More than $30 million, mostly federal money, is being paid for the Putnam Block, to create medium-income residences. This is a mistake.
That money was originally proposed to be spent on projects that would enhance the integrity of downtown Bennington. There was talk of creating high-end jobs, a food market, a hardware store, possibly a hotel, and perhaps even a parking garage. Those plans have now been scrapped.
The consequences of this decision will be unfortunate. Has no one thought of the impact on the landlords of the housing that will be vacated as people move to the new apartments? You might call this policy as poaching businesses from one end of town to another. How can this be fair? The project also eliminates essential commercial space in the downtown. How can this be in keeping with the needs of the town?
I believe Bennington’s economy is in dire need of attention. What is needed are improvements that will encourage people to come to the downtown off the new highway to shop and stay. More housing won’t do that.
We missed a good opportunity in not purchasing the mansion at Southern Vermont College. The hospital purchased the property for about $5 million. That would have been a much better investment for the town, but the Selectboard wouldn’t go for it, and that’s a shame.
There’s a second phase of the federal funds. This involves the possible construction of two four-story residential buildings at the corner of Main and Washington streets. To my mind, this too is a misuse of the funds. People need housing, of course, but we could be so much smarter in allocating this “found money” to foster the development of downtown.
Sadly, the public never had a chance of weighing in on these choices. Essential details were not shared with us, and those who had expressed concerns about the choices were not listened to by the board. There are still unanswered questions about how much local money is spent on this pet program, how much of a tax break is being offered, and how much is being provided with in-kind services. This is becoming a routine with this board. It is too ready to ignore public comment and forge ahead with its own ideas. That isn’t respectful and as seen with the Putnam Block it hasn’t led to wise decision-making.
In this time of worldwide trauma, we have seen the decline of democracy worldwide and the rise of imperialism and tyranny on the part of governments at all levels. That is not a surprise in D.C. The old saw that government officials should never let a crisis go to waste holds true again. In the most difficult of times, government often grabs power it couldn’t exercise otherwise. Congress passed three large bail-out appropriations, and distributed the funds to the states and towns, leaving the choice of how to allocate the funds to the recipients.
You would have thought that when about $30 million dropped into Bennington’s lap that the first thought of the Selectboard would have been to hold a hearing to solicit ideas from the citizens. But this board boldly seized on the idea that it was theirs to spend without oversight or accountability. Clearly, the choices that were made were irresponsible in light of the town’s obvious needs.
It’s a pattern, isn’t it? When officials are given power and money without limits they soon forget they are mere representatives and they will abuse the trust if they’re allowed to act without oversight or standards. Once upon a time local officials knew that the advice of those whom they represent was important, not only because of what might be said but to build support for their decisions. That seems to be missing here.
It’s not too late to change course, at least for the second phase of the expenditures. The Selectboard should hold that hearing, and be open to responding to ideas that make sense for the growth of our economy.