BENNINGTON — The pending closure of the Energizer industrial facility this year could mean both a sad ending and a hopeful beginning for Bennington.
The company announced in October 2019 that it would wind down battery manufacturing operations here and consolidate those in Portage, Wisc., in 2021.
The business, located off Gage and Scott streets, originated as a Union Carbide battery facility in 1942. Over the years, it employed thousands — at times during the 1970s having about 700 workers, and employing about 90 when the shutdown plan was announced.
The office and manufacturing operations occupied space in two former textile mills that were joined together during a major addition project in the 1970s.
“The [state] Agency of Commerce and Community Development and the Department of Environmental Conservation provided some funding to examine options for revitalizing and reusing the Energizer facility,” said Jonathan Cooper, community and economic development specialist with the Bennington County Regional Commission. “Since then, the BCRC has been working with the town of Bennington and local groups, convening a steering committee that first met in March to think through the process and the elements of a request for proposals that the town ultimately issued earlier this month.”
The town is seeking proposals from consultants to help prepare a report on potential redevelopment or reuse options for the property. The request for proposals, which is posted on the town website, requires submission by April 23.
Among the listed tasks are to study existing environmental, land use and infrastructure conditions in the area; look at economic and market conditions relative to the site; engage residents and other stakeholders in developing a vision for use of the property; develop area-wide and specific strategies for revitalization, and develop priorities for an implementation plan.
The steering committee will review the submissions and select a consultant, according to the posting, and a selection is expected within two weeks after the submission deadline.
The committee is made up of local officials, businesses, real estate representatives, lenders and residents, as well as representatives from the DEC and federal Environmental Protection Agency.
“We are excited to be working on a reuse plan for the Energizer property,” said Bill Colvin, assistant director of the BCRC and director of the Bennington County Industrial Corp. “A large part of the work of the BCRC and the selected outside consultant will be to determine what redevelopment scenarios might make the most sense for the facility and the site.”
Colvin and Cooper noted that the town intends to leave zoning for that area flexible to accommodate a wide range of possible uses.
“From a Select Board perspective,” said board Chairwoman Jeannie Jenkins, “the potential redevelopment of the Energizer facility is an exciting prospect for the community.”
She said officials hope “we will be able to bring an underutilized building back into productive use. While the end uses are still to be determined, the facility is in an excellent location and is easily walkable to Main Street, the Recreation Center, and several schools. Energizer is yet another example of the emerging opportunities in Bennington.”
“Since the facility is zoned for mixed use, the potential uses are pretty varied,” Cooper said. “While we don’t want to speculate on what ‘should’ be there, we can say that the existing buildings could accommodate housing, restaurants, lodging, professional services, retail, manufacturing, educational facilities, residential care facilities, and more. Some of those uses have particular constraints around size or location, so it really does depend on the details.”
Colvin said another large manufacturing operation for the property seems more of a long-shot at this point.
“While not impossible, given the location of the property in a largely residential area and the availability of other industrial spaces in the region better situated, large-scale manufacturing at the property again seems unlikely,” he said. “I would expect there to be some mix of uses at the property ultimately and would expect at least some component of that to be residential.”
Cooper addressed the potential environmental hurdles to reuse of the property.
“As for challenges,” he said, “we’re just getting started in this process and it’s too early for us to say. We’re looking forward to working with our steering committee, which includes representatives from the neighborhood as well as the Department of Environmental Conservation, to help us fill in the gaps in our knowledge.
As part of the plant shutdown process, DEC officials said in November 2019 that the company would be required to file a comprehensive closure plan, detailing how hazardous industrial materials or fixtures have been addressed.
“One of the most exciting aspects of this [grant] funding is that it was designed to recruit development consultants with expertise in site redevelopment and reuse,” Cooper said. “Furthermore, Shires Housing has allocated some funding so that the consultant firm can focus on a community-wide housing needs assessment.”
Normally, he said, housing needs assessments are project specific, but with the Putnam Block and old Bennington High School redevelopment projects underway, and as plans are being developed for reuse of the former Southern Vermont College campus, “it felt like the right time to really re-examine housing needs in Bennington.”
The RFP posting calls for the consultant to help prepare a document referencing the goals for redevelopment within the community; reuse strategies and scenarios and a market strategy for the property; a prioritized implementation plan, and a timeline for plan implementation. The report also is expected to identify potential funding sources.
Community participation, including public meetings, is required as part of the area-wide planning process, according to the RFP.