BENNINGTON — With an infusion of federal COVID-19 relief money on the way, the Select Board is considering hiring a consultant to prepare an economic development plan to make use of the funds.
The proposal grew from discussion last month following word the town will receive $1.375 million through the American Rescue Plan Act, which is providing aid throughout the country, and that a second round of funding is expected.
After a suggestion from the Vermont League of Cities and Towns that communities develop a plan for spending the money, the town later asked the consulting firm, White & Burke Real Estate Advisors, of Burlington, to submit a proposal to prepare a development plan, to be paid for from the federal money.
The firm’s proposal will be reviewed Monday by the Select Board and is described in the posted meeting agenda packet.
The consultant’s subsequent report also would be expected to include analysis of other grant funding and the possible application of the state Tax Increment Financing program.
Bennington hired White & Burke as a consultant when it established a TIF district in the greater downtown area in 2017. That allows the town to bond for infrastructure improvements to enhance planned development and pay down the loan using a percentage of new property tax revenue generated by the projects that would otherwise go to the state.
The Bennington TIF District is one of 11 in the state. The town has yet to propose borrowing for any TIF eligible projects, which would also require voter approval.
According to a memo to the board from Assistant Town Manager and Planning Director Daniel Monks, town staff contacted White & Burke and requested that the consultants submit a proposal to work with the town on economic development strategy.
Town management staff, Select Board leadership, Bennington County Regional Commission Assistant Director Bill Colvin, and Better Bennington Corp. interim Executive Director Michael McDonough recently met with White & Burke representatives and St. Albans Town Manager Dominic Cloud, who was contacted to provide expertise on municipal project development, including TIF-enhanced projects.
“We are excited about the proposal from White & Burke as it will assist us in looking at the various financing options available to us before we commit funds,” said Select Board Chairwoman Jeannie Jenkins. “Their expertise, coupled with the experience that St. Albans has had using TIF as a tool for infrastructure improvements, is unsurpassed in the state. The Select Board is eager to engage the public in these informed conversations over the next several months.”
In his memo about the proposal, Monks stated, “Given the stellar reputation and proven track record of White & Burke and Dominic Cloud, I recommend and request that the Select Board authorize the town manager to enter into a contract for the services described in the proposal.”
In their proposal, White & Burke said the firm would advise the town on possible uses for the federal money, which Monks said could top $4 million in two installments, and how the money might help leverage additional funding.
The firm also would look into the known infrastructure and other barriers to redevelopment or development in Bennington; what tools the town might offer developers, property owners or businesses; what projects have had difficulty proceeding; and whether there are ways the town can take the lead in initiating projects.
The firm also would advise on what TIF infrastructure projects might benefit Bennington and what other tools, such as tax stabilization, might be used instead.
White & Burke proposes to analyze development efforts here since 2017; participate in team discussions and brainstorming sessions; make a site visit and tour with local leadership; engage with stakeholders and “comprehensively review and analyze the TIF District Plan — remaining vs. new needs, changes/developments, etc.”
The proposal also includes a mailing or other outreach efforts and a community meeting for idea sourcing and communication purposes.
The project is estimated by the firm to require 8 to 10 hours a week for 10 to 12 weeks, at a cost not to exceed $20,000 without prior approval from the Select Board.
“I appreciate the town of Bennington is taking a hard look at how it might further incentivize and support economic growth in our community at this critical time,” Colvin said in an email. “As we continue to emerge from protracted economic uncertainty and with a high level of interest being shown in development and business opportunities throughout Bennington, this seems like the ideal time for the Select Board to determine what tools and techniques the municipality might utilize to further bolster these efforts.”
McDonough said in an email, “Better Bennington Corp. understands the importance that we do not rest on the very exciting investments which have been made in our downtown. We need to continue thorough and thoughtful examination of opportunities and challenges that we face in all segments of our economy and community. It’s hard work.”