MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury voters at their annual meeting approved a 2012-2013 municipal budget of $8,420,920 and agreed to establish a business development fund (BDF) to help attract new businesses and jobs to Addison County’s shire town.
More than 200 voters packed Middlebury’s municipal gym to consider a seven-article warning dominated by the budget and the proposed development fund.
The fund was spearheaded by the Better Middlebury Partnership following a research project completed last year by Middlebury College intern Ryan Kim — who was also present at Monday’s gathering. The fund will have an initial lifespan of five years and its annual budget of approximately $180,000 will be co-funded by the town ($72,000), Middlebury College ($72,000) and the local business community ($36,000).
Central to the BDF will be an economic development director who will be charged with recruiting new businesses to Middlebury and helping current enterprises prosper and grow.
The BDF proposal drew a mixture of support and criticism at Monday’s gathering before earning a 125-64 OK in a paper ballot vote. Plans now call for organizers of the BDF to draw up a job description in anticipation of recruiting a director later this year.
“We are certainly excited about this,” Donna Donahue, president of the Better Middlebury Partnership, said of Monday’s vote on the development fund. “I think it’s great for the community.”
David Donahue, special assistant to Middlebury College President Ron Liebowitz, also praised the decision.
“I believe Monday night’s vote reflects the collective desire to take charge of our economic future,” he said. “The college is looking forward to working with the town and the business community to make this effort a success.”
Along with matching the town’s annual financial contribution to the fund, the college will make available its large contact list of alumni, some of whom it is hoped could be persuaded to relocate or establish businesses in Middlebury or surrounding towns.
“This is truly an investment in Middlebury and all its citizens,” Donna Donahue told the town meeting crowd.
It was a crowd that needed some convincing.
Resident Kathy Wheatley said she was concerned that the BDF director might try to woo enterprises that many Middlebury residents might not like to see in their midst.
“I would feel more comfortable supporting such a thing if I knew that we had collectively decided what kind of businesses we wanted in Middlebury and what kind of businesses we didn’t want in Middlebury,” Wheatley said.
Donna Donahue replied that the BDF director would focus on attracting businesses in which Middlebury already has a toehold, including agriculture, tourism, higher education, green energy, specialty manufacturing, retirement communities and health care.
She added that the town’s development review process would be able to ferret out businesses that Middlebury would not like to see.
Resident Susan DeWind expressed concern that townspeople were being asked to spend money on an economic development tool she said has shown little results in other New England towns.
“Burlington called it a waste of money,” DeWind said.
“I am reluctant, based on the lack of success in other communities large and small,” DeWind said. “Given our tax rate now, to add more to it when there is, I think, a slim a chance of success and how to measure that, that the timing of this is wrong.”
Resident Ross Conrad said the town should seek to change what he said is a flawed economic system in the nation.
“I think we would be better off taking the $180,000 and investing it in the people who are already here,” Conrad said. “This approach comes across to me as simplistic.”
But supporters said the BDF was worth the gamble. Among them was National Bank of Middlebury President and BMP board member G. Kenneth Perine.
“Every small town in America is in the same spot as we,” Perine said. “We have lost manufacturing jobs and we are trying to replace them. Every small town in America is trying to determine how to recruit businesses. I think we are in a unique position because of Middlebury College. There are thousands of Middlebury College alums and students who have an affinity for this place. ”
Perine acknowledged that the BDF will come with no guarantees. But he said he believed it a valuable thing to pursue.
“It may not be successful,” Perine said. “But I think it is worth the risk.”
Former Middlebury resident and local business owner Mike Palmer likened the BDF to a shovel the town could use to uncover economic development treasure waiting to be discovered in its own backyard.
Middlebury selectboard Chairman John Tenny added his support.
“Middlebury has a long solid history of investing in itself, of building its own opportunities,” Tenny said, citing the industrial park, water and sewer infrastructure, and the new Cross Street Bridge as examples.
“Compared to the other investments this community has made, this is a small investment,” Tenny said.
Residents approved, by a resounding voice vote, a proposed municipal budget of $8,420,920 that will not result in a rise on the local tax rate. Tenny — who after Town Meeting Day stepped down from the board after 17 years of service — warned that the town is currently maintaining an unassigned fund balance of only $157,510. That is roughly 1.9 percent of the general fund budget and far less than the 5 percent or 10 percent range that auditors recommend, according to Tenny.
“We don’t want you to think we are in a position of being flush with cash,” said Tenny, who corrected an earlier forecast that the town was carrying a $1.5 million surplus.
In other action at their annual meeting, Middlebury residents:
• Agreed to float a loan of up to $251,000 over up to five years to finance a new police cruiser with related equipment; a new tandem plow truck and related equipment; and a new stake bed truck. All of the items will replace aging vehicles in the town’s fleet and are part of a regular replacement schedule.
• Agreed to designate Middlebury as a Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) District to enable participating property owners to access funding for eligible energy efficiency and renewable energy projects.
• Listened to a presentation on the proposed $4.625 million fire station renovation and expansion bond. The bond passed by a 782-367 margin in Australian ballot voting on Tuesday (see related story).
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected]