The Bennington, Vermont business community is bracing for the closure of Southern Vermont College.
Town Manager Stuart Hurd says SVC’s announcement that the private college will close its doors this spring has serious implications for Bennington and its roughly 15,000 residents.
“From an economic perspective, I rank it right up there with when Globe Union, a major manufacturer of batteries, closed its facilities here back in the late 80s," he told WAMC. "When Plasan, which was a major employer here, closed its two facilities just now probably five years ago. It’s right up there with those kinds of things, that’s the kind of economic impact. You suddenly have 100 or more people out of work.”
“Southern Vermont College is an integral part of Bennington," said Ryan Hassett. He co-owns two downtown businesses along with his wife Heather – the local goods store Bringing You Vermont and the Bennington Pizza House.
“College kids, they eat pizza," said Hassett. "We deliver a lot of pizza to Bennington College and Southern Vermont College and the other places around the area, so that’s a big loss there. But then also with Bringing You Vermont here, we sell all made in Vermont products so you have the family members of all the students who come in and they want to see and experience Southern Vermont and Vermont as a whole, they come in and they shop here, they eat, things like that – so, in both of the businesses that we have, it’s going to take a big hit.”
Hassett echoed a sentiment shared by many in Bennington: there’s no way to prepare for that kind of hit.
“It’s a big mass of people that are going to be moving out of the area or not coming back to the area, and so there’s no quick fix for that,” he told WAMC.
Outside of the financial blow, Hassett acknowledged a less visible impact of the closure: “people whose attitudes and morale of this, of going, gee, one more thing to hit Southern Vermont.”
“When I was growing up here, it was the spot to me," said Bernie Barriere. "Now, like I said, nobody down here at night, nothing going on. Shops are closing up daily. It’s tough.”
Barriere is the co-owner of Vermont Green Grow Wellness Center, at the main intersection in the heart of downtown Bennington. It’s just down the street from the Hassetts’ businesses on Main Street. It opened in July 2018.
“We definitely catered towards the SVC crowd to bring them back to this side of town, bring some more foot traffic here, and with the closing of it – I mean, we even have free wifi," he said. "This area that we’re sitting in was geared towards that – study groups and stuff like that.”
Barriere – a Bennington native – said he fears for the town’s future.
“This could be a great town – this is the hub to Vermont, you know, this is the gateway to Southern Vermont – and it looks like an abandoned gateway,” he said.
But Heather Hassett refuses to accept defeat for Bennington. Rather than accept the increasingly common story of a small town felled by a closed college, she suggested that a marketing campaign highlight the town’s assets.
“There are so many positive things that go on here," she told WAMC. "I mean, we have cultural things. The beauty of the area just is outstanding. The people are good people, they want to be friendly and pleasant and to welcome people in and tell them everything that is fine and unique about Bennington.”
Hassett shared a favorite quote from her eldest son.
“Vermonters have grit," she said. "If we don’t have anything else, we have grit.”