Trying to create good paying jobs has become a national obsession. All political candidates are for it; states and cities are devising ways to promote it; and every taxpaying citizen who is underpaid and overworked (or jobless) is clamoring for better jobs — preferably near their home.
Vermont has been trying, too, and with some success. The captive insurance industry may be the state’s best example of creating a business niche, through tax and regulatory incentives, and creating good jobs through its growth. And yet times are changing, and industries that were once strong — the machine tool industry, textiles and other industrial manufacturers — have closed up shop and the jobs have gone with them, while newer industries come, but all too seldomly.
In Middlebury and Addison County in the past couple of decades, we’ve seen Standard Register, Polymers (and the two other filament companies after them), CPC, Earth’s Best baby foods, Geiger, Simmonds Precision, Autumn Harp, Tubbs in Brandon, and several others either close their doors, consolidate elsewhere or move out of town. The net impact in that time period has been a loss of well over 500 good paying manufacturing jobs.
But what can be done?
Community leaders of small towns face a tough dilemma: With minimal financial resources, how pro-active can they afford to be, and will it be effective?
That question has kept the town of Middlebury from taking a more active role in the past, even though the town has worked on other initiatives — improving infrastructure, working with specific businesses like Vermont Hard Cider to help them grow, and playing supporting roles with new businesses like eCorp English. But is it enough?
In this era of global competition, Middlebury still competes with Burlington and St. Albans, but also with California and Colorado, Asia and Iceland, Europe and South America. The questions also become: Can the town afford to be passive and potentially watch the town’s grand list shrink and good jobs dwindle until there are too few to maintain the town’s critical mass? And is the town missing important opportunities for growth that could be harnessed if all the town’s assets and resources were working together?
Recently, the latter part of that question was answered in the affirmative. In a 6-1 vote in November, the Middlebury board of selectmen agreed to put before the voters an article requesting a penny on the tax rate (roughly $72,000) to help create a Middlebury Business Development Fund for five years. That fund will help hire a Middlebury Director of Business Development, whose job will be to seek and recruit new businesses to locate in the greater Middlebury area and to help existing businesses grow, and will pay other associated expenses (office, travel, supplies and other costs of doing business.)
The focus will be getting deals done, not marketing or conducting studies. The metrics of success are new jobs coming to town, and developing additional jobs within existing businesses through new business-to-business contacts and networks. There are many opportunities for success that will be discussed in future forums, as well as how the fund will be governed and managed. (A five-member board comprised of town selectmen, college officials and business members will govern.)
It’s important to know that the town is but one part of the equation. Middlebury College has agreed to match the town’s contribution, and the business community is being asked to raise $35,000 or more through voluntary donations ($20,000 has already been pledged.) Thus, for a penny investment from taxpayers, more than $175,000 will be generated each year for the proposed fund.
Middlebury taxpayers should be amazed. Rarely is it possible to ante up one dollar in taxes and get more than double the value for their investment. Recent construction of the Cross Street Bridge in Middlebury was the notable exception, and that stands as a monumental achievement — town, college and the business community all working together.
The process to get this far did not come quickly or easily for the selectboard, college or business leaders. The concept has been thoroughly discussed for the past several years, and as an action item for the past two years at selectboard meetings and among business groups, most particularly, the Better Middlebury Partnership. More recently, a group of 25 community leaders have met for the past year cementing how such a fund will work and to establish specific metrics to measure success or the lack thereof.
It is with great optimism — and after thoughtful and rigorous questioning — that this initiative has been supported by the selectboard, town administration, regional partners and the Middlebury business community.
What’s the goal and why do these groups feel it will be successful?
The opportunity is clear: Middlebury is fortunate to have a tremendous ally in this initiative — the college. The current administration has offered to help recruit potential firms and businesses to the greater-Middlebury area from within its vast alumni network — 80,000 strong. Recruiting from such a network is a huge leg-up in the effort to attract good paying jobs. It is a unique opportunity to re-establish a growing job-base in town.
If it is successful, those new jobs create economic growth in several ways. Each new family needs a place to live: houses and new business spaces are built or occupied. The grand list grows. Those families, in turn, buy goods and services from area businesses. School kids, under the state education formula, bring new dollars to school budgets and help ease the school tax burden.
In short, community leaders agreed that the town of Middlebury could no longer sit idly by hoping new business will locate in our backyard, while other communities are aggressively pursuing them. Moreover, we know Middlebury has numerous assets that make the town a very attractive option, if an effective director of business development is actively making the case and can take leads and turn them into realities.
This is the first in a series of community forums exploring why Middlebury is proposing an economic development fund, the goals and the expected outcomes. What will follow in the coming weeks in this space are voices from others in the community who have been closely involved. Each will explain an aspect of the initiative and will inevitably add their views of the need, the goal and the consequence.
We invite others to join in the discussion with comments and questions. To do so, letters to the editor are encouraged, or go to www.addisonindependent.com and comment online. We’ll create a special blog for the topic, starting with this opinion piece.
The goal of the series is to thoroughly discuss the proposal before the vote on Town Meeting Day. Our thanks in advance for reading and being involved.