by Bruce Edwards, Vermont Business Magazine It’s ambitious to say the least. But there’s little question that if all the parts fall into place, the $54 million makeover will transform downtown Bennington. At the center of what has been appropriately dubbed the Putnam Block project is the former Putnam Hotel that anchors the corner of Main and South streets. The project extends around both streets and also encompasses renovations to the historic Courthouse Building and Winslow Building.
The project is driven by the Bennington Redevelopment Group, a partnership of local businesses and institutions, including Bennington College, Southern Vermont College, Southwestern Vermont Medical Center, Bank of Bennington and Global Z International.
The group recently purchased the six-acre property from the Greenberg family estate for $2 million.
Bennington County Economic Report
The mixed-use project, which includes 91 apartments, is planned in two phases with renovations to the existing buildings in Phase I and new construction in Phase 2 taking place on the site of the former H Greenberg & Son Hardware (and lumber yard) on Main Street, along with the adjacent gas station along Washington Avenue.
Plans include 350 parking spaces and public spaces behind the buildings.
Southern Vermont College is one of the primary supporters of the project.
President David Evans said the college is gearing its involvement in the second phase, which would be new construction to add retail, commercial and residential space.
The exact role the college plays is still an open question.
“We’re looking at a variety of options,” Evans said. “One of the things we’ve been talking about for the last year or so what is the future of our health care programs.”
Evans said one option is collaborating with Southwestern Vermont Medical Center on space in Phase II.
That could include what Evans calls “a living and learning community” where health care students live upstairs and take up internships in a clinical facility on the ground floor.
As a cornerstone of the downtown, he said there was a consensus in the community that something needed to happen to revitalize the Putnam Block.
“The other thing that was pretty clear was that no one but Bennington was going to help the Putnam Block,” Evans said.
What’s happening in Bennington follows similar successful projects in Brattleboro and Saint Albans, said Matt Harrington, executive director of the Bennington Area Chamber of Commerce.
State Senator Richard Sears is bullish on the project, saying it has the potential to make Bennington “a real gateway to Vermont.”
“We’re three hours from Boston, three hours from New York City and I think it just adds tremendous opportunity to enhance Bennington, Vermont,” Sears said.
John Shannahan of the Bennington Downtown Alliance said the project has already spurred interest in other downtown properties.
“They all have that feeling that something is happening here and they want to get in right away and be part of the transformation,” said Shannahan, the executive director.
Bill Colvin of the Bennington County Regional Commission agreed, saying the project caught the attention of the Tri- State Area Federal Credit Union which has announced plans to open a downtown branch.
Local businesses expect the project will help draw people downtown.
At Jay’s Art Shop and Frame Gallery on South Street, business remains “pretty steady,” said owner Jay Zwynenburg, who has been in business 45 years.
And with the Putnam Project near fruition, Zwynenburg said business can only get better, especially since the town is so close to Massachusetts and New York.
“To do nothing would not be good,” he said.
Giving a boost to the project, the Select Board approved on September 11 an application for a tax increment financing district or TIF, a key financing tool for public infrastructure improvements. The TIF plan and application has been sent to the Vermont Economic Progress Council (VEPC) for review and approval. VEPC will hold a Public Hearing in Bennington in late October or early November to review the application.
“If your infrastructure can’t handle development, development isn’t going to happen,” Shannahan said. “And TIF is kind of a way of Vermont saying we have a tool in place to help us meet the demands of development – roads, sidewalks, lighting, water, sewer, fire – all of that, where before it would be out of reach.”
Courthouse Building - 9,520-square-foot
From 1870 to 1937, home to the Bennington County Courthouse. The building will be restored for retail and office spaces.
Hotel Putnam - 29,840 square feet
Built in 1837, the building is being restored to enhance its historic design. It will house retail shops, restaurants with outdoor dining on the first floor, and apartments on the second and third floors.
Winslow Building - 27,220 square feet
For more than 60 years, the site of Winslow Hardware, it will be restored to accommodate a local hardware store on the first floor, along with retail and a university art gallery. The second floor is set aside for a graduate student art studio, with graduate student housing on the second and third floors.
Occupancy of the three historic buildings is expected in January 2019.
Grocery Building - 46,130 square feet
The building will house a new neighborhood grocery with retail shops on the first floor. The second, third, and fourth floors will offer one and two bedroom apartments, some with rooftop decks.
Medical Building - 47,590 square feet
The building will house a variety of medical services and offices, including space for educational institutions for both offices and grad student housing.
New construction occupancy expected January 2020.
The project received additional financial support from Citizens for a Greater Bennington. The group along with the Vermont Natural Resources Council and Preservation Trust of Vermont announced a $100,000 grant. The grant is the result of a settlement during the permitting process over the planned expansion of the local Walmart.
The settlement with the developer, BLS Bennington LC, provides $200,000 to support the downtown.
The grant is being funneled through the nonprofit Southwestern Vermont Hospital Foundation.
Meg Campbell, co-founder of Citizens for a Greater Bennington, said the grant will be used to fund pre-development costs which “are really important funds to a project and the hardest funds to raise.”
The Putnam Block grant will be leveraged with an additional $100,000 contribution from the Bank of Bennington.
The state has also stepped up to help with tax credits. The Courthouse Building received a tax credit of $200,089 and the Winslow Block a tax credit of $491,000.
This article first appeared in the October issue of Vermont Business Magazine.