Lighting up downtown

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BENNINGTON — On Monday evening the Grow Bennington Initiative launched the first of its projects to revitalize the look of downtown Bennington, turning on winter string lights on about 40 trees.

The lights went on for the first time just after dusk on Monday evening. Bennington Select Board member and Mount Anthony Union High School football coach Chad Gordon and his players helped roll out the string lights and hang them on the trees last week. For the tallest trees, the Town of Bennington helped out by providing a cherry picker, and building inspector Larry McLeod also helped out with hardware installation.

The lights are the first of four "demonstration projects," which organizers hope will create a sense of arrival in the downtown. Now that the lights are in place, the initiative intends to look at installing pole banners on 70 lamp-posts to compliment the lights. The last two demonstration projects are facade planters against downtown building-fronts to catch the eye of passers-by and re-designed and additional wayfinding signs to highlight public assets such as bike racks, parking, car charging stations, and restrooms.

"Lights and pole banners can help create a sense-of- arrival in our downtown," said Lynn Green, chairwoman of the Grow Bennington Initiative. "Both elements help provide visual cues that delineate the Bennington downtown as well as create a liveliness that draws in passers-by."

The lights are intended to last throughout the winter season, but planning is already underway to light up the downtown year-round. Initiative members have met with engineers from the Lighting Research Center of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, whose students designed the lighting at the Lincoln Square Fountain in North Bennington and the Bennington Monument, among other projects.

"Engineering professionals from the Lighting Research Center of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute made a complimentary visit to Bennington to make a preliminary assessment of the downtown and offered initial lighting feedback and suggestions to the group," said the initiative in a press release. "Conversations with LRC continue, with considerations of how LRC might help create a comprehensive blueprint to strategically illuminate downtown. Such a blueprint would look beyond just trees, but consider historic buildings, walkways, green spaces to bolster a sense of arrival, increase visibility and safety and highlight the historic quality of the Bennington Downtown."

The task force hopes that the four demonstration projects will be just the beginning. The group intends to tackle small and medium sized streetscape projects one-by-one, as funding allows. "Small wins add up. Small wins breed bigger wins over time," said John Shannahan, director of the Bennington Downtown Alliance and task force member. "The Grow Bennington Initiative is breathing new life into projects that are known to make an impact on our downtown curb appeal."

"The momentum and energy around our downtown these days is palpable," said Bennington College Senior Vice President of Institutional Initiatives David Rees, who serves on the Grow Bennington task force. "We are fortunate to have great architecture, terrific local businesses, and extraordinarily committed citizens. The Grow Bennington Initiative is very important for a number of reasons, but most importantly because it will help attract new visitors and that it reminds all of us how special our downtown is."

The Grow Bennington 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 Shannahan. It is currently made up of Green; Shannahan; Dan Monks, Bennington's assistant town manager; Rees; 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.

Most of the funding is being raised by local businesses and residents. Fundraising only began in December, as of the end of January the group had already raised $30,000 of the $110,000 they are seeking to complete the first phase of their work. 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.

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

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