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Middlebury business fund a smart move

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Posted on January 19, 2012 |
By Ben Wilson



This is the third opinion piece in a series discussing a proposal for Middlebury to create a fund that promotes economic development in town. Ben Wilson grew up in Middlebury, is an attorney in town and is vice president of the Better Middlebury Partnership.

As Town Meeting Day nears, there have been many discussions regarding the merits of the proposed Middlebury Business Development Fund (“MBDF”) for Middlebury. The proposed MBDF is a collaboration between the town of Middlebury, Middlebury College, and the local business community. The fund will support a business development director charged with attracting new businesses and helping existing ones expand.

The Better Middlebury Partnership has been actively supporting the MBDF effort for many years because we believe that it will foster good local jobs thereby improving our economy and community. After more than two years of discussions and deliberations, the Middlebury Select Board has come out in favor of the MBDF by a 6-1 vote. The MBDF is set for a vote at Town Meeting.

In recent months, critics have suggested that the proposed fund may not be worth the money, and, that it may lead to unwanted development. While these concerns merit discussion, they do not justify blocking Middlebury’s MBDF.

With regard to its financial merits, it is important to remember that the MBDF is a collaborative public/private partnership. The proposed MBDF calls for the town of Middlebury to fund just $72,000, an amount that is equally matched by the college, plus another amount matched by the business community. The town will be supplying less than 45 percent of the funding, but it stands to reap the bulk of the benefits including new jobs, a larger tax base, and a more robust economy.

Middlebury’s MBDF will also maintain a distinct advantage over other Vermont towns’ economic development efforts because the town is blessed with two strong groups of alumni. Middlebury College has over 80,000 alumni, many of whom are entrepreneurial minded and would like to live in Middlebury. Combine this with our strong high school alumni network (I’m with the MUHS class of ’95), and we have a huge pool of talented people predisposed to opening businesses in Middlebury.

Tapping these strong alumni networks will make it all the more likely that the MBDF will be a successful and profitable enterprise for the town.

In addition, the size of the investment called for by the selectboard is measured and responsible. The one-cent tax rate increase represents just $72,000 per year. If the MBDF helps attract a single company (like the Vermont Hard Cider Co.) that builds a new facility in town, the position will pay for itself and reduce Middlebury’s tax rate. The MBDF is not a bridge to nowhere — it is a sound, fiscally sensible investment in our community and in ourselves.

As to the notion that the MBDF could lead to unwanted development, it is important to remember the MBDF is being supported by a selectboard that has jealously guarded Middlebury’s downtown and surrounding areas. This selectboard’s broad support makes it clear that the MBDF is not about promoting Rutlandesque strip development. Instead, the MBDF is about helping our existing businesses expand and attracting new ones that fit well into our community. It is about finding the next Vermont Hard Cider Co., Vermont Coffee Company, or Maple Landmark Woodcraft. It is about good local jobs in businesses that we all take pride in.

Furthermore, the need for additional discussions regarding the kind of development we would like in town that some critics have called for do not justify delaying the MBDF. It is simply not possible to predict or plan for the precise nature of the businesses the MBDF might help attract. There may well be a business or industry that is a perfect fit for our community that no one has yet considered. After all, two decades ago who would have thought that Vermont would grow into an international financial center for the captive insurance industry.

I have faith that the town’s selectboard and our community in general will make sensible decisions regarding the type of growth that should occur in Middlebury. Are continuing discussions regarding our community’s vision for Middlebury and Addison County a good idea? Absolutely, but there is no reason that these discussions should delay the MBDF; rather, they should continue as the MBDF moves forward.

Finally, it is important to recognize that inaction has very real human consequences. Critics have focused on the penny rise in the tax rate, but there has been no acknowledgement of the costs of inaction. Scores of local families are struggling – the MBDF is ultimately about the welfare of these families and the well being of our entire community.

In 2007, in a span of three months, Middlebury lost two significant employers — Specialty Filaments (formerly Polymers) and Standard Register. All told, 287 local jobs were lost. The relocation of other local businesses has brought these job losses to more than 500. These statistics are troubling — but they do not begin to tell the whole story.

As an attorney, I have seen first hand how these layoffs devastated lives and shattered families. Overnight, these layoffs eviscerated families’ incomes, and stripped people of the stability and dignity that gainful employment provides. When those laid off tried to rebuild their lives, many found it impossible to find comparable work in Middlebury or Addison County.

While many of our friends and neighbors suffered, they generally did so privately. These layoffs were particularly insidious because Middlebury avoided the obvious signs of economic blight. Unlike Rutland or Bellows Falls, our town has not been plagued by empty storefronts and decaying infrastructure. In a sense, Middlebury’s vibrant downtown has masked the economic plight of our friends and neighbors.

The reality is that for more than four years, scores of our neighbors have been quietly suffering through the effects of unemployment and underemployment. Delaying action on the MBDF carries very real costs. These costs might not show up on a spreadsheet, but they will be borne, quietly, by dozens of local families — those least well equipped to deal with this burden.

It is time for action. The MBDF is a sensible and fiscally responsible investment in ourselves. As Town Meeting Day approaches, I encourage everyone to educate themselves regarding the MBDF. I am confident that — like the town, the college, local business leaders, and the Better Middlebury Partnership — Middlebury residents will determine that the MBDF is the way forward. As debate continues over the coming weeks I also hope people on all sides of the MBDF issue recognize that the MBDF is, at its core, about the welfare of our community and the well being of our friends and neighbors.

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