Officials concerned about vacancies in Benningtons downtown
By Patrick McArdle
STAFF WRITER | April 04,2013
BENNINGTON — Over the last few months, the core of the downtown has lost several businesses which either have or will be closing and while town staff and the Better Bennington Corp. are working to attract replacements, they face limitations that they’re trying to overcome.
Since January, Carmody’s Irish Pub closed down and Merchants Bank, which is almost directly at the intersection known as the “Four Corners,” announced it would consolidate locations and move to Northside Drive. Doug’s Bar was shut down last week when the state pulled its liquor license but the owner told the Vermont Liquor Control Board’s members that they had already been planning to close at the end of the month.
Those vacancies add to a group of other locations on Main Street, some of which have gone unused for years.
Michael Harrington, economic and community development director for the town, said that the problem may appear worse than it is because several of the new vacancies are concentrated on the east side of Main Street.
“As people are driving down the street or walking down the street when they begin to see one or more (empty) shops in a row or directly across the street from each other, I’m sure that can immediately give off the connotation that there are a lot of vacancies in town. … (But) our net growth in the downtown is up in terms of businesses. The problem is that not all of those places are visible,” he said.
Harrington said he believes there needs to be a focus on replacing those businesses although he said the town’s role was more to assist a potential new business owner and make the town an attractive site than to recruit businesses.
John Shannahan, executive director of the Better Bennington Corp., or BBC, said that he didn’t believe any of the recent closures could be directly tied to the economy.
“But when a business closes, the eyes usually go on Mike (Harrington), the chamber (of commerce), the BBC, the whole town of Bennington as being the reason or responsible for it when, in fact, we’re not because we don’t own it,” he said.
Shannahan said the BBC uses its website to provide information about available commercial properties in the downtown and the types of businesses that they believe would complement the downtown.
One concern Shannahan raised was over property owners and Realtors keeping their available sites looking good and marketable.
“We’re definitely dropping the ball in Bennington. … If you’re selling a house, your house never looks better. … The house looks spectacular because you want to sell it but a lot of the properties downtown, aren’t even rentable,” he said.
Shannahan said some prospective tenants won’t even consider some of the more neglected sites because they’re “not looking to do construction, they’re looking to start their business.”
“It’s not lack of interest. We talk to people all the time but it’s got to be affordable, it’s got to be ready. They want to be in downtown. The people who are interested don’t think the economy’s a problem, they don’t think that parking’s a problem, they don’t think the Bennington market’s a problem, they think what’s available is a problem,” he said.
Both Shannahan and Harrington said they believe there would also be more growth if some of the second and third floor spaces were developed as residences to bring more people into the downtown. Shannahan has been working on a project to bring a food cooperative into the downtown which he believes would serve people who lived there and prosper if more people had downtown homes.
While Shannahan acknowledged that the downtown has “taken a hit” with the opening of the newest leg of Route 279, known locally as the Bennington Bypass, he said he believed there would be benefits in the future from removing trucks from the downtown roads.