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Pennywise, pound-foolish

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Posted on January 18, 2018 |
By Angelo Lynn



In business, it’s good to be optimistic. It sets a good tone for customers, creates a good vibe in the work place, and inspires confidence among business-to-business peers.

It’s also imperative to be realistic. You have to call things like they are, and you can’t be a Pollyanna when things go awry.

Carol’s Hungry Mind Café in downtown Middlebury is caught between and betwixt that conundrum. For the past dozen years, owner John Melanson has skated on the edge of profitability with what has become a beloved coffee shop and gathering place in Middlebury. It is, as colleague Greg Dennis puts it in his column today, like that the famous TV bar Cheers, “where everyone knows your name,” and Melanson has been the ever-optimistic owner even as community fundraising campaigns have helped him make it through slim times.

But Middlebury’s rail bridge project has driven reality home to Melanson. He can be as optimistic as he wants, but the reality is that the construction project is costing him big dollars. There is no sugar-coating it, no pretending it is going to be “just fine,” as the Vermont Agency of Transportation and local officials have been telling those downtown businesses that are most affected. He says as much in an Addison Independentstory on Page 3A.

The truth of the matter is that regardless of how many community events are held to spur business downtown, how many well-wishers give encouraging pats on the back, or how many times the AOT and its PR agent claim that their project won’t have a harmful effect— it’s all Pollyanna nonsense.

If you don’t know, a GoFundMe campaign has been kicked off to help Carol’s Hungry Mind Café. Melanson told the Addison Independentthat the rail bridges construction in which the old bridges were replaced this summer on Main Street and Merchants Row with temporary spans, hurt his year-end totals substantially (down roughly $50,000.) That’s partly because the temporary bridges created a loss of 9 parking spaces directly in front of his business and another 5 more recently carved out for bus parking — a big percentage out of too few spaces to begin with.

It’s also because coffee shops, in particular he says, depend on drop-in traffic, and when it’s inconvenient to drop-in, business drops off.

Other factors could have played a role in the coffee shop’s drop in business. It’s impossible to attribute 100 percent of the loss to the construction project simply because there is no hard data. But it’s a pretty good bet that a good percentage of that loss —it’s the first year in several not to see growth — has been due to the rail bridges project. That fact should be a wake-up call to the Middlebury selectboard, Middlebury’s legislators, and the AOT. Melanson’s example is what we know as tangible and verifiable, and that reality needs to convey this blatant message: “No, it will not be OK for everyone; what the town and AOT are forcing upon these downtown businesses — with no choice of their own — is a direct monetary loss that is a significant percentage of their overall sales.”

And the worst is yet to come.

While replacing the old bridges with the temporary spans was bad, the worst of it lasted just a couple of weeks. Under the current AOT plans, the Main Street Bridge and the Merchants Row bridge will be taken out simultaneously and the roads closed for 10 weeks. And because they are doing it in the midst of summer, it will hit downtown at the worst possible time for Melanson and others dependent on summer tourism. “The summer tourist season is when we make the money to carry us through the slower winter months,” Melanson told me in a matter-of-fact assessment of the impact he dreads to see. And Carol’s Hungry Mind Café is not alone. Other businesses along Merchants Row and Main Street have expressed their concerns to the selectboard and have either provided specific numbers or volunteered to if it would do any good.

 It’s frustrating that while town and state officials have listened to merchants’ concerns for the past two years, nothing has been done. And what’s maddening is that about $12 million of the four-year, $52-million project is reported to be used to compensate Vermont Railway for the loss of business it is expected to see during those same 10 weeks. Frankly, it is obscene that the AOT and the Middlebury selectboard can countenance that sum of money being paid to Vermont Railway, while the effort to secure a fraction of that amount for affected downtown merchants has been stonewalled.

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An effort is still underway by a few Middlebury-area residents to get the AOT to pause the project and review an alternative plan that would cost roughly $15 million and could be done in a single construction season. At a hearing scheduled for this Thursday in Montpelier (past our press time) with the joint transportation committees of the House and Senate, testimony was to be taken against and in support of the plan. (It is an issue that has been thoroughly discussed in this paper over the past two years, and we won’t belabor it here, but for an opposing view see the community forum by Bruce Hiland on Page 5A.)

Regardless of whether project opponents can convey their common-sense alternative with any success, the Middlebury selectboard should redouble its efforts to secure a reasonable amount of compensation for the few businesses most affected. With this first bit of construction under the town’s belt, those affected businesses have a much clearer idea of what negative impact they expect to see during the ongoing construction over the next three years. Now is the time to make that assessment and add it to the total package.

The selectboard, and Middlebury’s representatives, should also be ready to push back against the AOT’s refrain that Middlebury’s project is no different than others in which stores were inconvenienced by AOT work. We beg to differ. It is rare for any project to isolate a dozen or so businesses from vehicular access for almost three months at the height of their busiest season. Certainly, businesses are inconvenienced by AOT projects all over the state, but to suggest it is the same as being isolated for 10 weeks straight, with construction expected to rage 24-7, is a gross false equivalency.

The selectboard, in particular, should also grasp the consequence of no action: that several core downtown businesses could be forced to close — and for what? Penny-pinching what would be a rounding error in a project that may well cost in excess of the $52 million currently projected.

That’s the very definition of pennywise, pound-foolish.

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