Better Bennington Corporation director defends business numbers, explains accreditation
BENNINGTON — The Better Bennington Corporation is defending data it gave to the Banner regarding the downtown's economic health.
BBC Executive Director John Shannahan spoke to the Select Board Monday explaining how the organization tracks the coming and going of businesses within the Downtown Improvement District. Shannahan said he keeps a count of businesses that:
• Open inside the district.
• Close inside the district.
• Move into the district from somewhere else.
• Move out of the district to operate elsewhere.
Shannahan told the board, as he told the Banner in May, that since 2010 there have been 71 businesses to open or come into the district, while 38 left or closed, all for a net gain of 33. In 2015, five business left the district, but eight came into it for a net gain of three.
"The disconnect is what downtown really is and what the public perception out there is, and a lot of that is distinguished by the trash that's on social media that gets in people's heads, who don't come downtown, they don't support local businesses, go to the restaurants, they just complain that there's a lot of stuff that isn't downtown when actually there is, and those business do get a lot of support," Shannahan said.
He was also asked about the BBC's accreditation through the National Main Street Center. Board member Jim Carroll said there were accusations on Facebook claiming Shannahan was boasting the BBC was accredited when it was not.
There was some confusion at the meeting about what entity offers said accreditation.
The National Trust for Historic Preservation has a subsidiary known as the National Main Street Center, to which the Vermont Downtown Program, up until Dec. 31, 2015, belonged to. The Vermont Downtown Program would then issue accreditations to downtown booster groups like the BBC if they followed certain criteria.
Shannahan said he never "boasted" about the BBC having such accreditation, saying it's merely a piece of paper that comes with no real benefits, and that he never misrepresented the BBC's accreditation status. He said when he was speaking to the board during budgeting workshops making the case for giving the group more funding, the BBC was accredited for 2015.
It will not be for 2016 because the Vermont Downtown Program has not renewed its membership with the National Main Street Center. Bennington Economic and Community Development Director Michael Harrington said he spoke to the state program's director and learned that because the cost of being an accrediting entity had increased, Vermont chose not to continue with it.
Groups can join on their own and be accredited, but Shannahan said it's too costly for what is gained, and that the BBC will follow the Vermont Downtown Program's lead going forward.
"Accreditation doesn't really mean anything," Shannahan said. "It's not like we get a reward or any funding for it. There's eight to 10 guidelines, and if we follow them we're accredited."
Most of the guidelines involve data reporting, but also require accredited groups to have a certain governing structure and maintain certain committees.
Shannahan said the National Main Street Program was leaning more towards historic preservation efforts while the Vermont Downtown Program has more of an economic development focus.
The BBC is a non-profit entity that receives money from a special tax collected by the town. The tax is drawn from property owners within the Downtown Improvement District. Property owners are automatically members of the BBC while others must pay dues. The district was formed many years ago through the efforts of downtown merchants who wanted to improve and promote the area. Voters had to approve a change to the town's charter to form the district, then vote on it again two years later to make it permanent. Expanding the district's borders would require another charter change, a process that requires approval from the Vermont Legislature.
Some time after the taxing district was created, the BBC became the recipient of the funds and works to improve the downtown in a number of ways including planning events, offering assistance to entrepreneurs, and showcasing vacant properties.
— Contact Keith Whitcomb Jr. at 802-447-7567 Ext. 115
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