Everyone loved Benny’s. But not enough to keep the retro-style department store from going dark seven years ago. The family-owned, Rhode Island-based chain closed all 31 Benny’s in 2017, including its Plymouth location off Court Street. The Bromberg family, which had owned it since 1924, cited “the changing face of retailing today and the dominance of online retailers like Amazon and others’’ for its demise.  

It was a familiar scenario in the fast-changing industry. For all the “I miss Benny’s” lamenting that ensued – and lives on through sporadic social media posts – people weren’t shopping there as often as they claimed to be. Many Plymouth residents extolled the store’s funky mix of everything from bicycles to tires to paint to home goods to holiday decorations – even as they signed up for Amazon Prime.

The Carpionato Group, a real estate development company, bought 27 of the Benny’s buildings after the closings. It managed to lease most of them even as demand for biggish-box spaces was fading faster than a red Benny’s “clearance” sign after Labor Day. Some became dollar stores, a kind of “last resort” move. The Plymouth one – in what is still known as Benny’s Plaza – was part of the deal. Years later, it sits empty, decaying in a sorry-looking strip mall that has just two remaining tenants, Dance Factory (which used to be a video store) and French Nails and Spa.

The plaza itself is an asphalt desert. Its only other business – the standalone Pioppi’s Liquors – abuts a vacant building that once was home to a Bank of America branch.

Many thousands of people went through these doors over the years, sometimes just to pick up one item. Credit: (Photo by Mark Pothier)

On a recent afternoon, I poked around the perimeter of the Benny’s ruins. Seeing the name in that familiar shadow script brought on a wave of melancholy. Maybe I didn’t “love” the place, but we were definitely in a relationship. My thoughts also went to when the plaza was home to one of Plymouth’s greatest treasures, Martha’s Galley, from 1996 to 2006. Bring up the quintessential hole-in-the-wall restaurant around people who dined there, and they’ll lovingly expound on owner Martha Stone’s vegetable lasagna, the slow-cooked roasted chicken dinners, the sheets of perfectly baked focaccia…I could go on, but it might make me too hungry, and sad. Martha, immensely talented and zen-like, later ran a wonderful takeout spot out of the old Fotomat kiosk in the parking lot (after operating Martha’s Stone Soup in the Pinehills). She died way too early. But we still savor her cooking through our memories. If you’re new to Plymouth, well, you missed out on something special.

Back to the here and now, it’s obvious that the plaza will never again be a retail center. With few exceptions, strip malls on secondary roads are not a thing in 2024. And no, it’s not a good site for a Trader Joe’s.

According to public records, the 7.2-acre property was purchased by an LLC – CGMA Plymouth – in April 2018 for more than $5.8 million. My attempts to get someone at CGMA to respond were unsuccessful. That might mean nothing is happening with parcel, or something might be in the works and the people behind a tentative deal don’t want to blow it by talking to a reporter. The latter could be wishful thinking.

The Benny’s store itself has long been available for lease. Peter Flynn, an agent with the Carpionato Group whose name is on a sign outside the building, didn’t return several messages seeking comment on why he hasn’t been able to cut a deal. One hurdle could be the soggy soil the structure sits on, just above sea level. That’s only going to get worse over time.

The Dance Factory also did not return a message for comment.

Peter Balboni, owner of Pioppi’s, did answer my emails. Balboni said he’s not thrilled about being next to “a dilapidated building that brings no extra foot traffic to my store.”

“I would like nothing more than to have the property developed,” he said. But until a developer comes forward with plans, Balboni added, he’d rather not comment on what the best use of the land might be.

The Benny’s building has seen much better days. Credit: (Photo by Mark Pothier)

Lee Hartmann, the town’s veteran director of planning and development – and a nostalgic former Benny’s customer – doesn’t sound optimistic about the prospect of someone with a vision coming forward soon.

“Unfortunately, the only interest I’ve been getting on the property is for yet another 40B development,” he told me. “It’s not the preferred option for what should happen there.”

Under state law, a developer can bypass certain local zoning rules if it proposes a housing project that includes “affordable” units – meaning they are priced below market rate. An unwanted consequence of the law: Bigger, more crowded housing developments so builders can offset the hit they take on the discounted units.

What is Hartmann’s preferred option for Benny’s Plaza? “Something that creates jobs,” he said. “If it has to have residential, our preference would be a mix – having as much commercial space there as possible. Another high-density residential development would be a hard thing for the community to deal with.”

One possibility, he said, would be to turn the plaza into a “maker space,” an incubator for entrepreneurs and small startups that are not ready to stand on their own. A good idea, but one that would require a significant private investment, probably in collaboration with local and state governments.

The worst part of this is that while land is being cleared for commercial and residential development all over Plymouth, a site like Benny’s Plaza languishes. Too bad we can’t figure out a way to re-purpose property that’s already been ravaged, instead of cutting down more trees.

To submit your business news for consideration, see the “Send us your business news” note at the top of the Business section.

Mark Pothier can be reached at mark@plymouthindependent.org. One other thing: Unlike our news stories, this column sometimes includes the author’s opinions.

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