This is my inaugural article as I begin the position of Executive Director for the Bennington Area Chamber of Commerce. Throughout the past month I have been able to attend meetings and hear from stakeholders, members and residents of Bennington. Whether it was walking into the great shops of downtown on Shop Small Saturday, or attending the Select Board meetings and Chamber mixers, or even meeting individuals out and about as they shopped during the holiday season, people felt like they could approach me and talk not only about their concerns, but of their excitement for the future of Bennington. Thank you for your candor, generosity and insight – it was much appreciated (and please keep it up)!
Here is my very early and preliminary assessment of the climate of Bennington's commerce and community: We're going to be okay.
As the past month has provided me the chance to talk and hear from a large assortment of citizens, here are two of the big fears I've heard: fear of never getting back to a healthy and vibrant town and a fear of failure. People are genuinely concerned about the stores missing in town, the vision for the town, leadership in the town, how Bennington will adapt to the future marketplace, and how will we get a younger professional demographic in town without losing our identity entirely. These are very common concerns and I'm not surprised people are feeling this way. Here's the first thing I encourage all of us to consider: we are on the road to recovery after one of the largest, most damaging recessions in American history. Many, many small towns (and big towns and big cities) are still reeling from the side effects of a recession. We have a "recession hangover," Bennington! So does the rest of the Nation's economy. And, we didn't get the worst of it. Go check out other small towns in the West or South – their towns have been decimated – there are no downtowns anymore. That's one thing you've got to love about our New England grit – we're used to harsh winters, rough roads, frost heaves and we still weather the storm! We still have a great small town. We still have local, family-owned shops. We still have a recovering, but vibrant downtown. We're going to be okay.
I look around town and I am optimistic about our future. Things are starting to pick up; there is a growing buzz out there. Have you heard it? Here are some things to get excited about. This past month saw for the first time private sector employers like the hospital, the area colleges, local businesses and developers all sit around a table at Bennington College's CAPA building and commit to playing active roles in the transformation of Bennington for the future. We're seeing new businesses like Two Brews and The Tap House at Catamount Glass take off with good crowds and events. We're watching older businesses like Stewart's Shops and Madison Brewing make large investments in the town with a new shop for Stewart's and the Madison family working to get the former Carmody's property open.
I've been very encouraged to see places like Donovan's (formerly Ryan's) and The Publyk House packed on live music nights and the Cultural Bennington group storming local favorite Safford Mills Inn with over 30 artists as the group enjoyed cocktails and fellowship. The Bennington Young Professional group seems to be attracting more and more people with every mixer they hold and the Lightning Jar is offering amazing workshops, lectures and space for entrepreneurs of all types at their location in VSECU bank. It's hard to get a sandwich and coffee at noon at Brown Cow Café or Your Belly's Deli as a line goes out the door with visitors and residents alike waiting to get in. Talk to Jon Goodrich at The Mill Properties (formerly the Mace building on Benmont) and he'll tell you he's just about full with over 82 businesses of all sizes filling the space.
The other week I stopped into Ramunto's to get a slice of pizza only to be in a standing-room-only restaurant with over 30 college-age students enjoying the atmosphere. Talking with Katie Cleaver on West Main and she was out of jewelry the morning she put it out. Exciting things are happening over at Bennington Potters and I encourage you to take a stroll around their historic store. When talking with Fiddlehead at Four Corners during the holiday season, they were excited about their after school art and enrichment program for elementary children that will begin in January and mentioned that, as usual, their graffiti vault was a favorite of tourists and locals this past holiday season. Evans' News had one of their best weekends in recent years this past month and The Russian Girls Bakery couldn't print off holiday gift certificates fast enough to meet demand. These are healthy signs of an economy stabilizing. It's going to take time; I encourage all of us to be supportive and patient.
What's your story? What have you seen out there?
Sure, we can be "negative Nancy's," "Debbie downers," critics and naysayers if we choose, but I'm not sure that will actually get us to where we want to be. Do we have our challenges as a small, rural town in Vermont? You bet. Do we have smart, intelligent, capable and extremely committed people in both the private and public sector trying their best to solve those challenges? Absolutely. Do we need more engagement and positive participation from others in the community? Always.
I am excited as I start this new position and new article feature to bring you an ongoing commentary from a community and commerce perspective. As I mentioned to my board when they hired me, we have a window of time here to do some really great things. When asked about the idea of luck and whether he believed some people were lucky while others were not, famous leadership author Jim Collins answered by saying, "We all have luck; we all have times in life when we experience luck. The luckiest ones are the ones that notice when the window of luck passes them and they take advantage of it." Bennington, our chance is coming to take advantage of some great opportunities. How will we work together to get ready?