Bennington cautiously courts development

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(Host) Bennington has seen some hard knocks over the last 15 years with significant losses in industry and jobs. This fall, though, a long-awaited highway of opportunity for this area will open. With the opening of the first leg of the Bennington Bypass has come a debate over where – and on what scale – the development will be.

VPR’s Susan Keese reports.

(Dan Monks) “There’s a recent development, Dunkin Donuts. As you can see there’s lots of new commercial- there’s a Wendy’s that was built just a couple months ago…”

(Keese) Driving down Northside Drive, planning director Dan Monks points out signs that Bennington’s fortunes are rising. There’s a Hampton Inn in the works, and a new Home Depot on the site of a former Ames store.

Much of the growth is happening right where the town wants it, here on Northside Drive. That’s Bennington’s designated commercial strip. It’s also where the new highway interchange will be, bringing in potential shoppers from New York State.

(Monks) “For instance that particular structure has been vacant for over ten years, I think. And there’s just now a user that’s looking at that particular site.”

(Keese) Up to now, Northside Drive has never quite fulfilled its commercial promise. Monks blames the loss of higher paying industrial jobs for the disappointing retail picture here.

But now that things finally seem to be going as planned on Northside Drive, new questions have emerged. It started with a request to re-zone a prime industrial site on the other side of town.

Real estate consultant David Buckley represents the owners of the vacant Bijur factory. That’s on Kocher drive, across Route 7 from Northside. Buckley says an un-named retailer wants to build a big box superstore on the 30-acre industrial property.

(Buckley) “Really what we’re talking about is a superstore, a general merchandise and grocery store. And it’s on record saying they hope to bring 200-plus jobs with a $15 to $20 million investment into this community – the same community where if you picked up the paper it’s trying to balance the budget.”

(Keese) At one of a series of forums on the issue, Buckley argued that a superstore would boost the tax base and satisfy consumer needs. He says Bennington has more industrial land than it can reasonably hope to fill with industries.

The Bennington County Industrial Commission says the town shouldn’t give up yet on manufacturing and high-tech jobs. The town has recently attracted some new high-wage industries that are actually growing. Most are in the area adjacent to the Bijur site.

At the recent forums, many people opposed extending commercial sprawl to another part of town. The issue of size is also controversial. At 170,000-square feet, a so-called “super-big box” store would dwarf even the new Home Depot.

Bennington resident Meg Campbell works for the anti-sprawl Preservation Trust of Vermont. She fears a giant supermarket-department store would hurt locally owned businesses and Bennington’s downtown. She believes it could lead to fewer jobs and fewer choices down the line.

(Campbell) “Bennington’s economy is already pretty fragile. For a store like that to come in that could offer much lower prices all the way around with groceries. Yes people will shop there, but at what cost? Do we really want to sacrifice our whole community for that?”

(Keese) Campbell says she supports a planning commission proposal that’s currently in the works. The commission wants to require retail projects over a certain size to pay for an independent study of its potential impact on the larger community.

Bennington Selectman Sharyn Brush says the board has been reluctant to create new hurdles for any business interested in coming to town.

(Brush) “I think we need jobs, I think we need to raise our grand list to lower taxes. We need that kind of thing, whether it’s a Hampton Inn or a Target or whatever, it will benefit the town.”

(Keese) The Bennington Select Board has the last word on any amendment or change to the zoning law. The board is expected to consider the issue within the next few weeks.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Susan Keese.

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