The Bennington Select Board heard a presentation on the results of the 2023 Bennington Community Survey at their regular meeting on Monday, January 8. This is the fourth community survey conducted by the Town, with the first being in 2016, then again in 2018, in 2021, and now the latest in 2023.
A total of 1,025 people filled out the survey, the largest number of respondents to date. The fewest number of responses came from the 19-29 age group, while the largest increase in numbers over the prior year was in the 18 years and younger category. 85% of respondents live and work in Bennington, and another 10% work here. All told, one out of every 18 residents in Bennington took the survey– the biggest and broadest participation in the survey to date.
The latest survey included some changes from 2021 based on what we learned from prior surveys as well as suggestions and comments from the community. We moved from a 3-point scale for ratings to a 5-point scale, or Likert scale which is more scientifically based. We reduced the number of overall questions from 33 to 21.
The survey also shows “weighted averages.” This is simply another way to look at results that combines the various percentages of responses into a single number that can then be compared to a weighted scale to provide an average result. That will be especially useful when comparing results in future years so one can see easily where things have improved or gotten worse. For example, a question asking about "street repair" will get a different percentage for each of the five levels: Very Poor, Poor, Neutral, Good, Very Good. The weighted average takes all of those numbers and gives a single result.
Questions were broadly grouped into several categories including demographic information, municipal and non-municipal services, parks and recreation, neighborhood and law enforcement, downtown and economic development, and civic life including performance of the Select Board and Town staff.
The top responses to the survey question asking what municipal investment would have the greatest impact on the community were; redeveloping vacant/blighted buildings, facilitating new or restored housing, additional bike paths, an indoor gymnasium, and a skate park. It is noteworthy that the Benn High redevelopment project encompasses three of the top priorities, Rail Trail improvements are ongoing, and the Select Board has committed funds to a town skatepark.
Asked about vibrancy in Downtown Bennington, the results were consistent with previous years rating the need for more retail business as most important. The biggest change from 2021 was the number of people who identified a need for more housing; this increased from 18% to 46% in 2023.
Overall, respondents were positive about the quality of municipal services with weighted averages from neutral to good across the board. We learned a lot about people’s use of parks and recreational areas, with Willow Park being our most popular park, Beech Street our least used, and Y Woods being our least known. The Rail Trail was new in this survey, and it scored really well, showing a strong popularity for pathways in town.
This year, the question of how safe people feel in Bennington was split into two questions. In general, people stated that they felt very safe in their immediate neighborhood and somewhat less so in the town as a whole.
Regarding performance of the Bennington Police Department, overall results were positive. Compared to the 2021 survey, the results show an increase in the number of people who felt the police were doing a good or very good job. Fewer people felt police performance was poor, very poor, or average. The weighted average of all areas of police performance was above 3.41 which is in the “good” category.
A new question about how the community can support the work of the police department added by the Community Policing Advisory Review Board generated hundreds of comments that will be used by the CPARB to inform their work. All comments are available on the town website under Reports and Documents.
Town Government and Town staff were also rated. The Select Board saw its approval numbers increase since the last survey, while Town staff continue to enjoy good ratings from the community overall. When asked about quality of life on a scale of 1 to 100, the average response was 66 which matches the response in 2021, and very similar to 2018 and 2016. In a similar vein, when asked how people felt about the future of the town, 37% are optimistic, 30% are indifferent, and 33% are pessimistic. These responses are very similar to the 2021 survey that reported 39%, 31%, 30% respectively.
The town uses the results of the survey to inform their work and set priorities. We appreciate the strong participation by those who live and/or work in Bennington. In total, community members spent 171 hours filling out the survey in 2023 and the town is extremely grateful. This survey, as well as all prior surveys are available on the town website. The next community survey will be conducted in the fall of 2025.