Deal for former high school falls through

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BENNINGTON — A deal that would have turned the old Bennington High School building into a coworking space has fallen through, and the would-be developer must now pay back a $20,000 loan to the town, Town Manager Stuart Hurd said.

Charles Crowell, a visiting professor at Bennington College, originally set his sights on turning the vacant, 105,000-square-foot building at 650 Main St. into a for-profit business incubator but failed to prove occupancy by the forgivable loan's deadline of Jan. 1.

If Crowell had adhered to guidelines, the loan would have taken the form of a grant. Now, Crowell will now begin receiving invoices from the town to pay back the loan, Hurd said Tuesday.

Crowell approached the Select Board with the idea on Aug. 13, 2018 and received unanimous support despite some initial hesitation from Select Board Chair Tom Jacobs, who admitted he was not as optimistic as the rest of the board but hoped he would be "proven wrong" in Crowell's efforts to renovate the building.

To help aid Crowell's effort, the Select Board unanimously awarded Crowell a $20,000 forgivable loan from the Bennington Economic Development (BED) fund. The board supported the proposal provided that Crowell pass a credit report check and provide a signed lease by Jan. 1, 2019 to prove legitimate tenant occupancy.

Hurd says the town had "a number of conversations with Crowell" over the past few months regarding the project. Crowell originally had a closing scheduled for September, but it fell through.

"That created some problems for him." Hurd said.

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Hurd was not certain why the deal fell through for Crowell and is not certain of the status of the building. However, Hurd did comment that the building's owner is "somewhat frustrated" that he cannot sell the building effectively or efficiently.

"The longer it stays vacant, the more difficult it is to move," Hurd said.

Crowell will begin receiving invoices from the town in order to pay back the loan.

Canadian developer Malcolm "Mac" Lewis bought the property, which also served as Mount Anthony Middle School, in 2009 at an auction for $50,000. He listed it with Maple Leaf Realty in December 2013 for $750,000, but no buyers came forward.

In 2014, Lewis told the Banner he intended to turn the building into condominiums, but the local economy was incompatible with the idea.

In 2015, the Select Board approved an $18,000 redevelopment study of the property, paid for from the town's economic development fund. Upon completion in August of the same year, the study revealed that the "best case scenario" left a $5 million to $8 million gap between what it would cost to renovate the parcel and what it would generate in income, according to a Sept. 29, 2015 Banner article.

Christie Wisniewski can be reached at cwisniewski@benningtonbanner.com and at 802-447-7567, ext. 111.


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