Some banks used to give away a toaster to those who opened a new account, but on Monday, Merchants Bank took the idea a step further by giving away the almost 150-year-old bank.
Officials at Merchants Bank had already announced in February that plans had been made to close branches in Bennington and North Bennington and replace them with a new site in Bennington. But while Merchants rented its space on Main Street in Bennington, it owned the building on Bank Street in North Bennington, leaving residents of the village wondering what would become of it.
The question was answered Monday when Michael Tuttle, Merchants’ president and CEO, announced that the bank had agreed to donate the building, which is valued at $350,000, to the Fund for North Bennington and the Preservation Trust of Vermont.
Robert Woolmington, the president of the Fund for North Bennington’s board of directors, said that no decision had been made about how the building will be used and asked several dozen community members, who came to the bank to hear the announcement, to share their ideas.
According to Woolmington, officials with the Fund have “never had an opportunity quite like this before.”
“What we hope to do is preserve the historic character of the building, in partnership with the Preservation Trust of Vermont, but also find ways that this building can stay part of the community, the way it’s been for so many years,” he said.
Woolmington, who called it an “exceptionally generous gift,” said the building was expected to be used for commercial purposes but said officials at the Fund would be “open to new uses.” He also said the building will remain on the tax rolls.
There was also applause from residents when Tuttle said Merchant Bank would retain an automated teller machine at the site. The closure of the North Bennington branch of Merchants leaves the village without a bank.
The bank was built in 1864 and first operated at the First National Bank of North Bennington. It has been a branch of Merchants Bank since 1979.
Tuttle said he expected the branch to continue operating until September or October when the new site, on Northside Drive in Bennington, is ready.
Tuttle called it a “bittersweet” moment to deed over the building to the nonprofits.
“In the end, we’re a business. We need to make decisions that are indicative of customer preferences and where we think we need to take our business to keep it relevant and to keep it vital over time and that does dictate some changes,” he said.
Tuttle said bank officials were aware of the bank’s historic importance to the village of North Bennington and hoped to find a solution that would preserve its character.
Both the Fund for North Bennington and the Preservation Trust have been involved in numerous preservation efforts. The Fund has worked within the village but the Preservation Trust, while a statewide organization, has also been involved in North Bennington projects at sites like the Vermont Arts Exchange, the Park-McCullough House and the John G. McCullough Free Library.
Paul Bruhn, executive director of the Preservation Trust of Vermont, said Monday’s gift was one of the largest the trust had ever received.
Bruhn said there would be an easement on the building’s facade which will keep it looking as it does now.
Tuttle said he didn’t believe Merchants Bank had ever donated another building and the Fund for North Bennington has never owned another building.