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Editorial: Big investments in facilities reflect shire town's future

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Posted on August 7, 2014 |
By Angelo S. Lynn



Middlebury seems poised to enter an exciting decade of economic development, start-ups and expansion.

Woodchuck Hard Cider’s grand opening of its new $34 million, 100,000-square-foot facility — complete with architectually stunning tasting and gift room — on Exchange Street this Thursday is a central part of that growth.

The company currently hires 167, with 100 employed locally (an expanding sales force makes up the rest in states throughout the country.) President and CEO Dan Rowell projects double-digit growth in product and personnel over the next few years, and the site has the potential, if the town were ever so lucky to see it, for that facility to grow by four times, up to 400,000 square feet. Currently, it also still uses the 62,000-square-foot production facility a half-mile away on Pond Lane.

That’s a lot of potential growth, and the company is as quick to sing the praises of the state and town of Middlebury, as both are to sing praises of the company —and we’re all the better for it.

But growth at Woodchuck is just part of the new energy being felt in town.

On the same day (Wednesday) as the Vermont Hard Cider company was showcasing its new facility to the state’s media, the ribbon was cut on the state’s first completed 500 kW solar net metering project known as South Ridge Solar Facility. Located just southwest of the Lodge at Otter Creek (southwest of the Middle School), the facility’s power is being purchased by Middlebury College as part of the college’s commitment to become carbon neutral.

Gov. Peter Shumlin joined Charlie Kireker, managing member of Middle Road Ventures, LLC, the developer of the solar project, in cutting the ribbon to the solar site, noting its impact on job creation.

“This project is about local energy, local investment and local jobs,” Shumlin said, noting that a dozen or more local businesses helped in the construction, design, permitting, fencing and implementation of the project. “This is how solar energy drives economic development and supports jobs for Vermonters,” he said, adding his familiar refrain that Vermont ranks first in the nation in solar jobs per capital and has more than quadrupled the amount of solar energy since 2011.

Kireker said the site has the potential to double its solar capacity and that may be an option in the near future. Other smaller solar projects are popping up with regularity, including a fair-size project financed by Vermont Sun Fitness Center on Exchange Street.

Vermont Soap, which recently had a fire at its decades old Exchange Street facility, is hard at work setting up in headquarters just down the road on Industrial Ave., which is also in the town’s industrial park and ideally situated next to the town’s wastewater treatment plant. Owner Larry Plesant is expecting to ramp back up to full production over the next few months and is in a larger space that will enable him to expand.

Standing next to Vermont Soap’s new site looking south across the town’s vast industrial park, which is located beside the railroad, it’s inspiring to see the potential for future growth in foods, beverages, and other products that would benefit from the Vermont brand and land that has town and power utilities at the ready, Act 250 permits at hand, and that meets town zoning requirements while being separated from residential concerns.

In fact, one little discussed asset the town offers is a wastewater treatment plant that has excess capacity. It’s a state-of-the-art facility that is a crucial asset to many businesses in the food and beverage sector.

The community also has proactive leaders who have been willing to tackle controversial issues in an effort to improve its infrastructure in creative ways that protect the tax base and put the good of the community front-and-center. Not all decisions meet with everyone’s satisfaction, but democracy is decision-making by a majority and being unafraid to act when controversy arises. Hiring an economic development director was a well-timed move. Gaining rights to raze the former Lazarus building and create a new entrance to the Marble Works Business District will breathe new life into the downtown. Improving the Riverfront Park has already paid dividends in community appreciation and use. And plans for the Economic Development Initiative building behind the Ilsley Library promise to deliver more economic energy and critical mass to the downtown — which will help it continue to thrive.

Middlebury College, of course, brings its own economic heft to the town, as well as adding greatly to the cultural breadth of the community with its musical, artistic, academic and theatrical events and presentations. Combined with the Town Hall Theater’s 150-plus shows and events each year, and numerous other community events, it’s become a small town with a big heart for the arts.

It’s no surprise, then that entrepreneurs are interested, too. On Monday, a dozen entrepreneurs on motorcycles revved into town on a unique tour called Fresh Tracks on the Road (see story Page 1A). Sponsored by Shelburne-based Fresh Tracks Capital, the idea was to have local businesses who had ideas to launch make a pitch for funding to the venture capitalists, and get advice for their projects — and potential funds. The ideas were inventive and demonstrate the power of imaging how things could be through innovation.

Add that to the new trend in farming (see story Page 1A) launched by UVM to train young farmers in the ways of business, and you begin to see Addison County and its shire town in a renewed light — a counter vision to what is also a reality: youth moving from small rural towns to the nation’s larger cities.

Those positive trend is a needed nuance to counter the worry that current demographic trends spell a declining future for places like Middlebury and Addison County. Certainly those trends are a worry, but good reasons abound to remain optimistic — but only if communities seize the moment and pursue opportunities, ideas and possibilities.

In today’s global economy, it’s certain that manufacturers won’t be waltzing into town of their own accord and building a 500-person plant on a whim. It takes pursuit, patience and persistence, but it also takes a good story with compelling attractions.

The good story in Addison County is that it’s within a recreational paradise, surrounded by ample farmland and good growing conditions for specialty products that benefit from the state’s brand for high-quality foods and beverages. Middlebury and Vergennes will soon have access to less expensive fuel, which will also be a boon to the industrial and business community, as well as making it more affordable for residents to live. Tourism packs potential growth if it is approached through partnerships and greater precision.

If it would help, area business groups would eagerly strike up the band and don welcoming hats, but it’s not needed. Bells and whistles aren’t persuasive today. Rather, the statements made by Vermont Hard Cider to build its $34 million facility here, and for Vermont Soap to relocate into a larger facility here, and for new solar projects to pop up here, and for entrepreneurs to make pitches here, and for the town and college to invest in new facilities, and for local banks to help fund these ventures, all speak louder than a welcoming committee ever could.

Angelo S. Lynn

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