State council close to approving town TIF plan


BENNINGTON — Bennington's application for a downtown tax increment financing district is moving toward approval by the Vermont Economic Progress Council.

Members of the council, which approves TIF districts and monitors the economic development program, were at Oldcastle Theatre on Wednesday for a public hearing on the proposal. Afterward, Chairman Stephan Morse termed the town's application for TIF designation "very complete," and said he was impressed with the "very thorough presentation" by those who spoke during the session.

"The support from the community was incredible," Morse said.

As part of the process, the council will hold a second hearing on the Bennington plan in Montpelier Nov. 17 and hopes to take a vote during a Dec. 14 meeting, Morse said.

Remaining issues to be worked out by the council staff and representatives of Burke & White Real Estate Investment Advisors, the consultants working with the town, are technical in nature, he said.

Council members heard from a series of local officials and business leaders, who offered sometimes impassioned support for creation of a TIF district. With a district in place, Bennington could borrow for infrastructure projects in support of private development and use a percentage of the new tax revenue generated to pay off the public debt.

The centerpiece and catalyst for the proposed district is the $53 million Putnam Block project, planned by a consortium of local institutions, businesses and private investors on four acres around the former Hotel Putnam at the Four Corners intersection.

`Opportunity of my lifetime'

"From my perspective as a longtime town employee, this is the opportunity of my lifetime," said Stuart Hurd, the town manager for 25 years and a town employee for 45.

"If we are not successful with this project and with this entire district, I think Bennington will continue to decline," he said. "Perhaps, if we're lucky, we'll become stagnant. So this project, this application, means a whole lot to me personally."

Edward Sargood, chief financial officer with the Bank of Bennington, a key member of the Putnam investment group, said the institution's success is closely tied to the local economy, of which the downtown is a major component.

With a main office less than two blocks from the Putnam site, he said, "We are intertwined with Bennington and as such, our fortune cannot be separated from the local economy."

The bank and other institutions and businesses came together to try to spur redevelopment, Sargood said, but help from the public sector also is needed to help create a more vibrant downtown and "a positive ripple effect that can happen throughout the community."

Dimitri Garder, co-founder a of Global-Z International Inc., another major investor, said the Putnam project "is the most important economic development project to happen in Bennington in my lifetime, and I don't think that is hyperbolic."

He said the massive project "absolutely could not happen without all of the financing resources we are looking at, and that includes the TIF district."

Global-Z plans to move the firm's headquarters staff offices to the Putnam site as an anchor tenant, Garder said.

Describing difficulty in attracting students and staff members to town, Bennington College President Mariko Silver said "the hurdle is that Bennington's downtown needs an infusion of energy."

She said about 30 percent of Bennington students have expressed a desired to live in town after they graduate, but that is hindered primarily by a shortage of market-rate downtown rental housing. Attracting students, faculty and staff members to the school also is hampered by the lack of a vibrant downtown, Silver said.

The college has agreed to lease space for faculty and graduate student housing and office space planned for the first phase of the Putnam Block project.

Thomas Dee, president and CEO of Southwestern Vermont Health Care, described similar concerns at Southwestern Vermont Medical Center and the other SVHC facilities, medical practices and centers.

The eighth largest employer in the state, SVHC employs more than 1,400, he said, and the institution constantly faces challenges in recruiting and retaining medical staff and other employees.

A key component of the organization's long-range plan is to seek collaborations that foster economic sustainability in the area and enhance the quality of life, Dee said. In part, he said, that vision is being addressed through a medical office building SVHC plans just west of the Hotel Putnam.

"In order for SVHC to attract the highest quality workforce, Bennington needs to have a strong, vibrant, walkable downtown, with sustainable housing, additional eating establishments, attractive shopping and also a high level of cultural and recreational activities," Dee said.

Approval of a TIF district is "critical" to revitalization of the downtown, he said.

Not a negative town

Donald Campbell, Select Board vice-chairman, advised council members not to only "look at Facebook or only listen to the loudest voices of discontent" about Bennington.

He said there also "are countless local groups that are working together to incrementally make Bennington a better place," adding that he mentioned those efforts "because there is a great misconception in Montpelier that Bennington leans toward negativity."

On the contrary, Campbell said, "Bennington is filled with people who believe in Bennington's future and are willing to work for it."

Bill Colvin, assistant director of the Bennington County Regional Commission, who is the local point person for the Putnam Block effort, said "real estate development in rural communities is a challenging undertaking."

The costs of development are similar to those of more urban areas, he said, but the potential return on investment is typically not enough to spur development without public-private partnerships like those proposed in Bennington.

The town already has moved to support the Putnam Block project by applying for grant funds for environmental remediation, he said, and could continue to assist developers through a TIF.

The TIF application identifies about $6.4 million in possible public infrastructure projects that could help spur more than $20.4 million in new private property valuation within the downtown district over seven years.

The document also identifies more than a dozen other potential redevelopment sites. The proposed district totals about 70 acres and includes 155 parcels in the downtown.

Generating excitement

John Shannahan, executive director of the Bennington Downtown Alliance, and Matt Harrington, executive director of the Bennington Area Chamber of Commerce, both described a surge of interest in the town because of the Putnam Block project and TIF proposal.

"The feedback we're getting is overwhelmingly positive," Harrington said.

He added, "I think we are really a diamond in the rough here, and I am kind of surprised we haven't been more successful being an access point to so many key urban locations."

Jim Therrien writes for New England Newspapers in Southern Vermont and @BB_therrien on Twitter.


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