NEW LEBANON — For several years, Michael Benson said he was “very focused on building a family and building a business.” Now he has set his sights on becoming the town’s supervisor.
Although he has lived elsewhere — in Virginia for a time and in Loudonville for 10 years — he’s always called the town “home.” He was born here in 1969.
Beginning in 1993, he and his wife, Christine, totally renovated the house his grandfather — his childhood “best friend” — lived in, moving in in 1994. Even while living in Loudonville, the family spent “every weekend and every school vacation” in the house on the Benson family compound on Route 5.
“I have four children and they love this town,” he said. They remain enrolled in private school in Albany since the couple decided that they didn’t want to disrupt their education mid-year upon the sale of the Loudonville house several months ago, but his children’s pursuits — son Joseph, 16, is a member of the U.S. National Flyfishing team; son Michael, 14, makes and sells bird, bat and butterfly houses; and his daughters, Julia, 12, and Lauren, 9, both horseback ride, which they “learned here.”
Queried as to the message behind his campaign call for “new leadership,” Benson paused, considered, then said, “I like Meg. I’d love to have her sitting next to me on the board. I think she loves the town as much as I do, but sooner or later you have to accomplish something. I’ve run and have built from nothing one of the largest construction companies in the Capital District with my ability to lead. I think I can work with the people and with the Town Board.”
Of the sometimes-fractious board that seems at times to block accomplishments, he said, “I’ll work with whoever I have. That’ll be my job and I can and will do it.”
He wants to provide “sound leadership” for the town. He wants to focus on a “revitalization of the 20/22 corridor,” which he said is “vital to the town. The town needs a supermarket and a pharmacy and it needs to do more to attract them and other business. We once had all of the things that we want,” he said, “a great town center, which I think is important. There used to be a nucleus. We need to capitalize on the things that we have in the town. There’s a large amount of traffic that flows through town. We need to find a way to capitalize on that market.”
He supports the idea of public water and sewer on the corridor. “We are sitting on a huge aquifer and because of the valley, the swamp and our water table along this corridor, conventional septic systems are always challenging.” Those services, he said, “will be a real benefit to accomplishing economic development.” But that is “long term. We just have to walk before we run.”
Achieving a new town hall will require “baby steps,” he said. “It’s a terrible shame that we currently are without a plan, supported by our residents” despite “multiple committees made up of great people.” But given his background, he said, he believes he can provide “measurable help and ultimately move this initiative forward. We also must meet this need by living within our means and spending responsibly. In the future, I will stipulate that we do a much better job of maintaining our assets so that we are never in this situation again.”
Benson dislikes the implications of being called a “real estate developer.” His business, of which he is president and CEO, is BCI Construction. “The real estate is separate,” he said.
One of his high-profile projects, a $12 million 24-unit condominium building, is causing conflict in Loudonville. Asked about it, Benson, clearly anguished, explained that during the approvals process — which took two-and-a-half years — “we had public support, we were salvation” for the neighbors. The site held the remnants of “a burned-out bar. They wanted it gone.” With “eight letters of intent” to purchase units, the company was able to obtain financing.
Construction began in August 2008 — to the tune of $3 million — and “then [in October], the bottom fell out of the market.” Buyers backed out and the bank followed. The project has languished for three years. The building permit has expired. Now some of the neighbors are calling for “repeal” of the original permit and blocking completion of the now-scaled-down plan.
Benson said he is committed to working with the project’s neighbors and explaining to them what happened. “People are frustrated because it’s just been sitting there. There’s no reason why, if we work with the community, we can’t have public support.” Although the market remains “a challenge,” he and his partner in the project are “determined to get it done.”
If elected, Benson is also committed to working with the county. “Providing a voice at the county level on behalf of New Lebanon is a big part” of sound leadership, he said. It was his understanding that the county had provided landfill closure costs to every town except New Lebanon. “This is a potentially crippling expense that must be dealt with effectively and factually in the immediate future and I will do that.”
County government’s spending money without apparent planning — he cited the Ockawamick building and the proposal for acquiring the Walmart building — is “shocking” to him. “I am not opposed to making an investment that has been the subject of a significant due-diligence process, but I am certain that this was not done for the Ockawamick building and is not being done for the Walmart building. These are our tax dollars and they should not be spent irresponsibly. I want to and vow to change that at the county level.”
Given the several multi-million-dollar construction projects he has under way — and the fact that he will assume the chairmanship of the Associated General Contractors of New York, the largest contractor organization in the state, on Jan. 1 — where will he find the time to deal with governing the town and attending county meetings?
He will “utilize some of the great people I have in my company to a greater extent” in running the business, he said. “There’s an old saying, ‘if you want something done, ask a busy person.’”
“I want to bring a sense of pride back to New Lebanon, a sense of community,” he said. And, he added, “I put my heart and soul into everything I do.”
After the interview, Benson was to continue going door-to-door, determined to speak with every resident.