BENNINGTON — U.S. Rep. Becca Balint visited Bennington County on Monday, hearing first-hand stories from small business owners and people affected by the rising incidence of mental health struggles.
In her first visit to the county since becoming the state’s first woman member of Congress, Balint wanted to hear about the challenges faced by mental health providers and small business owners. She sat in on a roundtable held by United Counseling Service in Manchester, and then went door-to-door in downtown Bennington, visiting women entrepreneurs.
The roundtable in Manchester, at Manchester Community Library, discussed UCS’ role in Bennington County and the increase it has seen in the demand for crisis services.
“The number one issue is the mental health crisis, whether it’s veterans’ groups, whether it’s about housing or first responders,” Balint said. “It’s incredible how every single group is saying this is a crisis. We have to acknowledge it’s impacting our children and impacting our workers. ... As a nation, we have to acknowledge we will not be able to move forward with our goals supporting working families or supporting our economy if we’re not also acknowledging the mental health crisis and making investments.”
In Bennington, Balint started at the brand new Bennington Community Market on Main Street, then made her way to W. Collective, The Bennington Bookshop, The Gift Garden and Island Flavor, a Jamaican cafe. She asked owners about the challenges they face, and about what they want the rest of Vermont — and the world — to know about what makes the southern end of the state unique.
“The thing that comes shining through is people love their community, they love Bennington County, and they feel like folks outside of Bennington County don’t understand what a gem this community is,” Balint said. “The stories of the hardships they face seem to take all the air out of the conversation about the good things. They really want to tell their good stories about Bennington County, and I’m really sympathetic to that. I hear that from my folks in Brattleboro, as well.”
“Anything I can do to lift up the southern tier, I’m all in. These are communities I love and believe in. They have everything they need to be successful.”
A history teacher before she got into politics, Balint’s ears perked up when she heard from Bennington Bookshop co-owner Linda Foulsham that it was the state’s oldest — it was founded in 1928. The tiled lettering in front of a Main Street building that was once home to a five and dime got her attention, as well.
She listened as Foulsham explained how curbside delivery helped the store weather the pandemic, and added that in-person retail book sales have shown a resurgence.
“I am your one representative in Congress. What do I need to know?” she asked Foulsham.
“I think Bennington has a bad reputation. … I think we need more people cheering for us,” Foulsham said.
The visit to Island Flavor was the most aromatic stop on the walking tour, as the smell of something delicious and spicy permeated the air. Balint saw that oxtail was on the menu and asked owner Anique Gilpin about the dish, about why she chose Bennington and the challenges she’s facing. Glipin is only able to provide takeout in her current space, and she’s looking for a place where she can offer in-person dining.
Gilpin told Balint that she used her stimulus check from the COVID-19 pandemic to help start the business. Balint was very happy to hear that, because she’s been trying to make the case that stimulus payments and payroll protection loans were “incredibly important to everyday people.”
It’s important for me to tell the stories of rural families,” Balint said. “Whether they’re in Vermont or Nebraska or New Mexico, there is so much they have in common.”
At The Gift Garden, co-owner Beth Wilwol said the pandemic affected her ability to obtain inventory and also raised wholesale prices. But she also said living and working in Bennington helped her get through those problems, because there’s a tight-knit sense of community.
“If I’m short [of flowers] or have a problem, I call Wild Blossoms, and vice versa,” Wilwol said.
At W. Collective, Balint talked with co-owner Sarah Krinsky and sales associate Anna Merritt about their business and asked what they need to grow and succeed. Both women said downtown needs more stores like theirs — shops where locals can buy things they need, as well as places for tourists to find unique gift ideas. And Krinsky, who also works at Bennington College, said anything that would help the college connect with downtown students would be helpful.
Balint suggested that the town try an idea that has worked in Brattleboro — Gallery Walk, which brings visitors downtown to experience art not only in galleries, but in shops and restaurants, as well.
“There really is a possibility for more to happen here to celebrate the arts,” Krinsky said.