Bennington Banner: U.S. Rep. Peter Welch tours Putnam Block; pledges support to redevelopment project
By Edward Damon
BENNINGTON — U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., pledged his support this week to a local investment group's plan to purchase and redevelop the Putnam Block.
Welch was briefed on the plan to turn the properties at the Four Corners intersection into mixed-use retail and commercial space on Wednesday morning.
Welch said the local group has established "an incredible foundation" to build upon and the proposal "makes perfect sense" to generate economic development.
"This is top-tier for us," Welch told investment group members, local planners and county legislators during a meeting at the Bennington County Regional Commission office.
Members of the Bennington Redevelopment Group (BRG), which includes representatives from local businesses, colleges and the hospital, and local residents, indicated the help would be needed.
The rehabilitation of nearly 200,000 square feet is estimated to cost $40 to $50 million, according to Bob Stevens, an engineer with M&S Development of Brattleboro. Members expect a funding gap of between 5 and 10 percent, he said, after local investment, tax credits and other funds.
"The next six months will really be crucial," said Stevens, whose firm BRG has partnered with to help develop financing and manage the project.
Welch spoke about other efforts in White River Junction and St. Albans and called downtown cores "essential" to economic development. Welch said his offices in Montpelier and Washington, D.C., would assist BRG with finding potential funding sources and would coordinate with U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.
Members of the Bennington Redevelopment Group announced in July they had reached an agreement with the Greenberg family to buy six buildings and some four acres of land bounded by Main and South streets.
Its membership represents people from local companies, colleges, financial institutions and the hospital, as well as other investors, some who remain anonymous.
BRG announced last month that the Greenberg family agreed to extend the original window to conduct due diligence by another 90 days.
Plans for the Putnam Block, often called the Greenberg Block, include a grocery store, hardware store, restaurant and retail space on the first floor, and residential and office space on the second, Stevens said.
Investors have put down funds to start predevelopment work, he told Welch. Environmental and feasibility assessments, financial information and building designs are expected to be done in the next four weeks. The group would spend another six to eight months securing funding sources, finding tenants, and getting necessary permits.
Stevens said the project in Bennington is more complex than the Brooks House renovation in Brattleboro, which he was involved in. The Putnam project as it stands also lacks the state as a tenant, a feature Stevens said is attractive to lenders. Partner organizations like Southwestern Vermont Healthcare and Bennington College could be tenants if they move services downtown or offer graduate student and faculty housing.
In attendance on Wednesday were State Representatives Mary Morrissey, R-Bennington 2-2, and Rachael Fields, D-Bennington 2-1; and State Senators Brian Campion and Dick Sears, both Democrats representing the Bennington District.
BRG members say the project could be transformative to the town.
"The sense at our table every other week, from the principal investors, is that this is a moment of essential urgency and this project is critical to the future of this community," said Mariko Silver, Bennington College president.
Anthony J. Marro, member of BRG and a trustee to Oldcastle Theatre, said that company hopes to expand from producing five plays a year into a year-round arts center with movies, concerts, acting lessons and more.
The project is an opportunity to take advantage of Bennington's location, said BCRC Director Jim Sullivan.
"We're like nowhere else in Vermont — just down the road are one million people in the capital district and major transportation corridors," Sullivan said. "I think we could be a big attraction to people who aren't far from here."