The Better Bennington Corporation has proposed expanding its jurisdiction by enlarging the definition of “downtown.” This was a recommendation of the study by the Vermont Council on Rural Development, based on comments from several business owners. I think this is an idea that needs to be kept on the drawing board until a few simple questions are answered.
The first is why? Why should the businesses north of town be included as part of the designated downtown? Is the BBC doing such a great job that it should be rewarded with additional duties? That’s not the way I see it. Yes, the downtown is improving, with new stores and restaurants, and a buoyant spirit, but I doubt the BBC had much to do with this change. Most of the new investment has come through private ownership, not through the efforts of the BBC.
The second is how? How the decision is reached is an issue. The BBC’s board of trustees made the proposal, in spite of the fact that there is presently no executive director for the organization. Wouldn’t it make more sense to await the appointment of a new director before any dramatic changes like this?
The decision to expand the downtown requires a majority vote of the voters of Bennington, according to our charter. The reason the downtown district was created was to take the burden of general fund taxes off the backs of most taxpayers. As it is, the town appropriates $82,000 a year to the BBC. It also provides free housing at the former blacksmith’s shop. Just watch, expanding the district will inevitably mean a bigger budget and a bigger bite for the taxpayers.
We should ask what the BBC has done to deserve more power and more money, and whether the BBC is worth keeping. Has the money the BBC received over its 42-year history been spent wisely? Hundreds of thousands of dollars of public money have gone into the organization. What did we get for those monies?
We should consider giving those funds to the town’s department of community development instead. That way there would be greater transparency in the way the funds are spent, and greater accountability. The BBC is a private non-profit corporation. Its board does not include any elected officials. Its books don’t have to be audited the way town government’s departments are. The select board and the manager have no control over the operations and decisions the BBC makes.
Other nonprofit organizations in our town have to gather signatures to get their requests for aid onto the warning. The BBC doesn’t have to do that. It enjoys privileged status. The BBC is an entity that answers only to itself.
It could do so much more for Bennington. Consider how well it does with Mayfest. That is one of the BBC’s successes, and they do it very well. It brings about $30,000 to the BBC in profit. But it could do so much more to improve the economy of this pearl of a town.
There have been good times and bad times over the years, and the BBC has been trying to foster economic vitality in our downtown. We can’t blame the BBC for the recessions or the effects of Covid on the world. That would be asking too much. For the same reason, we can’t reward the BBC for improvements we’re seeing in downtown this fall.
The way I see it, the BBC has not earned our continuing support. It hasn’t justified continued public funding. It’s like a man who sees a parade and pushes his way to the front, smiling and waving his arms as if all that came behind him was his doing.