Growing downtown Bennington

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BENNINGTON — A new initiative spearheaded by citizens, business owners and community leaders aims to boost the vitality of the downtown.

The Grow Bennington Initiative began as a group of residents collecting ideas about how to improve the downtown, and in about a year has morphed into a collaboration between businesses, individuals, the town's Community Development Office and the Bennington Downtown Alliance, formerly known as the Better Bennington Corporation.

"The era of Amazon Prime is requiring that communities fundamentally change the way they view their downtowns," said Lynn Green, owner of The Four Chimneys Inn and chair of the initiative's task force. "We all benefit from a thriving downtown. With The Grow Bennington Initiative, we believe we all can contribute."

The group will start by, according to a press release: "1. White tree lights in the cold-and- dreary season followed tree up-lighting in the summer; 2. Colorful pole banners delineating the Bennington Downtown; 3. Facade planters against downtown building-fronts to catch the eye of passers-by. 4. Re-designed and additional wayfinding signs to highlight our assets: bike racks, parking, car charging stations, and restrooms the number one reason visitors stop in a town."

The task force grew out of Green and a number of other citizens speaking before the Select Board last summer, after which board members Donald Campbell and Tom Jacobs put Green in touch with Town of Bennington Director of Community Development Zirwat Chowdhury and BDS Director John Shannahan. It is currently made up of Green; Shannahan; Dan Monks, Bennington's assistant town manager; David Rees, vice president of institutional initiatives at Bennington College; Michael McDonough of the BDA board of directors; Chowdhury; Teresa Maynard, general manager of The Hampton Inn; and Betsy Woods, owner of The Knotty Pine Motel.

In total, the task force identified 45 projects, large and small, that could be addressed in the coming years. Members decided to focus on four "demonstration projects" with which they hope to create a sense-of- arrival: to provide visual indicators that visitors and residents have arrived in the Bennington downtown area. Many of the ideas came from looking at what other towns have done to re-invigorate their downtowns.

Chowdhury said that these first efforts will also allow the people of Bennington to see tangible results of the group's work, which they hope will raise enthusiasm about future projects.

"This community so badly needs to see things materialize in the present," she said.

Green pointed to initiatives such as the Putnam Block redevelopment and Polly Van Der Linde's effort to have the Four Corners intersection of Routes 7 and 9 painted with a piano key compass as examples of the types of civic-minded projects that the downtown needs more of. She said that the downtown is the entire town's responsibility, and that downtown business owners can't be left to fight the battle alone.

"In addition to creating a better place for all of those who live in Bennington, a vibrant downtown can help draw visitors who are a vital part of Southern Vermont's economy. A robust downtown can also aid in recruiting and retaining employees," Chowdhury said. "Vermont has a declining and aging population. Creating a lively downtown atmosphere can contribute significantly to our ability to retain and attract younger generations to the area."

"The redevelopment of the Putnam Block will be a long-term game changer for Bennington's downtown. In the meantime, we expect that the projects being pursued by The Grow Bennington Initiative will have an immediate and very visible impact on our downtown curb appeal," said Thomas Dee, president and CEO of Southwestern Vermont Health Care.

The town has provided some support for the projects, including a cherry-picker to hang lights on the highest trees. But most of the funding is being raised by local businesses and residents. Fundraising only began in December, but the group has already raised $30,000 of the $110,000 they are seeking to complete that work. There is no specific timeline, but step one at least is expected to be completed in the coming weeks. Organizers have been reaching out to local businesses and have started a GoFundMe online fundraising page: www.gofundme.com/GrowBenningtonInitiative. The Bennington Downtown Alliance is acting as the financial custodian for the initiative.

"Early fundraising for The Grow Bennington Initiative has seen enthusiastic corporate donations ranging from $1,000 to $5,000 and individual donations from $20 to $2,500," said Green. "Early backers include community leaders such as The Bank of Bennington, SVMC, TAM Waste Management, The Four Chimneys Inn, Drs. Charles Salem and Sarah Dahl, Price Chopper, Bennington Potters, Madison Brewing, The Hampton Inn, The Knotty Pine Motel, Bennington College and Bennington Car Wash and Havoline Xpress Lube, Hawkins House, Dr. Michael Brady, Henry Davies, and many more, all of which were early, enthusiastic supporters. Others, such as Mount Anthony Country Club, The Home Depot, and Enterprise Rental Car reached out with gifts-in-kind such as design services and materials."

A matching grant application is currently in the works for a Downtown Transportation Fund Grant to partially fund the wayfinding signs project.

If all goes well with the first phase, the group is already looking toward what could come next, including new, more visible signs for businesses, expanding the downtown street lamps, a more comprehensive downtown lighting plan, and a downtown playground, which they described as being small in scale but high in caliber. "If fundraising continues to progress at the current, healthy pace, the demonstration projects will be just the beginning," Green said.

Derek Carson can be reached at dcarson@benningtonbanner.com, at @DerekCarsonBB on Twitter and 802-447-7567, ext. 122.

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