BENNINGTON — More than 175 people crammed Oldcastle Theatre and its lobby Thursday afternoon to hear a detailed presentation from a consortium of investors on their proposed $50 million Putnam Block redevelopment plan.
But before that occurred, Bennington Select Board Chairman Tom Jacobs praised the institutions and individuals who are spearheading a 205,000-square-foot redevelopment project over four downtown acres.
"It is my distinct pleasure, on behalf of the community, to express our sincere appreciations to these individuals and institutions who have basically stepped forward with the time and investments in a project which has the potential of being a new start for Bennington," Jacobs said. "We have got a lot of history in this community, but it is time we made some new history."
In addition to hearing the facts and figures of the multi-faceted, two-phase project, residents also were encouraged to play key roles themselves — as additional investors, donors, lenders and committed housing or retail tenants. More than one speaker during the two-hour event remarked that the large crowd and the enthusiasm generated by the Putnam project seemed an auspicious sign.
Bill Colvin, assistant director and community development program coordinator with the Bennington County Regional Commission, noted that the complex project has the backing of major investors — including Bank of Bennington, Southwestern Vermont Health Care, Bennington College and Southern Vermont College — and planners expect grant funding for environmental cleanup work and historic preservation and other tax credits. But he said other residents and small business owners can also take part in revitalizing the downtown and the local economy by helping to cover any funding gaps.
Colvin described several ways residents and others can ensure the long-term success of the project, including donating to the health care organization or one of the colleges, designating that the funds go to the Putnam project; investing in an IRA-style fund that will support the project and guarantee a 3 percent return on investments; providing short-term loans that often are need during complex projects, or by committing to become a tenant in one of the planned housing units or as a retail or other small business tenant in other sections of the redevelopment zone.
Robert Stevens, of the project design firm, Stevens & Associates, said significant portions of the proposed new space in renovated or new buildings already has committed tenants, and efforts are well under way to recruit more for both residential and commercial spaces.
Among the major investors, for instance, Bennington College committed to space in the former Putnam Hotel building and elsewhere for both student and faculty housing; Southern Vermont College nursing students are expected to utilize space in a four-story medical building planned for the corner of West Main Street and Washington Avenue, which also will include space committed to SVHC and the Visiting Nurses Association.
Concerning smaller retail tenants, Stevens said the group is willing to work with them on the size of the space, adding that, at any rate, smaller retail businesses with local owners seem better positioned today compared to large stores when competing against online shopping websites.
While further support from the community is sought, Stevens said that he doesn't doubt at this point that the project will go forward, despite its exceedingly complex structure. "We have every faith this is going to happen," he said.
In outlining a project timetable, Colvin and Stevens said the BRG expects to close soon on the six-building cluster around the former hotel at the Four Corners intersection, now owned by the Greenberg family and expected to sell for $2 million.
There are no environmental concerns that would derail the project at this point, Colvin said, as a plume of underground pollution beneath a parking lot for the former H. Greenberg & Son hardware and lumber building was found to be not as extensive as previously feared, and the overall estimate for environmental cleanup work for both phases of the project is not expected at $1.2 million to $1.5 million. Federal grant funding will be sought through the town toward that work.
In the first phase of the project, focusing on the area of the hotel, the former courthouse or Pennysaver Building and the Winslow building, Colvin said construction work is expected to begin in the fall, with occupancy expected in January 2019.
Stevens said the second project phase would begin while the first is in progress and plans call for the medical building, the medical building, a grocery store, retail complex and townhouse units on the Washington Avenue side of the block. Behind the buildings would be courtyard, public spaces, parking and other areas.
Stevens said there are approximately 350 parking spaces in lots and along the streets, which an analysis showed would leave 30 or more spaces free during peak use periods.
Other major investors in BRG include Anthony and Jacqueline Marro, Brian and Jennifer McKenna, of DB McKenna & Co., and Dimitri Garder, of Global Z International.
Brian McKenna and Garder, along with Bennington College President Mariko Silver, lauded Bennington as an ideal place to raise a family but also one that must revitalize its downtown if it is to attract young families and spur additional economic development.
Silver said students at the college increasingly look for a campus that is near an attractive downtown with shops, restaurants and entertainment. She and the business owners and SVHC President and CEO Thomas Dee stressed that they consider a vibrant downtown key to recruiting new students or staff members to the Bennington area.
Colvin said residents and potential investors can find information about the project through a website, www.putnamblock.com, a Facebook page and by contacting him at the BCRC office.
Jim Therrien writes for the Bennington Banner and VTDigger.org. @BB_therrien on Twitter.