Year in review: Putnam Block inched toward construction during 2018
BENNINGTON — The Putnam Block redevelopment project finished 2018 agonizingly close to the full-bore launch of the first phase of the $53 million downtown makeover.
As of mid-December, an official groundbreaking for the renovation of three historic buildings around the Four Corners intersection, including the former Hotel Putnam, had been delayed once again, this time until sometime in January.
The reason, according to Bill Colvin, the point person for the initiative by a consortium of area organizations and businesses, continues to be the need to nail down all details in an enormously complex financing package.
Those details have played a role in delaying the phase one groundbreaking, which originally was scheduled for late fall in 2017. Hurdles have included fears that federal tax credit programs the project depends upon were facing possible cuts as Congress debated the Trump administration's massive tax cut proposal, along with timing issues involving setting closing dates for the multiple aspects of the financial plan, most of which are interdependent.
During a presentation before the Select Board in October, Robert Stevens, of M&S Development of Brattleboro, a developer working with the Putnam consortium, said the Bennington initiative is "a complex project in all respects," more complicated in terms of the financing package than one his firm worked on in Brattleboro that was thought to be the most complex in the nation at that time.
Colvin has said the Bennington Redevelopment Group, LLC, is trying to coordinate 17 funding sources and a total of 64 individual, institutional or business investors contributing to the project.
"You can imagine there were times we didn't think it would get done," he said, referring to weekly meetings of the principal community investors in the group.
The financing delays have meant that residents saw no visible progress toward a construction launch during 2018.
About $700,000 in environmental remediation and other work began this year. That included asbestos removal from the H. Greenberg & Son hardware store, which was then razed in 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.
When the first construction phase does kick in, Bread Loaf Corp., of Middlebury, which is acting as construction manager, is expected to hire mostly local tradespeople, with 100 to 120 workers a day on site during aspects of the work on three historic structures scheduled for phase one.
The remaining few commercial tenants of the historic buildings have been notified of the pending start of construction, and were offered help to find other quarters, Colvin said. Some are expected to return after the construction period for phase one, or in15 to 18 months.
The first phase will encompass renovation of the former Hotel Putnam, located right at the southwest corner of the intersection of Route 9 (Main Street) and Route 7 (South and North streets); as well as the former Courthouse or Pennysaver Press building on South Street and the Winslow Block on West Main Street.
Plans call for the creation of upper-floor housing, and dining, entertainment and retail space on the lower floors of the historic buildings.
Phase two of the project would include a new medical office building and a grocery store building, both multi-story structures with housing on the upper floors and offices or retail below, to be located off West Main Street and Washington Avenue in the northwest area of the four-acre Putnam Block site.
A third phase also is planned, involving working with a housing development entity like Shires Housing to create housing units in more than one building and including affordable, moderate and market level rentals.
Those structures are planned for the southwest area of the site, bordering along on Washington Avenue.
Stevens told the Select Board in October that the plan is to create an additional 105 units of housing in a downtown that now only encompasses about 160 units of housing in total.
He said the project would bring "a pretty significant increase in the number of people that are going to live down there," infusing about $4.2 million in spending annually into the local economy.
The organizations and businesses involved as major investors in the Bennington Redevelopment Group, LLC, include Southwestern Vermont Health Care, Bennington College and Southern Vermont College, the Bank of Bennington, Global-Z, and other business leaders and private investors.
Stevens said he sees the effort as "a blueprint" for a community-led investment, and one that highlights how major developments can get done in an aging downtown core with aging infrastructure and legacy environmental issues that must be remediated.
During a visit to the site in October, U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said he would encourage other members of the Senate Appropriations Committee and staff members to visit Bennington to learn how such a transformative project might be launched with community support.
Without that kind of support, "developments like this make no fiscal sense whatsoever," Colvin said at the time.
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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