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Middlebury eyes ways to boost economy

MIDDLEBURY — The Middlebury selectboard will create an ad hoc committee to hash out potential new economic development strategies for the town as well as new ways to support existing activities that are currently being met by financially strapped volunteer associations.
The board made the decision on Tuesday after fielding a request for help from the Better Middlebury Partnership (BMP), an organization that promotes local business interests and the economic vitality of the town. The BMP has one part-time staffer, but has taken on an increasing number of special events and grant-writing assignments, to the point where it is seeking some help from the town to keep up the momentum and expectations among town residents.
“As a member-based organization, the BMP has struggled to collect the necessary revenues to fund its paid staff and support the services it provides the community,” said National Bank of Middlebury President and BMP board member G. Kenneth Perine.
“We clearly feel the downtown businesses can’t support this on their own (through dues) and need the support of the broader community,” he said.
Gail Freidin has been BMP executive director for the past 15 years. During that time, annual BMP budgets have gone from around $45,000 to current revenues of about $30,000, even while taking on an ambitious agenda, thanks in large part to the volunteerism of individual members, according to Freidin.
“During the past couple of years, we have had an active group of board members who have created new events and worked diligently on economic development issues,” Freidin noted, but added that individuals couldn’t be expected to volunteer as many hours for several years in a row without burnout and the need for staff help.
Those newer, very successful events have included a chili competition and winter carnival in February and the Middlebury Spooktacular at Halloween, as well as the establishment of a new website, monitoring traffic and construction issues, plus policing and parking issues.
“These events require a lot of volunteer time or concentrated staff time, which is one have not done a lot of these kinds of events in the past,” said Freidin, who is compensated for 12-15 hours of work per week, which, she added, barely puts a dent in the hours required to pull off a well-run town event.
Throughout the years, Freidin said she has focused primarily on applying for grants that help make improvements to the downtown. One such grant led to the development of the Middlebury Downtown Improvement District, which features an extra tax on non-residential property in the core village area. Those tax revenues are then used to leverage additional grant money — more than $1.5 million during the past 13 years — to make physical improvements to public property in the downtown area. A prime example of those upgrades is the burying of power lines along Main Street and adding historic light fixtures in the downtown, as well as complete renovations to the Triangle Park (on the green with the fountain across from the National Bank of Middlebury) and Cannon Park and improvements to the Mill Street area.
Angelo Lynn, editor and publisher of the Addison County Independent, also spoke on behalf of the BMP, reviewing the organization’s history and comparing the budget amounts other towns spend on economic development, promotion and events compared to Middlebury.
Lynn noted that the Better Middlebury Partnership had, over the years, taken on the role of promoting economic development and hosting events largely to fill a void left by the town. Twenty or more years ago, he recalled, the town’s recreation department used to fund and provide the manpower for events like the Halloween Parade, putting up Christmas decorations downtown and other events, but over time cut those expenses out of the town budget. The group took on those tasks to fill that void, with most residents probably still assuming that the events were funded by the town (as many towns do) rather than by the business association.
With more events and more time spent writing grants for the Downtown Improvement District, the association’s expenses outgrew its members’ ability to raise enough dues revenue to cover all the costs — particularly in the past couple of years during the recession.
The BMP receives most of its revenues from dues-paying businesses,  which now pay $180 annually, while households pay $30 and individuals can join for as little as $5 a year to $100 or more for supporting donors. The BMP also receives nominal compensation for administering the grants it wins, and has received some town money to help in grant writing throughout the years.
Lynn noted that he made calls around the state and to Paul Costello at the Vermont Council of Rural Development researching how other towns were addressing economic development and promoting town-wide events and cited several examples:
• In Brandon, residents this spring approved $48,000 in economic development expenses for the year to hire a 20-hour-per-week director, plus operating expenses;
• In Woodstock, the town has hired a half-time economic development director and is pressing forward on attracting new growth for the town via the Woodstock Sustainability Initiative, according to Costello;
• In Killington, a 1 percent rooms and meals tax provides a huge budget, with which they have hired a full-time economic development director and a full-time events director;
• In tiny Johnson, they’ve hired a half-time economic director at $20,000, who also doubles as the town’s grant writer and coordinator for an $8 million renovation project in the downtown district;
• And in Montpelier, population about 8,000, same as Middlebury, they have a full-time director of their downtown business organization, and five town employees in the planning and economic development office.
Lynn noted that Costello said the more progressive towns throughout the state were moving forward with economic development initiatives — from promoting events to attracting jobs — saying that “some towns in Vermont will thrive over the next decade or so, while others will wither.”
Middlebury has no economic development office and spends a small amount to help specifically with special events, though gives freely of police work and other staff time when needed.
Perine believes it is not unreasonable for the Better Middlebury Partnership to expect some help.
“From my perspective, I do think the town, as an entity, needs to take responsibility for the vitality of the town as a whole, and the downtown plays a big role in that,” Perine said. “I think it will be vital for the town to step up.”
Selectmen on Tuesday agreed to begin that process by establishing a committee to discuss “a more structured, effective economic development approach” for the town.
“We need to do a better job,” said selectboard chairman John Tenny.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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