BENNINGTON – The downtown and its businesses proved surprisingly resilient during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the district seems poised for growth, Better Bennington Corporation board members told the Select Board.
The downtown improvement district organization presented an overview Monday of the difficult past year and of plans for the coming year, along with the annual BBC budget, which was approved unanimously by the board.
With new businesses appearing during the pandemic and prior plans persevering despite the health crisis, BBC board Vice President Michael Keane said, “It really looks as if we are coming through this fairly whole.”
He and other board members noted the number of new restaurants, pubs, a distillery, shops; a pet products store, a variety store on Main Street and other businesses that have opened in recent months. That made for a very busy downtown over the past weekend, the officials said.
The downtown activity, following a nearly deserted Main Street at times during the pandemic, “was tremendous evidence of a lot of optimism,” Keane said, and of a willingness of businesses owners “to take risks.”
Michael McDonough, who chairs the BBC’s downtown design committee, said after the meeting that “it’s really amazing that we seem to be coming out of a pandemic stronger than we went into it. That is really uplifting.”
The officials also said Monday that McDonough is now serving as an interim director while longtime Executive Director John Shannahan is taking a leave of absence.
The board members, also including President Susan Plaisance, who chairs the promotion committee, and Eric Petersen, chair of the economic vitality committee, praised the persistent and effective work of Shannahan after the pandemic nearly shut down the economy during the spring of 2020.
That involved assisting business owners in finding ways to remain open at least on a limited basis, such as with curbside pickup or outdoor dining, and creating a manual for owners on what they needed to know in terms of state health mandates, government loans and other assistance, and advice, or assistance involving employees.
Shannahan “has guided the BBC through all this,” Keane said.
In addition to a rash of new businesses, re-openings and redevelopment work in downtown buildings, the area is set to benefit from the recent expansion of the downtown improvement district boundary to include the historic former Bennington High School building on Main Street, which is being redeveloped for multiple uses by private developer Christopher Gilbert.
A project within the district becomes eligible for historic preservation tax credits and other assistance to finance redevelopment projects.
McDonough, who also chairs the town Planning Commission; Bennington Community Development Director Shannon Barsotti and others proposed the boundary change, which was approved in May by the Select Board and later at the state level.
It was also noted that a grant-funded redevelopment options study is in progress for the area around the Energizer facility, which the company will close this year.
In addition, the officials cited the opening of the splash pad off North Street, and the nearly finished Recreation Center addition and renovation project as other encouraging signs.
Keane told Select Board members that he has seen “a youthfulness” in many new business owners and “a willingness among young people to come here and take risks.”
“I think we have been very excited to see Bennington back,” said Select Board Chairwoman Jeannie Jenkins. “The number of businesses opening in the downtown has been impressive.”
“I’m pleased to see lots of young people,” said Select Board member Bruce Lee-Clark, referring to the recent weekend. “I’m very hopeful.”
Plaisance mentioned a few of the most recent businesses opening in the downtown, including Great Fields Pet Supply in the Hotel Putnam building, W. Collective clothing, and Hair Café in the former Mexican Connection location and Nix Nax Variety, both on Main Street.
“This is super exciting,” she said.
After surviving the closures during the pandemic, the downtown “is now poised for some real growth,” said Peterson.
“There were also so many people I did not know in the downtown,” Keane said of the recent weekend.
Select Board member Jeanne Conner said, “I think one upside of the pandemic is that I think all of us, having lived through it, appreciate more than we ever did what we have."
She also asked if there will “some sort of reopening celebration,” and the BBC board members said there will actually be more than one – beginning Thursday night with the return of Midnight Madness to the downtown.
The organization also is taking “a look at what we need over the next five years,” Keane said, and plans to reassess the BBC’s role and structure.
The group also wants to consider five-year budgeting and planning, as well as ways to bring in new alliance partners to benefit the downtown district.
Lee-Clark said he would like to see more focus on assisting new BIPOC (Black, indigenous, and other people of color) owners, and Keane said that is a BBC goal, along with promoting more diversity in the local population.
Asked by Jenkins what he would like to see added to the budget, Keane said he would favor higher compensation for the executive director and a full-time assistant director for the BBC.
The spending plan calls for $82,026 in district tax assessments on business property in the downtown district, plus revenue from grants, membership dues, sponsorships and event income for a total budget of $123,921.
McDonough said Wednesday that the tax assessment reflects only a slight increase over the past year, despite the loss of income from MayFest, estimated at $60,000 over two annual spring events, and other community events that were canceled during the pandemic.
The loss of that revenue was largely off-set by reduced expenses for the organization during the shutdown, he said. “So, it basically washed.”
The assessment portion was up slightly to include a 3 percent employee salary increase, McDonough said.
The BBC officials said there is optimism that revenue for the program and income for downtown businesses could surge over the coming year.