Select Board approves TIF district proposal

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BENNINGTON — After a final briefing from consultants and town planning staff, the Select Board on Monday approved Bennington's application for a tax increment financing district for the downtown.

The board voted unanimously to send the application and long-range plan for the economic development district to the Vermont Economic Progress Council, which officials said is expected to schedule an Oct. 26 hearing in Bennington on the proposal.

The council would afterward hold one or two more meetings on the town's application in Montpelier before voting, most likely by the end of December. Bennington's initiative is in line to become the first TIF district created since the Legislature slapped a cap on new districts in 2013.

Lobbying by Bennington and several other communities resulted in lawmakers and Gov. Phil Scott agreeing this year to allow up to six more districts, and the town's proposal — considered in light of a $53 million redevelopment plan for the downtown — seems to be leading the way in applying.

Consultants with Burke & White Real Estate Investment Advisors said the application includes a detailed plan for public and private development within the TIF district, which roughly follows the downtown district boundaries. The proposed district would encompass 155 parcels and 70.5 acres in the downtown core.

Stephanie Hainley, chief operating officer with Burke & White, said the proposal identifies public infrastructure projects that would total about $6.4 million if completed, along with more than a dozen possible private development projects that would create about $20.4 million in new property valuation over seven years.

With a district in place, the town could bond for infrastructure projects that would enhance the downtown and/or support specific private projects, and then pay back the bonds using a percentage of the new tax revenue generated by an increased assessment on the redeveloped properties.

Referring to the potential of $6.4 million available for infrastructure improvements, board Vice Chairman Donald Campbell said, "That seems to me a lot of money we would not have to send to Montpelier and could use for projects right here."

He added that the proposed district would be the first one in the state south of Route 4, saying, "I think we can do a TIF right here in Bennington."

The consultants and Assistant Town Manager and Planning Director Dan Monks reiterated Monday that a TIF district is one economic development tool among several that most private projects would seek to take advantage of, but one that can't be used unless an approved district is in place.

Voters will have to approve any bonding for infrastructure improvements, they said.

"We have to do this just to get into the game," Chairman Thomas Jacobs said, noting that the vote only authorizes an application for a district, not approval to borrow.

He praised the TIF program as one that could make the difference between a local project moving forward or not, and could also boost the size of the project build-out.

In Bennington's case, the $53 million Putnam Block redevelopment, the first phase of which is expected to go to construction this year, provided the major incentive for forming a district, but it is not the only project envisioned over the next several years.

Other sites in the district listed for potential private projects are the Harte block, the Bennington Banner building, the People's Bank building, the former Catamount School, former Bennington Brush building, the Old Drysdale building, the Cone building; Nichols building, Bennington Bookshop building, the former Bennington High School building on Main Street; the Sleeman lot, the Greenawalt lot, the Tuttle lot and the strip shopping center at 120 Depot St.

Other sites within the district boundary also could be redeveloped, officials believe, if there is a surge of private investment in the town center.

Hainley and Gail Henderson-King, a senior project manager with Burke & White, said they expect the council to ask tough questions about the town's TIF plan and might suggest changes during the review process. The council also reviews each TIF district plan on an annual basis to assess progress toward the stated development goals and financial targets set.

In addition, they said, a TIF plan is not fixed in stone, and adjustments are typically made as projects roll out or are discarded and replaced by updated proposals. The current plan contains today's best estimates of costs and tax revenue available for infrastructure projects.

Burke & White has been involved in four other TIF district proposals in other Vermont communities. The consultants have described similar downtown efforts in St. Albans and Barre, both involving a public project, such as a parking garage or street improvements, which encouraged private investment in the downtown.

Jim Therrien writes for New England Newspapers in Southern Vermont and VTDigger.org. @BBtherrien on Twitter.


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