Southwest Corner: the two shires

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(Host) Bennington County residents often refer to the region around Manchester as the “North Shire.” The region around Bennington becomes the “South Shire” by default. VPR’s Susan Keese explores the “two shires” in the first part of this week’s series on the Southwest Corner:

(Keese) Downtown Bennington, with its storefronts and brick buildings, has a solid dignity befitting Vermont’s oldest chartered town. A towering monument on the hills beyond reminds visitors and locals of the Battle of Bennington, an important Revolutionary War battle fought nearby.

South of Bennington’s main intersection is the Bennington County Courthouse. It’s one of two county courthouses, one in Bennington, the county’s largest town, and one in Manchester, 20 miles north. Author and historian Tyler Resch is the librarian at the Bennington Museum. Resch says Bennington is the only Vermont county in Vermont with two courthouse towns, or shires. To this day people refer to Manchester and the towns around it as the North Shire. The area around Bennington is sometimes called the South Shire.

(Resch) “There is a kind of North Shire point of view maybe, and a South Shire. They’re somewhat different. The North Shire has become more of an enclave for a wealthier type of community.”

(Keese) Bennington has a reputation as a hard place to make a living. Beyond the historic district is the gritty evidence of struggle: peeling paint and abandoned factories. The regional high school and middle school have had problems meeting new federal assessment standards, though improvements are reportedly underway. And people speak with pride of their neighborhood elementary schools.

The Blue Benn Diner is where Bennington comes together. The lunchtime crowd includes a doctor, a CPA, college students, flannel-shirted workers, and businessmen in suits. Mention the North Shire and some are quick to answer:

(Woman) “Manchester is the money town. People from Vermont can’t afford to go there.”

(Keese) Bennington, they say, is more down to earth.

(Man) “It’s a working class town. It’s got its ups and downs, a good strong sense of community. It’s a good place to raise kids.”

(Keese) Bennington Town Clerk Timothy Corcoran says Manchester has a history of tourism.

(Corcoran) “It was never really a mill town. Like in Bennington years ago, you had a lot of mills here that brought more working class people here. Where Manchester might have been kind of a resort area where people came to. Like, that’s probably how Hildene ended up there.”

(Keese) Manchester’s Hildene was the summer home of Robert Todd Lincoln. It’s now a popular attraction for both visitors and locals. Manchester’s historic Equinox hotel, where Mary Todd Lincoln once summered, is again a prestigious grand hotel.

The high school for the North Shire is Burr and Burton Academy, an independent school that has among the highest state assessment test scores in Vermont. Lee Crone is Manchester’s Planning Director and Acting town Manager. He says school funding, especially through Act 60, the state’s educational funding law, is a big issue separating the shires.

(Crone) “Bennington is very much a receiving town. They get huge state subsidies for education. Manchester is a sending town. And absent the shark pool, we still send millions more to Montpelier than we receive in the block grant.”

(Keese) Crone says Manchester’s median income, while higher than Bennington’s, is below the state average. He adds that Manchester supplies millions annually in sales tax revenues to the state.

A major source of these revenues are the factory outlet stores that have dominated Manchester’s downtown for the past two decades. The outlet centers were introduced by entrepreneurs who saw opportunity in Manchester’s proximity to the booming ski mountains of southern Vermont. The outlets brought big changes. But locals say that Manchester is still a real town with a real community.

At a local blood drive, Nadine Hayes is serving refreshments with her church group. Hayes’s children were the 9th generation in her family’s house on Manchester’s Main Street. There are outlet stores there now.

(Hayes) “You almost had to move because it wasn’t residential anymore, it was commercial.”

(Keese) Crone, the Manchester planner, says the town did many things right. The outlets are concentrated downtown on less than 1% of the town’s land. Instead of sprawling concrete boxes, the outlets have built interesting buildings that will have value if the stores ever go under.

Despite the differences, residents from both ends of the county point to things that draw the region together – like arts events, and the hospital in Bennington.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Susan Keese.

(Host) Tuesday in our series on the Southwest Corner, Steve Zind will examine the economy of the region.

Read more about VPR’s “Southwest Corner” series.

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