BENNINGTON >> Multiple new businesses have opened in recent months and more are on the way.
It signals good news, economic development leaders say, after several years of a difficult national economic climate.
"Overall, the business vibe in Bennington has been improving, and I think the opening or expanding of businesses in town is evidence of that," Economic and Community Development Director Michael Harrington said this week.
A handful of empty storefronts remain downtown. And the town faces numerous other economic challenges, among them, the loss of manufacturing jobs: Plasan North America closed its Bowen Road plant last summer and Energizer announced last fall it would reduce staff at its Gage Street factory. Regionally, "urgent action" is required to increase the population, lower the average age, and bring more opportunities to residents, a task force report found last fall.
But there's been only one year in the past five years in which the downtown has had a net loss of businesses. Otherwise, the town has seen growth, according to John Shannahan, executive director for the Better Bennington Corporation (BBC).
"What we've noticed this year is that it's been a boom," Shannahan said.
The BBC is the nonprofit that coordinates downtown revitalization, a requirement for the state's designated downtown program. The town collects a tax from businesses within the district and disperses it to the BBC.
Downtown businesses which opened this year include Holy Cow Frozen Yogurt, Vine and Branches Gallery, Harvest Brewing, the Lightning Jar, and the Aurora Portal.
Elsewhere around town, the Fuji Hibachi, Sushi and Asian Bistro opened at 132 Northside Drive earlier this year. The Owl's Nest opened the door's of its 8,000 squarefoot warehouse space at 753 Main St., adding to its storefront at 353 Main St.
Other businesses that opened within the past year include Two Brews at 230 North St., the Taproom at Catamount Glass at 309 County St., and the Lightning Jar coworking Space at 194 North St. Meanwhile, the former Peppermills Restaurant building at 719 Main St. has new owners. John Redding and Lisa Harrington-Redding plan to expand their business, the nearby Safford Mills Inn and Cafe.
Two spaces downtown are currently undergoing renovations. Owners of the popular Manchester Mexican restaurant Cilantro are renovating space at 201 South St. The former Carmody's restaurant at 421 Main St. is being redone by the owners of Madison Brewing Company, which is directly across the street.
According to numbers from the BBC, in 2015 alone, $935,800 was invested into privately owned buildings downtown, with $14,000 of that being facade improvements.
In 2015, five businesses either closed or moved out of downtown, Shannahan said. That includes Rehm-Brandt's Design and Star Electric. But eight businesses either opened or moved within the district, he said, for a net gain of three.
Since 2010, 38 businesses have closed or moved, while 71 have opened, according to BBC figures, for a net gain of 33.
The numbers include all businesses in the designated district, not just first floor retail. Shannahan added that "since these years occurred during one of the longest and hardest economic downturns in the country, I'll bet that the next five years are going to be very exciting for Bennington."
Harrington noted the town has no way to track vacant properties or storefronts. But under a proposed Property Maintenance Ordinance, property owners would be required to register vacant commercial properties.
That ordinance aims in part to keep leased buildings and retail space "maintained to a level that allows businesses to envision themselves in those spaces," according to Harrington.
"Blight and deterioration are detractors to people we're trying to recruit to come to Bennington," he said.
Contact Edward Damon at 413-770-6979