Editorial: A crossroads of good fortune
Middlebury could be poised for a resurgence in job growth with families moving back into town to fill vacant school desks, enliven athletic programs, create a need for home construction, fill stores with shoppers, prompt retail growth to meet local needs and infuse the community with the energy inherent in a town that has a vision for sustainable prosperity.
But, as in all things in business, such growth won’t happen without commitment and a willingness to invest.
The opportunity Middlebury residents have before them is to invest in a two-pronged effort to drive economic development. (See stories on Page 1A.) The investment amounts to about a penny on the tax rate in the first year and less than that going forward. The pay back will be seen in an increase in the local options tax revenues, an increase in the grand list from new businesses, and a thriving community that spreads its wealth to every sector of the community — from the hair salon to retail stores, restaurants to professional services.
Details are still being worked out, but the principles have been hashed over for the past several years and more intensely over the past six months. The two proposals break down as such:
• The Better Middlebury Partnership (known for two decades as the Middlebury Business Association) has requested temporary help from the town to fund a part-time person to promote, market and coordinate the significant number of events they do each year. The organization has taken on a significant number of duties that most towns consider essential, such as grant writing, hosting major events, retail development and marketing the town as a wonderful place to live. Even towns as small as Brandon fund a position that take on such tasks considered essential for the health and well-being of the community. In Middlebury, the BMP has fulfilled that role and mission on behalf of the town for the past couple of decades and paid for it through dues on member businesses.
The 2007-09 recession, however, has cut the organization’s revenues, prompting the group to lay-off its long-time executive director to avoid deficit spending; and attempt to carry out its mission via the volunteer efforts of its board members. For the past year, the board and members have rallied and excelled at the events they host. The BMP’s signature Halloween event, Spooktacular, continues to grow to the delight of children and parents from the greater Middlebury community. Its holiday event, “A Very Merry Middlebury” routinely brings Santa to town, hosts wagon rides, invites carolers, staffs a hot-chocolate booth downtown along with free Christmas wrapping. And the holiday wreaths decorating the new Cross Street Bridge and on the historic lights throughout downtown — yes, all hand-made, assembled and put up through the volunteer labor of BMP board members and friends (along with some town help where needed to get the lighting rigged up.)
The BMP also created and has built the successful Chili-Fest in Middlebury (going on its third year) that has been rated as one of the top-10 events in the state by the Vermont Chamber of Commerce — an activity that draws college kids downtown as well as residents from around the state (all of which adds to town coffers through the local options tax, rooms and meals, and general spending.)
But we all know that volunteers working with boards see ebbs and flows in enthusiasm; and the more work board members and volunteers have to do, the faster those ups and downs come and go. At its present pace, the BMP cannot sustain such commitment through volunteers alone; a part-time staff person — as the organization had for the past 15-plus years — must be funded, not just to keep the momentum going, but to build on those successes and bring an even greater return in quantifiable measures back to the town.
The group is asking for the town to commit $25,000 of a $40,000 budget (the rest paid for through member dues and funding through the Downtown Improvement District funds). The $40,000 budget includes salary and benefits for about 20-hours a week, plus supplies (that is, all the remaining overhead.) While the conversation discussed a three-year plan, a successful outcome would see declining funding from the town taxpayer with a greater dollar amount coming from the BMP and other sources that can be directly attributable to economic growth — a win-win situation for the business community and town taxpayers.
Importantly, residents should note (as we reported in today’s story) that 57 percent of the state’s designated downtowns receive direct funding from town government. Middlebury taxpayers, while helping when needed in various ways, have enjoyed a good deal for a number of years thanks to hardworking volunteers and dues from the business community; and they hope, one day soon, that can happen again. Until then, however, they’re seeking funding to do what most communities consider essential work that greatly adds to the quality of life area residents enjoy. The effort was endorsed by the selectboard at its meeting Tuesday. It’s a proposal that should be endorsed by community members at Town Meeting as well.
• The plan to create an economic development position that focuses solely on creating jobs in Middlebury is another pressing concern that has an even greater promise of return.
The concern is this: Over the past 15 years or so, Middlebury has lost more than 1,000 high-paying manufacturing jobs: Standard Register, CPC, Polymers, Simmonds Precision, Highland Press, Geiger and other manufacturers have left or closed for a host of reasons. We’ve replaced some of those job losses with new companies and with other existing firms growing organically; but our net job loss over the period is still substantial. No town, college or community leaders are happy with that result. We need to do better.
The promise is that we have a wonderful product — our community — to market, if only we would.
That’s where Middlebury College has entered the discussion. Offering expertise; partial funding to lessen the burden on taxpayers; and, importantly, a coordinated effort to encourage alumni to think of Middlebury as a place to grow existing businesses or start new ones, the college stands ready to be an active partner. That’s huge. Middlebury is already a community that offers a high quality of life — not just because of its natural beauty, historic charm, good schools and community vitality — but also because of our access to the arts, intellectual discussions and academic events hosted by the college and often made available to the community. It is a resource beyond compare and an asset that is matched by only a handful of towns our size across the nation.
We are being offered an opportunity to use that asset to our common benefit. The community’s quandary, at the end of the day, is straightforward: Will we say yes or no?
While the question is easy enough to pose, the details that will define any proposed position are complex. As proposed, the position would be full-time, funded for five-year trial period with the town assuming half the cost, the college accepting approximately 35 percent and the business community (or some other mechanism) finding a way to fund the other 15 percent. The position is most likely to be subcontracted and might work within the Addison County Economic Development Corporation — a proposal well-received at Tuesday’s meeting.
While a job description has been drafted, just how this position would work with existing entities in the town and county, as well as fleshing out quantifiable metrics on which performance could be assessed, has yet to be defined. In short, more work must be done before the proposal is brought before the voters.
But there is reason to move with all deliberate speed, and particularly for the select board to include the funding in this year’s budget.
Creating jobs is a competitive business. Towns put their best feet forward on a daily basis to attract industries they think would mesh well within their community. It’s a contest of long odds, but of big rewards with each success. At this particular moment in our history, Middlebury holds several aces in its hand: 1) a college administration and board of trustees who understand that if this town is to thrive and offer competitive jobs to its youth and residents, it could benefit from a supportive partner; 2) a vital theater and arts community that is anchored by the superb efforts of the Town Hall Theater and its active board; 3) the achievement of building and self-funding the Cross Street Bridge and the momentum and community spirit that has engendered; 4) a group of citizens, along with a supportive town government, who are highly motivated to quit talking about creating jobs and actually put into place the apparatus to make it happen. Taken together, Middlebury has rarely been more attractive as a place for business or industry to locate and grow. But all things fade or change, and the longer we delay, the more the bloom leaves the rose.
What’s the risk? At worst, we could spend five years, work our tails off, not land a single job and have spent a half-cent or less on the tax rate for five years. What’s the potential reward? To meet expected goals of creating dozens of jobs each year, bringing in one or two new businesses each year from direct contact, grow the grand list (thus reducing taxes), creating high-paying jobs for which our sons and daughters could apply, and creating an even more vibrant community.
There’s also another question to ask: What is the risk of doing nothing? That’s puts the issue in the negative, when we have so many positive things to talk about, but it is also a valid concern. If we put the same amount of effort into job growth that we have in recent times, will we see the same result: a decline in existing jobs?
Uniquely, Middlebury residents stand at a crossroads of good fortune: We have two proposed plans that offer economic growth and a bright future, and like most things of value, it requires a small investment. The job of the selectboard and community leaders involved in these proposals is now to fine-tune the measures so that the community embraces both with cautious enthusiasm by Town Meeting, and, hopefully, with some small appreciation of those who are working hard to make Middlebury’s future better than ever.
Angelo S. Lynn