Officials, residents celebrate Putnam project
BENNINGTON — More than 150 people turned out Wednesday to celebrate the construction launch of the $56 million Putnam Block redevelopment project in Bennington's downtown core.
The crowd, which gathered under a large tent in a lot behind the historic former Hotel Putnam, represented only a fraction of those local, state and regional groups, businesses and individuals who pushed the project's vision into its first $31 million phase of reality.
A theme of all the speakers was cooperation, collaboration and investing time and money "in ourselves."
Gov. Phil Scott, U.S. Rep. Peter Welch and others said they view the collaborative, home-grown downtown revival strategy as having the potential to reverse economic decline throughout rural sections of Vermont and, by extension, throughout the U.S.
Bank of Bennington President and CEO James Brown, an early leader of the Bennington Redevelopment Group, which spearheaded the proposal, said the project was "a journey that started many years ago, with many conversations about what to do about the decline of Bennington."
He said residents watched storefronts on Main Street empty and businesses struggling to attract employees to Bennington.
"It wasn't a problem unique to Bennington," he said, but in this case, "we sought an investment that would be transformative, both now and in the future."
And that vision evolved into the multi-phase Putnam Block project, encompassing a four-acre site and six buildings off the Four Corners intersection of Routes 7 and 9.
The idea that emerged focused on "a site that was underutilized for more than a generation," Brown said, with the goals of doing environmental remediation and other preliminary work and redeveloping three historic structures "to bring in tenants and commercial tenants downtown ... to change the story of Bennington from one of decline to one of renewal."
Work on the former hotel, the adjacent Courthouse building and the Winslow Building on the opposite side of the Putnam, will include complete renovations and creation of retail and residential space.
Was not easy
It has been about three years since that vision took shape for the consortium of institutions and local businesses that formed the community-oriented BRD. Representatives from the various entities, including Southwestern Vermont Health Care and Bennington College, the Bank of Bennington and other businesses and individual investors, have met twice a month to hammer out the knotty details of a inordinately complex financing plan and deal with a series of project hurdles.
"It has not been easy and there is a reason that no commercial developer would take this on: because it doesn't make economic sense" except as an investment "that goes beyond the numbers," Brown said. "It is an investment in ourselves, our community, our collective future, because without everybody lending a hand in this project we would not be here today."
He also thanked the community at large for its support over the years. That continually "gave us energy" to overcome obstacles and succeed, he said.
"And we're not done," Brown added, saying the BRD has begun engineering work for the next phase of the three-phase redevelopment. That is expected to include two new buildings and further site work in open areas behind the historic structures, which face the street.
"But right now," Brown said, "we want to take a minute to celebrate what our community been able to accomplish together."
Scott said he attends a lot of groundbreakings, "but this has to be the largest I've been to since becoming governor, and probably before that as well." He called the Putnam project "a testament to what this project means and all the hard work that went into it" — and to those who individuals and community-based entities that are investing in it.
The project also is "one of the most important economic development initiatives underway in Vermont right now," Scott said. "The fact is, we need to give a helping hand to economic centers outside Chittenden County — places like Bennington, Brattleboro, Rutland, Springfield and many others, in order to re-energize our rural communities."
Such large projects require vision and commitment, as well as support from larger entities, like state and federal agencies and funding programs, he said.
When told about a year ago that the BRD needed "help with the last piece of the funding puzzle," Scott said he asked Agency of Commerce and Community Development, the Agency of Natural Resources and other state entities "to do all they could to help fill that gap."
Vermont will commit about $3 million to the project's first phase, including federal grant funding allocated through the state.
Scott cited the role of the federal New Markets and Historic Preservation tax credit programs for providing crucial financial support.
"I hope everyone understands that without the federal government's [tax credit programs], "a project like this would never get done," he said.
The governor also named and thanked every Bennington County lawmaker for pushing in unison for the project, and he indicated he's counting on that kind of support in the next legislative session for possible attempts to weaken or reduce funding for the state's Tax Increment Financing program. Bennington qualified for and expects to utilize a TIF plan in the project's second phase.
It is important to note, Scott said, "that some in Montpelier have raised concerns about this [development] tool and others have called for a delay. My hope that this won't slow us down."
He said three large communities in Chittenden County "have benefited greatly from TIF and the investment it has brought to their downtowns," adding that it is important that "our economic growth should be fair and equitable" for communities in every region of the state.
With its TIF district established, the town is authorized to borrow for infrastructure improvements to enhance private development projects. The bonds are to be repaid with a percentage of the new tax revenue generated by the property upgrades, with each bond requiring the approval of town voters.
"The Putnam Block is a great example of why we do the things we do," Scott said. "It shows it is possible to expand the type of economic activity we see in Chittenden County to the rest of the state."
Ted Brady, deputy secretary of the Agency of Commerce and Community Development, said collaborative community projects "are the biggest thing happening in rural economic development" and should be replicated elsewhere.
The effort fostered what has been termed "a conspiracy of good will," he said.
While such a project might not make economic sense to a private developer, "you know makes sense for Bennington," Welch said, because it represents "investing in where you live."
The project makes the statement "that that anchor building is going to thrive rather than wither and die," the congressman said. "That makes spiritual sense; it makes community sense. It is what we must do."
Welch also praised calling on the resources of the state government "to take it that last mile," representing an example of "a government that works for you."
People in small communities have "solid values" that are important not just to communities but to the entire country, he said, "so there is a reason this is the biggest ribbon-cutting the governor has every seen, because this is the biggest deal and it is happening now."
Select Board Chairman Donald Campbell praised Town Manager Stuart Hurd and Assistant Town Manager and Planning Director Daniel Monks for the work done for more than a decade to plan for and encourage redevelopment of the downtown, laying some groundwork for the transformative BRG concept.
"We welcome this day, when we can finally say we can see the downtown Bennington Putnam Block completely redeveloped for all to enjoy," Campbell declared.
He also referred to the Bennington Battle Monument, marking the 1777 Revolutionary War battle that helped stall a British invasion of New York and New England, as another good example of what a handful of committed people can accomplish.
Battle Day is Aug. 16, he said, but Aug. 7 could also "be remembered, as Putnam Block day," marking "another important victory for Bennington."
Chris Saunders, from U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy's office, said Leahy wanted him "to deliver a very simple message: When Bennington succeeds."
Vermont's future, he said "relies on this strategy being successful," compiling a long list of partners, supporters and state and local efforts.
Sheila Reed, from U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders' office, said the senator congratulates the community and supporters for creating a project that benefits the area, provides jobs and affordable housing and also helps combat climate change by discouraging sprawl development in favor of a downtown revival.
Other speakers included representatives from the banking, tax credit financing and grant funding institutions that filled particular roles in assembling a financing package with more than 17 funding sources.
Robert Stevens, of M&S Development, LLC, the project managers for BRG, thanked members of the Select Board and town officials for support as each obstacle to the project was overcome, as well as all the institutional and individual partners who invested and/or worked on the financing or other aspects of the plan.
He also thanked the Greenberg family, which agreed to sell the Putnam Block site to the developers and then had to wait as the long financing process crawled along before they received payment.
And Stevens praised Bill Colvin, of the Bennington Regional Planning Commission and Bennington County Industrial Corp., who acts as local point person for the project.
Colvin said of the event, "I think it's a wonderful day for the community. I think today's event really summed up very well this community coming together and the number of people that it took to get to this day."
He said that in addition to the core group "an expanding group of partners" seemed to grow on a daily basis as the project advanced.
"I do hope this is a model for other communities," he said, "and I hope this is a model for us to continue the momentum that we've built into other projects, with the redevelopment group and other groups in the community."
After the traditional golden shovel groundbreaking ceremony, state Rep. Jim Carroll, said the developers and supporters proved naysayers about the project wrong.
He said they succeeded despite "a few people, a very few people, who like to complain, and never lift a figure to try to do what is possible."
Carroll added that during the event, "All I thought about was Lindy Lynch. She was someone who always believed that everything was possible if you were willing to work for it."
Lynch, a former president of the Bennington Area Chamber of Commerce, died Aug. 3 after a long battle with cancer.
Attending the morning event, Eric Peterson, producing artistic director of Oldcastle Theatre Company, said, "This it's great for Oldcastle, it's great for the community. It's the best thing that has happened since I've lived in this community, which is a long time now. It's a fantastic thing, and it is wonderful to see this kind of a turnout and all the real enthusiasm ... To do this in a town of 15,000; people just don't understand what an achievement this is."
Oldcastle purchased its Main Street building adjacent to the Winslow Building when the complex financing package closed for the Putnam Block project.
Jim Therrien writes for New England Newspapers in Southern Vermont, including the Bennington Banner, Brattleboro Reformer and Manchester Journal. Twitter: @BB_therrien
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