MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury residents in March will be asked to tax themselves an extra $72,000 annually — a penny on the tax rate — for the next five years in order to help finance a new economic development director’s (EDD) position designed to bring new, good paying jobs to town.
The selectboard voted 6-1 on Tuesday to include the new economic development post as a request on the next town meeting warning. Middlebury College and the local business community have agreed to assemble the remaining financing for the job, estimated to cost a total of $150,000 to $200,000 annually.
“Middlebury’s history includes a strong record of creating prosperity by inventing opportunities,” Middlebury selectboard Chairman John Tenny said, citing such examples as the town’s industrial park established during the 1970s.
“The town’s history is not to wait for the opportunity to come to us.”
Tuesday’s decision by the selectboard to put the EDD position to a public vote comes after several months of debate and study, including a report prepared this past summer by Middlebury College student intern Ryan Kim. The selectboard tasked Kim with interviewing the local business community as part of a research project into whether an EDD would be beneficial to Middlebury. Kim found the answer to be a resounding “yes.” That led to further study of the idea by a committee that included, among others, Better Middlebury Partnership (BMP) President Donna Donahue, Addison County Economic Development Corp. Executive Director Robin Scheu, and local businessman Jim Robinson.
Supporters of the new position made a final, impassioned pitch to the selectboard on Tuesday. They described the new hire as a seasoned professional who would, among other things:
• Create, recruit and retain high quality jobs in Middlebury for people already here who need work, those who don’t want to leave Middlebury or would like to return, and the spouses of people already employed locally.
• Connect local businesses with members of the Middlebury College alumni network and other local and regional entrepreneurs to increase their prosperity.
• Reach out to Middlebury College alumni for advice for local businesses and to extend invitations to those alumni to consider relocating their enterprises to Middlebury.
• Have out-of-state meetings with targeted capital providers and companies that could provide services or sales to local businesses.
The EDD’s success, in the short-term, would be measured in the number of calls and visits made to businesses and capital providers. In the long term, the position would be judged on how many referrals it makes to existing businesses and how many new jobs are brought into the town.
Supporters said creating an EDD position is taking on greater urgency given the current economy, the loss of local manufacturing jobs, and the fact that other Vermont communities have created similar positions to better compete for employers.
Local businessman and former BMP President Bruce Hiland urged the selectboard to endorse the new position. He said the EDD has emerged as a key proposal since the community began discussing, in earnest, economic revitalization in Middlebury around six years ago. Doing nothing, he added, should not be an option.
“A sound, sustainable economy is the prerequisite for the absolute foundation for a sound, sustainable community,” Hiland said.
National Bank of Middlebury President G. Kenneth Perine said the EDD could give Middlebury a needed economic boost at just the right time. He noted that state and national economists are projecting little or no growth for the next four or five years.
“We can sit back and let things come to us, but nothing is going to come that way,” Perine said. “If we believe we want to grow our economy and maintain its vitality, we need to go out and be proactive. We need to do something like this position. This is the best idea that has come up in the six years we have been kicking this around. I do believe it’s time to act. If we can do this, we stand a chance to attract some business here and to improve the vitality of our town.”
Perine added that more jobs will bring the need for more retail, thereby filling such vacancies in Middlebury.
“We stand here at a crossroads with an opportunity to try something,” Perine said. “It may not work, but at least we will have tried, and I think that’s an important point. We did not just sit back and let the world come to us.”
Rep. Paul Ralston, D-Middlebury, owns Vermont Coffee Co. based on Exchange Street. He said creation of the EDD makes sense from both a business and state policy perspective.
“I can tell you that this year, next year and maybe the next year, the state is going to be encumbered with significant financial issues around (Tropical Storm Irene) and the flood,” said Ralston, noting the state will likely be asked to assist heavily hit towns to make up for a shortage in federal aid.
“Taking the initiative as a local community … is critically important and I think it will really serve us well,” Ralston said.
Most selectboard members enthusiastically supported the EDD creating the position, but stressed that boosters will need to turn out in force at town meeting to convince skeptics.
“It is important at town meeting, if this becomes part of our budget, for people to be there from your side of this, to explain how this might work,” said Selectman Dean George.
Selectman Nick Artim acknowledged that establishing the EDD might be a “risk,” but he felt it was a risk worth taking given the overwhelming support from the business community.
“What this tells me is there are a lot of people who want to make sure this doesn’t fail, so I feel very comfortable about moving forward,” Artim said.
Selectwoman Susan Shashok was the lone dissenting voice on the board.
“I think we are not quite ready for the position,” Shashok said. “I don’t hear my neighbors saying that they are in support of this.”
Shashok said the town might be better served taking a less ambitious tack right now — such as establishing an economic development fund to help cultivate new businesses.
“I think (the EDD plan) is great… but I don’t hear (demand for it) out in my community, and that concerns me,” Shashok said.
Supporters said they respected Shashok’s opinion, one that they noted might be shared in the community and therefore should be addressed. But supporters added they have heard a different opinion about the EDD in their conversations with townspeople.
“The people I’ve been seeing have been very much in favor of it,” Donahue said. “The people I have been talking to think it’s an investment in their future.
“I am very convinced there is broad support for this.”
Reporter John Flowers is at firstname.lastname@example.org.