Professor sets sights on former high school

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BENNINGTON— The former Bennington High School may soon have a new use as a business incubator and accelerator, with occupants by the beginning of next year.

Charles Crowell, a Bennington College visiting professor, has set his sights on turning the vacant, 105,000-square-foot building at 650 Main St. into a for-profit business incubator, adding classrooms, workshops, and office spaces to "provide the impetus to regenerate Bennington's social, cultural, and economic sectors," according to a memorandum presented to the Select Board earlier this month.

Crowell, who is also a financial economist and entrepreneur, acquired the building at the end of last week. His page on the Bennington College website says he has a special interest "in the field of social entrepreneurship and community regeneration."

To help aid his effort, the Select Board on Monday unanimously awarded Crowell a $20,000 forgivable loan from the Bennington Economic Development (BED) fund. The funds will not be released until Crowell has a purchase agreement in hand, and the building must have occupants by Jan. 1, 2019 for the loan to be forgiven.

The money is to be used for a series of assessments and evaluations of the building.

The board supported the proposal provided that Crowell passes a credit report check and provides a signed lease by Jan. 1, 2019 to prove legitimate tenant occupancy. If tenants are not in the building by this deadline, the $20,000 will be treated as a regular loan.

Select Board Member Donald Campbell expressed support for the forgivable loan, especially since it can be put back into the BED fund if the project doesn't work out.

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"We could have our cake and eat it too," he said.

The rest of the board generally supported the idea. However, Chair Thomas Jacobs was hesitant to be too optimistic since the building has remained vacant for so long.

"I'm not as optimistic, and I hope I'll be proven wrong," he said, addressing Crowell. "This is overly optimistic in this context, but maybe that old building will have new life in your efforts."

Canadian developer Malcolm "Mac" Lewis bought the dilapidated 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 there were no buyers. Maple Leaf Realty most recently had the building listed for $295,000. The building sits on 2.29 acres.

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

In June 2015, the Select Board approved an $18,000 redevelopment study of the property, paid for from the town's economic development fund.

The study was completed in August of the same year and 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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