To hotel or not to hotel

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Does downtown Bennington need a new hotel? The question has hotel owners and downtown proprietors at odds with each other, with the Select Board caught in the middle.

With its relatively new focus on using "public-private partnerships" to spur economic development, Bennington's leaders will soon have to decide where to draw the line between public and private interests.

At the center of the hotel disagreement is a study done at the town's behest that indicates downtown Bennington could indeed support a new hotel. The study by the Pinnacle Advisory Group cost the town $15,000.

Last Monday, Joel Lentzner, owner of the Fiddlehead at Four Corners art gallery, urged Select Board members to take the next step to bring a hotel to the downtown by marketing the study. Lentzner presented them with a petition signed by 37 property and business owners or managers in the downtown that urges board members to "pursue all potential leads to recruit a hotel to downtown Bennington." He said past economic development studies show such a project would be a boon to local shops.

"Recently there has been some backlash against a hotel by a hospitality group and it's a shame that this group is so afraid of competition that they are willing to throw the downtown under the bus," Lentzner said.

Speaking on behalf of the hotel group was Lynn Green, owner of the Four Chimneys Inn. She and other hoteliers have been critical of the Pinnacle study, saying it's incomplete, ignores several key factors and contains inaccuracies.

"There's not one hotel or motel owner out there that's thrown downtown under the bus," Green said. "We see thousands of people every year and work so hard to send them to our downtown shops, restaurants, et cetera."

She said the study contains no reliable information on the impact a new hotel would have on existing hospitality operations and that it didn't adequately account for the existing hotel scene. "When we first saw that Pinnacle study come out, we instantly knew they were off on their calculation of the category size," she said.

Complicating the hotel debate is the proposed $53 million Putnam Block project, perhaps the strongest example so far of the sort of public-private partnerships the Select Board wishes to foster. The study indicated that project was needed to support a new hotel.

Since the Pinnacle study assumes the not-yet-existent redevelopment will go forward, the question becomes: Can downtown Bennington as it exists now support a new hotel?

Of course, the real question is: How and when should taxpayer money be spent to further private interests?

We've been, and continue to be, supportive of the Putnam Block project as well as the hotel study. But the qualms of hotel owners — and any future groups impacted by taxpayer-funded economic development efforts — need to be accounted for and addressed.

For these efforts to truly succeed, they can't leave large groups of people feeling left out or short-changed.


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