By ANDY KIRKALDY
VERGENNES — For its 14th annual Community Service Award, officials of Vergennes American Legion Post 14 chose a man they said has played a vital role in the rebirth of the city’s downtown — real estate appraiser Bill Benton.
Legion communications officer Henry Broughton noted that Benton served many years as the president of the Vergennes Partnership, the organization that oversaw the progress of downtown revitalization and helped obtain the grants that made many Main Street improvements possible.
Broughton said there were many strong candidates, but that Post 14’s Community Service Award committee felt strongly about Benton.
“Bill’s been the cog in the wheel that’s kept it going over the years,” he said. “That was the main thing when we sat down with a bunch of candidates and looked at them all. Bill just stood out. We thought he definitely deserved the recognition.”
Benton, a 51-year-old Vergennes native and graduate of Vergennes Union High School and the University of Vermont, joins a list of recipients that includes former city managers and mayors, key members of the city’s fire department and the Vergennes Area Rescue Squad, sparkplugs in the effort to bring life back to the Vergennes Opera House, and volunteers for many good causes. (See related story.)
In an interview Benton said dozens of local residents and officials sparked the revitalization effort.
Off the top of his head he named former Vergennes Area Chamber of Commerce co-presidents Liz Markowski and Patty Paul, Friends of the Vergennes Opera House head Gerianne Smart, partnership director Paul Vachon, and fellow ground-floor partnership members like Terry Weihs, Tim Cowan, Norman Leboeuf and Jeffry Glassberg.
Benton noted that the first downtown brainstorming sessions in 1997 had four committees with up to 15 members each, and the partnership had many members.
“There were a lot of people who were actively involved for a number of years, and then finally when the partnership corporation itself was formed we had an executive board with seven to nine people and we had a steering committee that was between 20 and 25, and that was very active for a long time as well,” Benton said.
By that time, Benton himself already had a long history of civic service and was about 17 years into his appraisal career. He served a couple years on both the city planning commission and the opera house board, and then on the Bixby Library board from 1983 to 1995.
Not long after stepping down from the Bixby board, the downtown challenge arose.
“All I remember is that (then city manager) Mel Hawley called me, and Dick Adams was mayor. And he said we are thinking of applying for this grant from the state, for this $28,000 planning grant,” Benton said. “And they invited maybe 15 people up to city hall just to talk about the grant, creating a steering committee of sorts, that sort of thing. I remember going up there and sitting there and listening. It was a lot of business people, property owners and what not, and members of the board of aldermen. I just remember walking out of there saying I would chair one of the committees, and I’m not sure I knew what I was getting myself into. And from then on it was really interesting and fun.”
What followed was the citywide brainstorming session, a successful application for the downtown designation that allows the city and its businesses and property owners to apply for grants, and the creation of the partnership. Benton also joined other investors in buying the Basin Block, one of the first Main Street properties to be renovated using grants obtained with the designation.
Benton said that designation — which is only possible with the partnership or another organization like it — was critical to set the tone for the revitalization.
“When we first started we had a vacancy rate downtown of about 30 percent. I think that’s one of the things that spurred this on. Downtown wasn’t terribly attractive and it wasn’t that vital,” he said. “A lot of it is psychological. If you feel you’re moving in a positive direction there’s an optimism that begins to kind of permeate the community, and that’s great. People are willing to take risks and open stores and invest in buildings.”
Vergennes became a “poster child” for downtown revitalization in Vermont, Benton said.
“We are … one or the first communities to get a downtown designation and one of the quickest and most successful downtown revitalization programs. We used more grant monies and tax credit monies than any other community in the state,” he said.
When Benton stepped down after about eight years, however, the partnership ebbed. City Manager Renny Perry has recruited Benton to help bring it back to life, and Benton agreed to serve on a committee to find new blood to revive it.
“In order to continue to be a designated downtown we need to have an organization that is created, that is autonomous, that can work on revitalization … And as well, we’ve have a few more vacancies … and we’re working on getting new owners and new tenants in those buildings,” he said. “I’m sure some of the older people who were involved will continue. I think we really want to get another generation involved, younger families with kids and so on that can bring some new ideas and new energy as well.”
Broughton said that willingness to pick up where he left off factored into Benton’s selection for the award, as did his acceptance of a new challenge, serving on the board of the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Vergennes.
“Bill has lived up to the reason why we selected him, really. He’s kept the thing going, and when it started sputtering, he stepped back in,” Broughton said.
CARRYING ON A TRADITION
Benton said his career allows him the flexibility to serve, and that several role models motivated him.
“My parents were volunteers. My father was on the board of aldermen. He was on the Bixby Library board. He was on some governors’ commissions. My mom volunteered at Porter Hospital for decades. When I was on the Bixby Library board Dick Adams influenced me. He was an alderman, a mayor and he was on the board of the Bixby, and he was selfless, the time he gave to those organizations,” Benton said.
“And it feels good. It makes you feel like you’re involved, and you’re setting a good example for your kids, your family, your friends. And a community is not a community if people aren’t helping each other.”