A Bennington theater company that has been putting on productions in rented theaters around southwestern Vermont for 48 years now owns its own building.
The Oldcastle Theatre Company paid $250,000 for its current home at 331 Main Street after developers who are working on the Putnam Block project next door to the theater were able to secure funding for the housing, retail and office development.
The theater was owned by the same family that owned the three historic buildings involved in the Putnam Hotel project, an ambitious redevelopment of four acres of historic buildings in downtown Bennington.
When that deal closed, Oldcastle was able to purchase the former Knights of Columbus hall on Main Street where it's been paying rent for the last seven years.
Eric Peterson, Oldcastle Theatre's producing artistic director, said when developers started talking about the Putnam Block project they recognized the importance of keeping the theater company downtown.
"It's extremely exciting for the theater company," Peterson said. "I think we are very good for the development. They are very good for us. They're very good for Bennington. It's just extraordinary."
Peterson is one of the five actors who helped found the Oldcastle Theater Company in 1972. In the almost 50 years they’ve been producing plays in southwestern Vermont, Oldcastle has set up shop in a number of locations.
Peterson said having the development will bring more businesses and people to downtown, while the theater company hopes to offer a wide range of programming to keep downtown vibrant and active.
"As the sale for the block started to be talked about, we wanted to be part of that," Peterson said. "We certainly understand how imperative it is for Bennington that this development is successful. And we feel very nice to be absolutely in the middle of it and now owning our own building."
It was complicated to finalize the Putnam Block deal with all of the funding sources and state and federal tax credits and development programs — but the deal finally closed recently, and construction crews moved on to the site just last week.
On a recent day, Bennington County Regional Commission Assistant Director Bill Colvin walked around the back of one of the buildings where a crew was starting to do exploratory work on the outside wall.
"I love that sound," Colvin said. "It's a beautiful sound of people starting to, you know, actually work on the site."
The Putnam Hotel, which once occupied the block, closed in 1970s; while there have been stores and businesses on the street level, the top two floors have been largely vacant for decades.
Now the Putnam Block plan includes redeveloping the hotel and two other historic buildings. Colvin also said they hope to bring apartments, stores and new offices to downtown.
Bennington College and Southwestern Vermont Medical Center have committed to some of the office space, and some of the apartments are pre-leased.
Colvin said that amidst all the planning and financial hand-wringing, it was clear that keeping the Oldcastle Theatre downtown was an important piece of a complicated puzzle.
“Obviously the redevelopment group sees Oldcastle Theatre, and the performing arts, as a critical component of the revitalization of downtown Bennington,” Colvin said. “We think it does nothing but add to and enhance all of the other redevelopment efforts that are taking place on the block and really throughout the town.”
As Oldcastle Theatre settles into its new home — rehearsals are underway for a run of Neil Simon's "Brighton Beach Memoirs" opening July 12 — the organization is shifting and expanding its programming. Oldcastle will continue performing plays but board member D. Mark Blank said the group will change its name to Bennington Performing Arts Center.
Blank explained the group wants to bring more theater, classes and year-round activities to its new home — because as Bennington writes its next chapter, he said, there are a lot of stories that need to be shared.
"You know in a time where we feel so fractured as a country — I think we feel fractured as communities — having a place where everyone can belong is very important," Blank said. "And so expanding this mission to be a community theater now, where community members come and perform and tell their stories and share their gifts, and their neighbors see them on stage, it brings us all together in a very important way that I think we need right now."
Developers say they hope the first tenants in the Putnam Block can move in by late 2020.