by Bruce Edwards, Vermont Business Magazine Ask Bill Colvin about the state of Bennington County’s economy and he’ll tell you, “There’s definitely signs of improvement.” Colvin, of the Bennington County Regional Commission, ticks off a list that includes downtown Bennington’s Putnam Block Project, a stable manufacturing base and improved regional cooperation. The $54 million Putnam Block project will reshape the downtown, adding not only retail and commercial space but also housing with new construction.
A common theme voiced by Colvin and others is the new-found sense of cooperation among business and civic leaders.
Bennington County Economic Report
In May, 130 people attended the first Southern Vermont Economic Development Summit in Brattleboro to brain storm on issues common to both Bennington and Windham counties - the two southern most counties in the state.
“There’s a tremendous amount of excitement about doing regional economic development work around Bennington County … and partnering with Windham County,” said Colvin, the commission’s assistant director and community development program coordinator.
He said the state has given preliminary approval for a planning grant to devise a CEDS - a comprehensive economic development strategy.
Colvin said final approval is expected shortly with a formal launch of the project in October.
He said efforts are also underway to extend and improve cooperation between the northern and southern parts of the county.
Colvin said despite the proximity cooperation between the north and south shires “haven’t always been a finely oiled machine, if you will.”
One example of the new cooperative effort between the shires is the formation of a workforce in education committee chapter in Manchester.
Colvin’s positive assessment is seconded by Wayne Granquist, chairman of the Southern Vermont Economic Development Zone, which comprises both Bennington and Windham counties.
Compared to three or four years ago, Granquist said there’s a greater appreciation today for economic development in southern Vermont than there was before Vermont Yankee closed.
“There’s a lot of work going on that’s laying the foundation for that kind of growth,” he said. “I don’t think we’ve seen it yet but it’s encouraging to see what is happening.”
Granquist said there’s no better example of a community coming together then the Putnam Block Project, which is being lead by local businesses and institutions.
“That’s really important for downtown and the Select Board just approved the tax increment financing district,” he said.
But Granquist also said there are other challenges that must be met.
As the second oldest state in the country next to Maine, he said Vermont has to find a way to keep and attract workers and their families.
He said that’s especially true in a rural area where it’s hard to attract millennials who want access to high-speed broadband while living in a place where there are lots of activities close by.
Colvin said the Putnam Block project can help build the type of infrastructure that can go a long way in attracting people to the area and also provide badly needed housing.
The general consensus among business leaders and CEOs is that the county is moving in the right direction. But there is room for improvement.
The county’s August unemployment rate of 3.9 percent is up a bit from a year ago and remains higher than the state unemployment rate of 3 percent.
The south shire town of Bennington fares worse with an unemployment rate of 4.8 percent while Manchester, its north shire cousin, boasts a 3 percent rate.
The county’s median household income (US Census 2015) of $49,573 also lags the state median household income of $55,176. Chittenden County is the only county above the median at $65,350. Adjacent to Bennington, Windham County was at $51,045 and Rutland County was $49,372. Essex County was by far the lowest at $36,599.
Manufacturing has had its up and downs in the county but Colvin said the outlook is positive.
“We helped to pull down one of the largest training grants in Vermont training program history for NSK,” Colvin said, referring to the company that makes bearings for a variety of industries.
The $208,000 grant will help cross-train NSK’s 325 workers in what Colvin said are advanced manufacturing processes.
He said in the last few years lower level jobs have been lost to the NSK plant in Tennessee. While the grant may not lead to new jobs, he said it does at a minimum secure the existing higher level jobs.
Vermont Composites is also doing well, according to Colvin. He said the company, part of the Kaman Composites group, is building an addition onto its Performance Drive building. He said the addition was made necessary when the company won a contract for a new product line.
Although the company hasn’t said it would hire more workers, Colvin said “new line, new addition suggests new jobs.”
In the north shire of the county, Colvin said business is humming along at Mack Molding in Arlington.
Perhaps the most pressing problem for companies is finding workers, which Colvin said is an ongoing statewide problem.
Mack Molding is the county’s largest manufacturer with 560 employees in Vermont (and another 600 at its locations in North and South Carolina).
“Business is really, really good,” said Jeffrey Somple, president of the plastic injection molding and contract manufacturer. “We’ve probably got more new products under development right now than in the last 10 years.”
Mack makes products for the medical, industrial, energy, transportation, computer and consumer sectors.
Somple said the largest increase in business has been what he calls “the big, bulky and complicated.” And by that he means work that’s unlikely to be off-shored to China because the equipment is larger, low volume, and more complex.
He said those products include robots, solar equipment and 3-D printing machines where Mack makes the complete unit.
“We’re hiring like crazy, we’re doing well,” he said.
The company has also invested heavily in equipment and technology, beefing up its sheet metal operation with a “gigantic” laser cutter and a 2,360-ton press to make large parts.
“As we grow, we’re trying to make the appropriate investments in people and equipment so we can meet our customers’ demands,” Somple said.
He also said Mack has seen a lot of work come back from China from customers who found it was no longer cost-effective to offshore their work.
With the state facing a workforce crunch, Mack has embarked on an aggressive workforce development program that includes internships.
“I finally realized a few years ago, I can’t recruit myself out of the Vermont problem,” Somple said.
He also said hiring from within the state is more cost effective than recruiting someone out of state who may not make the adjustment to Vermont’s rural and low-key lifestyle.
The internship program has developed a number of full-time employees over the last five or six years, Somple said.
In Dorset, JK Adams Company has been making handcrafted cutting boards and kitchen utensils for 73 years.
Company CEO Jon Blatchford said while sales this summer were somewhat on the slow side, the company expects demand to pick up as the holiday season approaches.
“I think it’s indicative of the broader retail market right now,” Blatchford said.
JK Adams operates a factory store and sells online, both through its own website and through online partners, including Amazon.
The company makes a range of handmade, wooden kitchenware, including its popular cutting and carving boards, Lazy Susans and rolling pins to name a few.
Between its factory and retail store, JK Adams employs 42 people.
While the company’s carving boards remain popular, Blatchford said he’s seeing more of a shift toward personalized gift-oriented products such as the new product line of cheese boards, complete with a cheese knife and monogram.
The biggest challenge for the company is the changing face of retail.
“We’ve got to be smarter about how we’re presenting our business online … like adding video,” Blatchford said, “and how do you show people the sort of quality and give them the touch and feel when they’re not actually holding the product. So that’s a big piece of it for us.”
Matt Harrington, executive director of the Bennington Area Chamber of Commerce, is convinced the changing face of retail requires a downtown to provide an experience beyond shopping, offering entertainment and the arts to draw visitors.
He said Bennington is embracing that vision.
Harrington said that’s why people “are coming to New England towns because the rest of America has turned into strip malls and outlets … and so I don’t think that’s the way of the future.”
When the Manchester and the Mountain Chamber of Commerce folded, the Manchester Business Association formed to fill some of the void focusing on marketing.
But Harrington said the Bennington Chamber has moved to expand its services to Manchester-area businesses.
He said promoting Bennington County as a whole makes a lot of sense instead of one entity promoting the north shire and another promoting the south shire.
“Our vision is to be completely regional which means equal leadership on the board in terms of board members and hopefully close to equal membership both in the north shire and the south shire,” Harrington said. “We’re hoping to accomplish that by 2020.”
If there is enough membership in the north shire, he said the chamber would look at opening a satellite office in Manchester.
Harrington echoed the concerns of others over workforce issues. He said the state and the county need to keep and attract millennials as well as empty nesters.
He also cited the need for improved broadband and cellular service.
John Shannahan of the Downtown Bennington Alliance said while the Putnam Project has garnered all of the attention of late, there are other positive developments including:
- wo applications to open a medical marijuana dispensary in Bennington with one expected to occupy a downtown location.
- Northeastern Baptist College has plans to purchase a large downtown property for its new campus. The school has already purchased two additional properties for the student library and some housing.
- The town is the home to several new craft beers and distillers including The Spirits of Old Bennington, Harvest Brewing Company, Catamount Tap House, and the new 421 Tap House.
Madison Brewing Company is also canning products for wholesale distribution.
- Bennington has been named the third most arts vibrant small community in the country by the Center for Arts Research at Southern Methodist University.
- Maplebrook Farms is expanding with visitor tours of the new facility.
- Southwestern Vermont Medical Center has started a program to purchase and refurbish homes to sell to staff members.
- Southern Vermont College has plans for a new student facility on campus.
- In addition, the Bennington airport is getting an upgrade. The state Agency of Transportation announced a $3.5 million federal grant to rebuild the runway at the William H. Morse State Airport. The grant will also pay for other improvements.
Bennington was awarded two of the state’s coveted “Downtown and Village Tax Credits” for 2018. The total awarded across the state was $2.7 million. Governor Phil Scott made the announcement in Bennington in early September:
109 South Street, Bennington – Bennington’s County Courthouse (1870) was converted into a commercial block, housing an A&P supermarket and then the Pennysaver Press, but more recently it has been vacant. The building will be rehabilitated using state and federal tax credits with two commercial storefronts on the ground floor and an open office in the former courtroom. This project is part of a larger Putnam Block project (see related story).
Total Project Cost: $2,869,408; Tax Credits Awarded: $200,089.
355 Main Street, Bennington – The historic Winslow Block is made up of originally detached buildings joined as a single, renovated block circa 1923. Currently vacant, the building will be rehabilitated using state and federal tax credits into three commercial storefronts with Bennington College office suites and 13 efficiency units for graduate students on the upper floors. This project is also part of a larger Putnam Block project.
Total Project Cost: $8,167,697; Tax Credits Awarded: $491,003.
At Southern Vermont College, the school is laying the groundwork to build a $2.1 million Center for Student Success and Wellness.
The college has already received a $1.35 million pledge from James H. and Irene M. Hunter Charitable Trust toward construction.
The project includes student affair offices, fitness area, space for the college nurse and college counselors, and a wing devoted to other student support services including career and internships.
“The goal of the building is to have a lot of different places where students go and all consolidated into one spot,” said college President David Evans.
Evans said the college hopes to raise the remaining $700,000 to $800,000 before putting the project out to bid.
The college has 400 students, a slight increase from last year. Evans said ideally he’d like to see enrollment in the upper 400s.
The college has an annual budget of $10.2 million.
Bennington College, which is also one of the major supporters of the Putnam Block project, is breaking ground on a major project of its own - a $22 million renovation of the Commons building.
The project includes upgrading the mechanical systems in the historic building and reopening the 15,000-square-foot third floor, which has been closed for 20 years. Renovations to the third floor will create 19 additional classrooms and provide a home for humanities, the college’s core discipline.
During the renovation, campus dining is being temporarily moved to the student center, which was expanded earlier this year.
This fall marked the largest incoming first-year class in the school’s history - 220 students from 31 states and 26 countries.
Southwestern Vermont Health Care is another Bennington institution that is planning a major expansion. The medical center wants to modernize its facilities, the oldest in the state, including its emergency department and ambulatory care services. The hospital said it intends on filing a certificate of need with the Green Mountain Care Board, the regulatory body, within the next six months. According to the GMCB, the projected cost is in the neighborhood of $23 million.
In a partnership with other local businesses and institutions to revitalize the downtown, the medical center is one of the major supporters and investors in the Putnam Block project. The hospital is a committed tenant but said the exact services to be provided haven’t been determined.
With a 2017 budget of $192 million and 1,199 employees, the medical center is the largest employer in Bennington County. This year the hospital expanded its orthopedic practice and also launched a telemedicine program that connects the medical staff with Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center. The idea is to provide enhanced treatment to patients with complex conditions.
This summer the hospital opened Express Care, a walk-in service, at its family practice in Manchester. In January, the Manchester office will begin offering dental services.
For Manchester town manager John O’Keefe the proof is in the tax numbers. Both the state sales tax and rooms and meals tax receipts are up, evidence that the retail and hospitality industries are healthy, O’Keefe said.
O’Keefe did say the hospitality industry - hotels and restaurants - appears to be outperforming the retail sector.
“It does seem like hospitality is out performing sales (tax),” O’Keefe said. “So hospitality went up over 10 percent compared to last year.”
Manchester is home to the largest cluster of name brand outlet stores in the state. But like other parts of the country, the town’s retail section has felt the effects of online shopping.
On the flip side, O’Keefe said locally owned retail stores like the Mountain Goat, which sells outdoor clothing and gear, are doing well.
Although perhaps less of a shopping mecca, O’Keefe said the town is becoming more of a destination in its own right.
“I think we’re seeing a lot of people coming to town,” he said. “They’re maybe shopping a little less.”
Chris Morrow of Northshire Bookstore has witnessed firsthand the changes in the national retail environment as more consumers shop online.
Morrow said Manchester is not immune from that trend.
“There’s a lot of transition happening with the outlet stores in terms of vacancies,” Morrow said.
But he added that despite that challenge Manchester remains a vibrant community.
“We have some new hotels that have opened up and it was a very busy summer,” Morrow said.
As far as the bookstore goes, he said business is good.
“People still like the printed book,” he said.
Several messages left for Manchester Designer Outlets seeking comment were not returned.
O’Keefe said given the increasing numbers of visitors, the area could use another hotel.
“I’m really optimistic about the local economy,” he said. “There are some changes. There’s no doubt about it that online retail retailing is having an influence just like anywhere else.”
He said those changes could include repurposing some retail space into mixed-use with housing on the upper floors.
O’Keefe said the town is working on some new zoning that would “really highly encourage living downtown, second, third and even possibly fourth floor living.”
Manchester also has the advantage of being in close proximity to Stratton Mountain Resort and Bromley Mountain. During the summer, there’s the nearby Dorset Horse Show and Dorset Theater, which attracts visitors to the area.
In October, Manchester will host the ITVFest - the Independent Television and Film Festival.
Then there’s town’s state-of-the art recreation facilities which attract high school and college games.
Two new hotels have opened in the past two years - the Klimpton Taconic Hotel and the Hampton Inn.
That’s in addition to a number of bed and breakfasts and two historic inns, the Equinox Resort & Spa and the Dorset Inn.
Going to and from Manchester and Bennington, residents and visitors have another option besides driving. Vermont Translines recently started roundtrip service to the Albany-Rensselaer Amtrak station, the Greyhound bus terminal, and Albany International Airport.
One of the oldest businesses in the county is The Vermont Country Store in Manchester.
“So far this year, we’re humming along pretty good,” said
Eliot Orton, one of the owners of the family business. “We’re doing better than last year.”
Known for its iconic black and white catalog featuring hard-to-find sundry items, Orton said the catalog, online and store sales are all doing well.
The company employs between 450 and 500 people year round.
Orton said this holiday season is shaping up to be busy with the company taking on nearly 550 seasonal workers to staff its North Clarendon and Manchester locations.
According to the company, a variety of seasonal jobs are available that pay above minimum wage. Benefits include a 40 percent employee discount, wellness programs, use of the fitness center and weekly cash incentive drawings.
Orton said filling those jobs can be a challenge.
“It’s getting harder, if you look at the unemployment rates in the state,” he said. “And I think we’re feeling the effects of youth flight.”
He said because of the shortage of workers this summer, the company closed the dairy bar at its Rockingham store.
For homeowners looking to put their property on the market, home values in the county continue to improve.
The median sale price for a single-family home through August was $205,000 compared to $188,000 a year earlier, according to the Vermont Association of Realtors website.
The statewide median sale price for the year through August was $225,000.
In the Manchester-Dorset area, the market is also improving with inventory going down and prices going up, said Paul Carroccio, CEO of TPW Real Estate.
Over the last 12 months through August, Carroccio said 136 homes were sold with a median price of $326,000.
For the same period a year earlier, there were 110 homes sold in the Manchester-Dorset area with a median price of $280,000.
“So we’re clipping up pretty fast on our median home price,” he said.
On the commercial side, Carroccio said retail leasing rates are going down “to meet market demand.”
As the retail demand shrinks, Carroccio agreed with O’Keefe that some of the retail vacancies could be repurposed for residential and other commercial uses, including restaurants. “Restaurants are a big deal in Manchester for the resort community,” Carroccio said.
Kathy Sollier of Maple Leaf Realty in Bennington said the residential real estate market is looking up. “I think we are seeing more buyers that we hadn’t (seen) several years ago in out higher price range,” Sollier said. “We’re always going to see those first-time homebuyers that are under $200,000.”
Sollier also said because of the cost there isn’t a lot of home construction going on.
Bennington Realtor Kathleen Hoisington said when it comes to the second home market, Manchester is outperforming Bennington, which is more a year round market.
Hoisington’s theory is that because Manchester condo owners are more seasonal and own higher end property they can afford to lower their prices and even take a loss. In the Bennington market, she said sellers aren’t in a position to lower the asking price. “They weren’t able or didn’t want to takes losses,” Hoisington said.
Bruce Edwards is a freelance writer from southern Vermont. VERY TOP PHOTO of Bennington Garlic Fest by Greg Nesbit.
This article first appeared in the October issue of Vermont Business Magazine.