Upbeat news on downtown cited at meeting

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BENNINGTON — Downtowns have survived the threat once posed by big-box stores and shopping malls by focusing on recruitment and retention, but now must employ new methods to face down the challenge posed by online sales by Amazon Prime and other e-tailers, the executive director of the Bennington Downtown Alliance told members during their annual meeting on Wednesday.

The good news for Bennington, John Shannahan said, is that the town is already making progress on those areas, focusing on making the downtown a destination by creating pleasant "streetscapes" with entertainment, food, cultural activities and events. "'Experiential downtowns' is the new buzzword," Shannahan said. "We see that as something that we can control, even more than the recruitment and retention of 10 years ago."

Shannahan cited two recent projects undertaken by the Grow Bennington Initiative, the installation of pole banners and the wrapping of trees with tiny white lights, as steps toward making the downtown district more of a destination. "People are literally going out of their way to drive down Main Street at night, just to see the lights," he said.

Other steps in progress are the creation of two new parks: the Park at 336, a "pocket park" at 336 Main St., which he said should be completed this year; and Merchants Park, behind the former Merchants Bank on North Street. Both are part of the SPARC Downtown initiative, which stands for "spaces, parks, art, recreation, and community."

Shannahan offered an upbeat assessment of the state of the downtown, noting that at the end of 2017, the first-floor vacancy rate stood at 14 percent, a number considered "healthy" by the national Main Street America program. "Some people say that we're dead or dying, but the fact is, compared to the rest of the country, we're considered a healthy community," he said.

Members got an update on one major upcoming event, the U.S. National Snowshoe Championships at Prospect Mountain, which take place on March 9-11. Tim VanOrden, the lead organizer, said that to date, 160 athletes have signed up for the competition — outpacing signups for the 2014 event at Prospect, which generated the largest turnout ever.

"Our goal is to bring more and more events to Bennington, to build it as an 'outdoor town,'" VanOrden said. "We really are the outdoor capital of the country — the country just doesn't know it yet."

The annual meeting, held at the recently opened Miller's Toll restaurant, also included an awards ceremony for those who have contributed to the downtown community.

The Economic Vitality award was presented to the Town of Bennington, for its work on the Tax Increment Financing that underlies the $53 million project to redevelop the Putnam Block. Tom Jacobs, chair of the Select Board, accepted on the town's behalf.

"Our interest is in Bennington now and in the future," Jacobs said. "Frankly, the future is ours, and it's ready for us to take."

There were two recipients of the Design award: the Grow Bennington Initiative, and Polly Van der Linde of Sonatina Enterprises, responsible for the "Where Bennington and the Arts Intersect" painting in the center of the Four Corners intersection.

Lynn Green, described by Shannahan as the "driving force" behind the Grow Bennington Initiative, accepted the group's award. "We've been able to make a few small things happen," she said, "but we've got a long list, and a lot of ideas, too." Van der Linde was not able to attend.

The Organization award went to three recipients: Ben Oyola of Berkshire Sign Studio, Dwain and Beth Wilwol of the Gift Garden, and John and Lisa Redding of the Miller's Toll, three businesses that Shannahan said have made a "spectacular" difference on Main Street.

"There was a lot of blood, sweat and tears in getting to where we are today," Beth Wilwol said. "Everybody's been just great working with us, and we can't thank you enough."

Citizens for a Greater Bennington received the Marketing and Promotion award. Shannahan noted that the organization has contributed in many ways, such as providing funding for movie projection equipment for the Oldcastle Theatre, and underwriting a promotional campaign with an Albany television station.

Finally, the Board of Directors award was given to the Bennington Redevelopment Group, the consortium of local businesses backing the Putnam project.

David LaChance can be reached at dlachance@benningtonbanner.com and 802-447-7567, ext. 115.


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