Service. The program will also involve up to 30 patients rather than the 100 that was announced.
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