Bennington business leaders meet at summit to put direction and drive into town's revitalization


BENNINGTON >> A larger than usual group of business leaders met Wednesday and resolved to take more direct action on lifting the area out of its economic doldrums.

Those participating in the Bennington Business Leaders Summit, held at Bennington College and hosted by the Bennington Select Board, elected retired business development executive Peter Stromgren to be chairman of the group. Stromgren will work to coordinate future meetings to plan further action.

Participating in the main discussion were about 25 people representing business of all sizes and varieties, from Powers Market in North Bennington, to MSK Engineering, to Southwestern Vermont Health Care. About 20 more people were in attendance as spectators, mostly local legislators, four members of the Bennington Select Board, and town officials.

Most of what was said about revitalizing the town's economy, and the area in general, has been said before in one arena or another. The talk about how to make those plans happen was fairly new.

"I am surprised, and I guess I shouldn't be, that there's so much consensus already," said Jason Dolmetsch, vice president and project engineer at MSK Engineering.

He said those who've chosen to live and work in this area will likely have to acknowledge that it's going to take some professional investment from them to make things happen. Business leaders can identify a need, sit down together and talk about it, and get something done.

"This is not a Select Board issue," said Thomas Dee, president and chief executive officer of Southwestern Vermont Health Care. "If we think the Select Board is going to solve this issue, we are really kidding ourselves. This has to be a true public-private partnership and not just lip service."

He spoke of a similar gathering to this one held earlier this year at the Bennington Museum where leaders from St. Albans came to talk about how that town had gone about revitalizing its downtown.

"I thought there was a lot of great stuff in that presentation and stuff we can learn from, and it was very clear that both the public side and the private side stepped up. We're going to have to make investments here," Dee said.

Stromgren said that he, too, was impressed by the St. Albans presentation.

"They were working hard to figure out solutions to problems and what they needed to do there, and what also struck me was there was one person to drive it, that person was part of the vision, he certainly reached out to within the community," Stromgren said. "It was a driver, a coordinator, it made things happen, it was a clear thing. You walked in the door to his office and you stated what you needed or your comments and that's all you needed to do, you didn't need to go to 15 other places with your hat in your hand."

The general consensus among the group at the table was that the "Greenberg block," commonly referred to as the Putnam Hotel, needs to be revitalized if Bennington's downtown, and the town itself, is to thrive.

Another common theme in the group was that Bennington's "self-image problem," as described by David Evans, president of Southern Vermont College, needs to be addressed. Evans said at the meeting, as he has in the past, that visitors to Bennington are largely impressed with the town and think it's great, however the locals tend to be negative about it.

Abigail Martin, owner of Powers Market, said the same, and that much of the negativity could be countered by those around the table agreeing to tout the area's merits.

Stromgren echoed their sentiment, regarding the schools, saying that when he moved here 19 years ago he heard from local people the school system is terrible, however that's not been his experience.

James Jerome, owner of Jerome Construction, said it would be a host of small things that tip Bennington into prosperity.

Some of those things were suggested by Mariko Silver, president of Bennington College, who said the college's could work together to improve transportation. She also said a central hub for information about the area's services and amenities would be useful.

""The town is at an economic crossroads, and time is not in our favor," said Select Board Chairman Thomas Jacobs. "Unless we take strong effort to get the economic clock up and running smoothly. In April, my colleagues and myself decided to dedicate ourselves to a new job description that's probably outside our charter, but we thought as a select board for this community, we could not do business as usual."

He said cited an economic survey the board recently commissioned that reflected the business community's feelings on the economy, that it was mostly poor.

He said the community has lacked a common vision and that he hopes the summit will lead to a group of private and public leaders who will take charge and take the town in a common direction.

— Contact Keith Whitcomb Jr. at 802-447-7567 Ext. 115


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