(Host) In Bennington, a vacant factory site has become the subject of a petition – as well as a debate over the relative economic benefits of industry versus retail growth.
VPR’s Susan Keese has more.
(Keese) It’s been 17 years since Johnson Controls stopped making car batteries in Bennington.
The 18 acre site is still zoned for industry. But no industry has materialized to replace the jobs lost when Johnson moved to upstate New York in 1994.
The site is on a stretch of road that’s seen significant commercial growth. There’s a Home Depot next door, a bank branch going up and a car dealership that’s expanding.
Bennington Town Manager Stuart Hurd says the area WAS zoned commercial-industrial, but the town abolished that category.
(Hurd) "What happens of course in that situation is people build commercial. It has greater value, easier sell, greater turn around. Industrial uses don’t tend to turn around a profit as quickly as commercial uses do."
(Keese) It’s been an article of faith in this former mill town that a ‘good’ job was an industrial job. Hurd says industries traditionally pay better and provide more benefits than retail jobs.
He adds that manufacturing has grown in Bennington this year.
(Hurd) "However from the grand list perspective, from perhaps the I-want-it-now perspective, commercial development will probably benefit our Grand List and therefore the property owners in town."
(Keese) Five years ago, the Bennington Select Board easily defeated a proposal to re-zone the Johnson Controls property for commercial use.
A similar vote came up this month, and again the board voted to keep the land industrial — but this time only by a one-vote margin.
(Krawczyk)"It’s been sitting vacant for 16 years. And right now my feeling is we’d be doing better with retail."
(Keese) Joe Krawczyk is a Bennington Select Board member and a state representative.
He says that while industrial jobs may pay more, commercially zoned land is taxed at a higher rate.
Krawczyk says Bennington has always been a regional retail center, and that’s even more true now that the Bennington ByPass is feeding traffic from New York State onto the commercial strip.
(Krawczyk) "New York State taxes are considerably higher. So people come here and take advantage of that."
(Keese) Bennington resident Mike Bethel says commercial property in Bennington pays $160,000 in property taxes to the town.
He says Bennington has more than 100 acres of undeveloped industrial land.
(Bethel) "And we just don’t need these 18 acres… we just built an umpteen million dollar highway leading right to that part of town. This is a perfect property to entice maybe a Coles or a Target or a Michaels or a JoAnn’s …"
(Keese) Bethel has launched a petition for a non-binding, advisory vote on the issue. If he gets enough signatures, the issue could come up at this year’s town meeting.
For VPR News, I’m Susan Keese in Bennington.