BENNINGTON — The major investors in the Putnam Block redevelopment project say they're fully aware that more than an economic development project is at stake.
"Our view is that this is one of the most important economic development initiatives to happen in Bennington in many years," said Dimitri Garder, founder and CEO of Global-Z International.
"The downtown is a catalyst for change in the economy as a whole," Garder said, "and the Putnam Block is one of the most visible indications of change in the region."
If the Bennington area is going to thrive, he added, the downtown must be vibrant economically, combining housing, retail, office space and entertainment, capable of sustaining business and social activity 18 hours every day.
That thought encompasses both the concerns and the hopes of residents, Garder said, and it has prompted strong support from local institutions, businesses and private investors. The massive scale of the $50 million-plus, multi-use proposal also is a draw, he said, as residents can see the potential for far greater impacts than any single store, restaurant or apartment building renovation could provide.
Putnam Block investors interviewed said the recognition Bennington must develop a vibrant downtown in order to attract and retain residents is well understood by the institutions involved. Businesses must recruit staff members, they said, and the town's two residential colleges grasp that not only students but faculty members and staff want to see activity downtown — or they might consider relocating.
"The future of the downtown is essential to the future of the college," said Bennington College President Mariko Silver.
"It is vitally important to the college; there is no question for us," she said. "The community and the college are intertwined; the college will not succeed if the community is not vibrant. Increasingly, too, students are interested in going downtown, being downtown. And there will have to be things downtown for them to do, places for them to go. They don't want to go to a college where they never leave the campus."
Silver said the same is true regarding the 250 faculty members and staff, few of whom live on the Bennington campus. "We have increasingly more faculty and more staff who want to live in a walkable downtown," she said.
The thinking among investor group members, Silver said, has been that "if the [Putnam] site were not enlivened that would be a detriment to the future of downtown. Or looking at it in a positive way, that the enlivening of that site would have a major positive impact on downtown."
"SVC recognizes how important it is that Bennington be a thriving, successful town, both for current and potential residents and for the future of the college," said David Evans, president of Southern Vermont College, another investor in the project. "Bennington is blessed with a beautiful location and compelling historic infrastructure," he said, "and has many other assets that provide the foundation for an amazing renaissance."
Evans said the Putnam project "can build on that foundation and improve the town's quality of life and economic well-being considerably. I want to continue to increase the synergy between the college and the town and to help realize our mutual potential to be an attractive and competitive destination for families, employees, and prospective students, which will be good for all of us in all kinds of ways."
"From our perspective, it [the Putnam project] is critical for the group of major employers in town, and imperative for our community," said Thomas Dee, president and CEO of Southwestern Vermont Health Care, the parent company of the regional medical center.
"We are all working together on a common vision for the downtown area," Dee said, adding that while there are other development proposals being pursed in the Southshire, most "are predicated on a vibrant downtown," which the group believes could spur a healthier economy throughout the region.
The housing aspects of the project are vital to the success of the venture, he said, because more people living near the Four Corners will have services, shopping and entertainment within walking distance.
Medical services in the form of a facility operated by SVHC in the project zone is one of his goals, said Dee, who wants the health care organization "to be physically present downtown."
James Brown, the president and CEO of The Bank of Bennington, and one of the first to promote the proposal, said representatives of the institutions began meeting in 2015 to discuss what could be done to improve the downtown and the local economy.
"We started talking about how we could improve downtown, and it didn't take long to recognize that this was the project that would have the most effect on the downtown and the area," Brown said. "It was a big project that could have a big impact."
As for the scope and collaborative approach, Brown said the bank, the hospital, the colleges and other investors realized that "it didn't look like that corner was going to get developed any other way."
It was fortunate, he said, that the buildings and land were all owned by the Greenberg family, rather than divided among several owners, which would have made the purchase more complex.
"It was a big piece in the center of the downtown," he said, "and it had a lot of potential."
Brown said the investors have been meeting bi-weekly to discuss the initiative.
"I think this is an important start and a major investment in Bennington," Brown said. "I hope it is the start of a renaissance, if you will, for Bennington."
The property, which includes the former Putnam Hotel and five other buildings near the Four Corners intersection of Routes 7 and 9, will be acquired by the Bennington Redevelopment Group, LLC, a consortium of civic-minded investors that also includes Brian McKenna, Anthony and Jacqueline Marro and a group of local professionals.
The negotiated sale price for the buildings and parking areas has not been confirmed, but it reportedly totals $2 million. Those involved expect the property will be transferred soon, and an open house and formal presentation of the Putnam Block project will be held on May 4 at Oldcastle Theatre.
Phase 1 of the redevelopment, which could begin construction as soon as the fall, includes work at the former hotel, the Pennysaver or old Courthouse building, and the Winslow Block.
Phase 2 of the project is expected to include the former Greenberg & Son hardware store, lumberyard and parking areas and an adjacent gasoline service station, along with the Oldcastle Theatre building.
The estimated cost of the Phase 1 work is $24 million, and a current estimate for Phase 2 work is $28 million, although that could climb by up to another $15 million, depending on the redevelopment options chosen.
In total, about 200,000 square feet of building space could be involved in the redevelopment.
Jim Therrien writes for the Bennington Banner and VTDigger.org. @BB_therrien on Twitter.