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Now we’re cooking with gas. That developers are purchasing the former Southern Vermont College campus is great news. The development might well serve as the keystone for a revival of our town’s economy, but only if we recognize the opportunity it presents.

The development is a child of private investment. We can celebrate the project, but we need to ask what the town can do to expand on this good news.

The campus had been purchased from the college by Southwestern Vermont Health Care, and now will become the site of what is called a “luxury resort.” The project, initially estimated to involve a substantial investment, will bring an estimated 100 to 150 jobs to town, restore the Everett Mansion, and serve as a place for local investors to participate in the energy of this project.

This kind of large scale development in our town will have an impact beyond the borders of the former campus. It will stimulate the revival of Bennington as the centerpiece of southern Bennington County. It will serve as a magnet for new businesses and a boost for existing ones. It will add weight to our grand list and reduce local taxes.

Unlike the recent history of the town’s attempts to develop the former Benn High, a project which seems to be listing to starboard and in danger of sinking, the SWC campus development apparently has happened without the involvement of local officials.

Town government could be a catalyst for change, if it weren’t so distracted by its recent hobbyhorse policies. The town’s infatuation with nonprofits has distracted us from the real benefits that can come from private investment in Bennington’s economy that can relieve property taxes and reverse our town’s recent decline.

Recent history has proved that the town isn’t best suited to pose as a developer. Far smarter people are better at that. The developers of the SWC property have shown us they find our town a good investment. We need to build on that.

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What better justification for the appointment of a full-time town official dedicated to business development can there be than the news that some developers have such confidence in the future of Bennington that are willing to make substantial investments here.

For most of the rest of Vermont, Bennington is a monument overlooking a downtown that has recently seemed to have lost its way. Back in the first decades of Vermont’s history we were the largest town in the state and served as the state capital for many years, before the state grew up northerly and bigger places surpassed us in growth of population and business.

That was inevitable, I suppose, but here, where the idea of Vermont as a separate country and later a state first blossomed, we have lately gone astray. We haven’t enjoyed the same growth as other parts of the state, in part because of state policies and because of a lackluster record of efforts of local officials.

Instead we have wasted resources and opportunities by adopting a policy of local efforts to promote development based more on hope than reality.

This is the time to act. Bennington is ripe for development. It can fulfill the promise of its first years by returning to its historic role as a hub, as a commercial center. It could continue to sit back and celebrate new investments or it could take a leadership role in promoting the town’s commercial center.

Bennington may never become another Manchester. That shouldn’t be our goal. But we can do a lot better in improving our reputation in this corner of Vermont as a town ready to welcome business growth.

Mike Bethel is a Bennington resident. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of Vermont News & Media.


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