Excitement building as Putnam Block project construction nears
BENNINGTON — A financial closing for the first phase of the $53 million Putnam Block project won't happen until early December, but excitement among Select Board members seemed palpable during a progress briefing on Monday.
Future Bennington residents are likely to think "in terms of before the Putnam project redevelopment and after the Putnam project redevelopment," said board member Donald Campbell. "I think it is going to be one of those things that is a break-point in our own history."
"I think the community is incredibly psyched about this project," said Bill Colvin, of the Bennington County Regional Commission and local point-person for the Bennington Redevelopment Group, LLC.
He said he's constantly asked in person, in phone calls and emails, "when are you going to close on this, when are you going to start construction?"
One strikingly visible sign, he said, will be the planned demolition next month of the former H. Greenberg & Son hardware building.
"I think the community will be pretty excited when they start seeing that building come down," Colvin said.
While redevelopment of three historic downtown structures, including the former Hotel Putnam, won't begin until after the closing, Colvin said advance environmental remediation work is already well under way, funded through separate loan agreements.
Asbestos removal from the Greenberg store is mostly complete, Colvin said, and demolition of the building is expected to start in early November.
In addition, a 10,000-gallon underground fuel storage tank behind the former hotel will be removed, as will about 634 cubic yards of soil with polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (related to burning coal, oil, gasoline, trash and other substances), all due to historic uses of the property.
Part of the soil will be trucked to a disposal site, while some will be reburied elsewhere on the four-acre Putnam Block property and capped, under a plan approved by federal and state environmental agencies, Colvin said.
Up to 105 units
Colvin and Robert Stevens, of M&S Development of Brattleboro, a developer working with the BRG group and an project investor, focused in their presentation on the impacts creating up to an additional 105 units of housing could have on the downtown, which they said now only encompasses about 160 units of housing in total.
Stevens said the project will bring "a pretty significant increase in the number of people that are going to live down there."
If completed as planned, the mixed-income units would add about 150 downtown residents, Stevens said, infusing about $4.2 million in spending annually into the local economy and boosting the property grand list by $6.8 million.
The housing units are planned over three phases of the Putnam Block project, he said, including phase one upper-level units in the Hotel Putnam, and/or the adjacent Courthouse or Pennysaver Press building and the nearby Winslow building.
The hotel building and former courthouse face South Street at the Four Corners intersection of Routes 7 and 9. Improvements also are planned in phase one for parking and open space areas behind the historic structures.
The project's first phase is expected to cost $27.6 million and relies on historic preservation and new market tax credits and other sources.
Phase two, which Colvin said could go to a financial closing by the end of 2019, would include construction of a multi-story building at Main Street and Washington Avenue with medical and other offices, a second building adjacent to that, and the creation of additional residential units, parking, walkways and open space behind the three historic structures.
The third phase, Colvin said on Monday, would likely be undertaken by a housing developer such as Shires Housing, in cooperation with other organizations and new include affordable housing units along Washington Avenue at the western edge of the four-acre. That site will be set aside for future affordable housing, allowing additional tax credits toward the first phase of the project, he said.
Impacts of housing
Stevens said the planned housing would include higher-end rental units in the first phase, so-called workforce housing in the second phase, and affordable units in the third, each making up roughly a third of the planned 105 new units.
Comparing those rent levels in a handout provided Monday to the median family income in the area of $64,800 for a family of three, the project envisions units requiring income at 120 percent of median income for three people, or $77,760; workforce units requiring 80 percent of MFI, or $51,750 for three people, and units requiring 50 percent of MFI, or $32,400 for three.
A local survey of young professions in the area found that 43 percent were renters and that 50 percent of renters would like to live downtown, according to the handout.
The advantages of a larger downtown population, Stevens and Colvin said, are that it would include a larger business customer base and spur retail and entertainment businesses to launch or expand; increase after-work activities for residents; increase a sense of stakeholder engagement and participation from a broader population of residents; and increase after-hours safety and security in the downtown, especially for seniors who want to live close to services.
Colvin said the hope is that owners of other downtown structures will be encouraged to renovate or redevelop their buildings as well, for both retail and housing purposes.
Stevens said a more immediate impact of the first phase will be a surge in local employment in the construction trades and related jobs.
Bread Loaf Corp., of Middlebury, which is acting as construction manager, typically hires mostly local tradespeople, he said, adding that he expects 100 to 120 workers a day during aspects of the redevelopment work on the three historic structures.
The planners also updated the Select Board on community investment aspect of the multi-faceted, multi-year project, which is being developed by a consortium of local institutions, colleges, businesses and individual investors.
The Putnam Block project represents "a blueprint" for a community-led investment, Stevens said, and it highlights one of the only ways major developments can get done in an aging downtown core. In this case, he and Colvin said, community organizations and business, along with individuals are investing to revitalize the economy, not necessarily with the aim of turning a profit.
In addition to the local investment, the group explored multiple grant and tax credit sources in putting together the financial package.
Commenting on the complexity of the package, which includes 17 funding sources, Stevens called the Putnam initiative, "a complex project in all respects."
He added: "When we did the Brooks House, we were told that was the most complicated financial structure in the country at the time," but there "is no question," he said, that the Putnam financial plan was more complicated.
"You can imagine there were times we didn't think it would get done," Colvin said, referring to weekly meetings of the principal community investors in the redevelopment group.
But he said the group always rose to the challenge when complex or daunting problems surfaced.
Colvin added that most people are likely unaware of the level of community investment in the project beyond the major investors. "This is not only the major institutions in our community," he said.
There now are 64 local individual, institutional or business investors, he said, some contributing "multiple times and in multiple ways."
The remaining few commercial tenants of the historic buildings have been notified of the start of construction, and were given to find other quarters, Colvin said. Some are expected to return after the construction period for phase one, or 15 to 18 months.
Part of the funding package includes a relocation process for business tenants that provides "significant relocation assistance," he said.
Jim Therrien writes for New England Newspapers in Southern Vermont and VTDigger.org. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. @BB_therrien on Twitter.
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