Leahy gets update on Putnam Block progress

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BENNINGTON — Lead investors in the Putnam Block redevelopment project met Friday with U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy to provide a progress report on the community redevelopment effort now on the cusp of a formal ground-breaking.

Leahy praised the cooperative effort, saying it was an example of development benefiting from community spirit and bipartisanship, "which is the only way we can do it in Vermont."

Representatives of the institutions and businesses that formed a consortium just over two years ago to pursue redevelopment in the town's aging business core appropriately met in the boardroom at the Bank of Bennington. That's where the group's principals meet twice monthly.

Bill Colvin, the local point-person for the Bennington Redevelopment Group, explained key aspects of the complex financing package assembled for the project's first phase, which group members believe "is a significant turning point in our community."

And he thanked Leahy for his support when key federal historic preservation and new market tax credit programs were eyed last year in Congress for possible cuts.

"When we reached out to you, this project was frankly in trouble," Colvin said, adding that without the expected credits there would have been "a significant gap" in the project's financing package.

Without that assistance, group members said, projects involving aging structures and infrastructure in older downtowns would not be taken on by private developer seeking to make a profit, let alone a community-oriented group.

"We also rely on people like you," Leahy said of the group members. "Because you spend the time and you work at it ... You care."

He added that when another renewal vote comes up next year on the new market tax credits he has "some confidence" there will again be bipartisan support for the program. All senators, because they represent entire states not just a legislative district, "have rural areas or small towns," he said, referring to the types of lower-income communities the credits benefit.

In addition to major local institutions and businesses like Southwestern Vermont Health Care, the Bank of Bennington, Global-Z, Bennington College and Southern Vermont College, the project is benefiting from a total of 67 community-oriented investors, including a number of individuals, Colvin said.

Without that kind of support, he said, "developments like this make no fiscal sense whatsoever," Colvin said.

James Brown, president and CEO of the Bank of Bennington, who was credited with bringing the core group together for the initial meetings, said, "I think it began with a decision that we had to do something. It wasn't the Putnam at first."

"This has been a team effort like I have never seen," said Thomas Dee, president and CEO of SVHC. "We've never had everyone come together like this."

He added that "it was very clear this was our only shot [toward reviving the local economy.]"

"From the town's perspective," said Thomas Jacobs, chairman of the Select Board, "this was very impressive. We learned we can work hard hand-in-hand with the private sector. And this is only the first step. I don't think this group is going to stop."

There is a great sense of community here and around Vermont, said Dimitri Garder, CEO of Global-Z. But Bennington is also a community, he said, which because of the aging infrastructure around the Four Corners intersection of Routes 7 and 8, "just needs some help."

Leahy said he will encourage other members of the Senate Appropriations Committee to visit Bennington to learn how such a large-scale project can be funded and launched with overwhelming community support.

Referring to the financing package for phase one — focusing on refurbishing three historic structures including the former Hotel Putnam — Leahy said "there are not many areas that could put that together."

Colvin said the package, which the group expects to close on before January, includes 17 unique funding sources.

Preliminary demolition work of the former H. Greenberg & Son hardware and lumber building and more than $500,000 in environmental remediation work is under way. That includes removal of an oil storage tank and contaminated soils from historic business uses.

Leahy, his wife, Marcelle, and staff members toured the site later Friday.

Work on the former hotel, the Courthouse or Pennysaver building and the Winslow building will begin after the closing. The first bids for that work are being sought, Colvin said, and will provide final figures to be plugged into the financing documents.

Jim Therrien writes for New England Newspapers in Southern Vermont, including the Bennington Banner, Brattleboro Reformer and Manchester Journal.






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