News that Vermont Gas Systems received permission from the Vermont Public Service Board to use ratepayer revenue to finance a proposed pipeline into Addison County boosts local efforts to attract economic growth and to retain existing industries in Vergennes and Middlebury.
The company is considering extending its current pipeline from Burlington to Vergennes and into Middlebury by 2015 at an estimated cost of $60 million to $70 million. The PSB’s decision on Sept. 28 allows the company to help finance that significant project by stockpiling revenues from its existing customer base in Franklin and Chittenden counties, rather than through traditional financing.
The benefit is significant to area businesses and residents. Natural gas not only burns cleaner than oil or propane, but it is less expensive per BTU output. According to current prices, natural gas is currently 35 percent more cost-efficient than oil, and even more efficient compared to electricity or propane. It is little wonder, then, that in an initial survey VGS identified more than 3,000 potential customers (including many residents) who would be eager to tap into the savings. VGS estimated that those 3,000 potential customers could save $44 million in fuel costs over two decades by converting to natural gas.
That works to the county’s advantage in several ways: First, we’d see some construction-related money to put in pipeline; second, existing businesses and nearby residents would have an option for less expensive fuel — putting more money in their pockets, which usually leads to increased spending on other items; third, having a less expensive source of energy — as well as the diversity of options — is a crucial factor in being able to attract new business (especially larger businesses or industries) into the county.
This latter point is yet another reason why it makes particularly good sense right now for the town of Middlebury to follow through on a two-year-long discussion to hire an economic development director to recruit businesses and industries.
The proposed pipeline, by the way, would not only be a boon to existing industries in Middlebury’s industrial park on Exchange Street (Agri-Mark/Cabot and Vermont Hard Cider Company are thrilled), but will help fulfill the latent potential of that land. When first proposed and developed in the late 1970s and early ’80s, town fathers envisioned a thriving industrial center that had adequate water and sewer facilities, a pre-approved industrial zone (to avoid many of the zoning conflicts and Act 250 appeals that can arise with such projects), a close proximity to railroad tracks, and close proximity to town. The site is, in fact, well suited to many commercial uses and is beautifully situated, but it has remained under-developed for the past two decades.
Part of the reason is because other sites in Chittenden and Franklin counties, and elsewhere, have access to less expensive fuels and greater variety — a significant consideration for any business that requires a large footprint, let alone a fuel-intensive operation. That Middlebury could soon have a lower-cost fuel option — and that the fuel comes from a stable and friendly North American neighbor — is no small factor.
But businesses and industries aren’t likely to come on their own.
Even if VGS builds a pipeline to Vergennes and Middlebury that lowers the price of fuel, we’ll be missing the opportunity for future growth — and that means filling our partially empty schools, providing a healthy market for existing retail businesses, and providing good-paying jobs at home for our sons and daughters — if we don’t market ourselves as an increasingly wonderful, and cost-effective, town in which to live, do business, and prosper. Middlebury’s town leaders of an early age had great vision and got the ball rolling, but the town has not been an aggressive proponent of job growth compared to other towns our size for the past couple of decades, and we’ve seen the consequences.
It’s clear we need to change that dynamic, and the likelihood that VGS will extend its pipeline to the Middlebury area adds another reason to do it now.