The Bennington Community Works Together to Reimagine Its Downtown
STORY BY KATIE STUART-BUCKLEY
Closed storefronts and crumbling historic buildings are threatening countless Main Streets in rural downtowns across this country. But thanks to community-led revitalization, Bennington is an exception. Recognizing that a vibrant downtown is the key to the health and wealth of all, community leaders are stepping up to become developers. Businesses, institutions, and citizens are banding together to make investments on Bennington’s Main Street, saving their historic places and creatively adapting them to meet modern-day needs with restaurants and cafes; galleries; co-working and maker-spaces; retail stores; and boutique hotels and rental housing. With mixed-use buildings that include residential housing in the upper stories and commercial businesses on the lower levels, residents have goods and services just footsteps away. Businesses now have clients at their doors and it is a synergy that activates Main Street.
The Putnam Block Redevelopment in Bennington is a perfect example of community-led revitalization. It is a 4-acre block that sits at the intersection of two major Vermont travel corridors: US Route 9 and US Route 7. Its anchor is the historic Putnam building, a beautiful curved brick building that wraps this prominent corner. The Putnam Block is currently obscured by hundreds of feet of construction fence—but not for long!
The Bennington Redevelopment Group (BRG)—a group of local business leaders, institutions, and civic-minded investors—is dedicated to improving their community through strategic investment such as the Putnam Block Redevelopment. The partners include The Bank of Bennington, Southwestern Vermont Health Care, Bennington College, Dimitri Garder/Global Z International, Brian and Jennifer McKenna, Anthony and Jacqueline Marro, Sheela and Elisabeth Harden, M&S Development, and 4 Putt Properties, LLC.
The members of the BRG recognized three important things: First, nobody from outside Bennington was coming to save the town. Second, a strong, vibrant Main Street is the key to the community’s collective health, stability, and sustainability. Third, the members of the BRG would need to be the changemakers to breathe a new life into the slumbering 4 acres in the center of their town. They asked themselves, could one significant downtown redevelopment project really transform a downtown? They looked to the east, across Southern Vermont, to find their answer in Brattleboro—and the answer was, “yes.” The example they used was Brattleboro’s Brooks House.
The Brooks House, like Bennington’s Putnam Block, sits on Main Street, in the geographic and historic heart of Brattleboro’s downtown. An iconic brick building, it spans the corner at the intersection of US Route 9 and US Route 5. Sounds familiar, right? In April 2011, a five-alarm fire gutted much of the building, destroying the homes of more than 80 people and several businesses. Resurrecting the Brooks House was essential to the health and viability of Brattleboro’s downtown, but it quickly became evident that insurance money and traditional funding wouldn’t be enough to rehabilitate the structure. This was no garden-variety patch-n-paint. It would require a complex, multilayered financing package. After two years of sitting idle and increasing anxiety among the community, a group of five local citizens stepped forward, purchased the building, and organized a restoration plan. In 2014, the Brooks House reopened its doors to the community, with Vermont Technical College as its anchor tenant, along with several other commercial enterprises and 23 high-quality, mixed-income apartments in the upper stories. Since then, Brattleboro has continued to thrive.
Similarly, the Putnam project has the same opportunity. The 3 restored buildings are in the final stages of revitalization and have already been leased to several residential and commercial tenants. Built in 1870, the building that was formally the home of the Bennington County Courthouse will contain retail and office spaces. Constructed in 1837, the building on the corner of Main and South streets, formally Hotel Putnam, will now contain retail shops and eateries with outdoor dining on the first floor and apartments on the second and third floors. The A.H. Winslow Building, the site of Winslow Hardware for more than 60 years, will be architecturally restored and house offices, medical service providers, retail shops, and residential housing. The next stage of redevelopment will include construction of a new building that will be home to a variety of medical services, offices, and residences.
Downtown redevelopment through community involvement is not a new concept, but simply a modern twist on an old idea. All it takes is people working together to find solutions that make their communities better and stronger. Returning to the old—in practice and in its buildings—is the key to Bennington’s bright new future.