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Middlebury mulls economic developer

MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury business leaders, town officials and Middlebury College have joined forces in a concentrated effort to help stimulate more business growth in town through an array of options — including a new position of “economic development director.”
Representatives of the Better Middlebury Partnership (BMP) and three town selectmen met earlier this month to begin a dialogue on how to invigorate downtown economic activity, a particularly timely topic given the imminent completion of the Cross Street Bridge project that will create new traffic patterns and therefore some new retail/commercial opportunities.
At the same time, the BMP is a relatively small organization that has not had the resources to aggressively market the town to prospective businesses and consumers. The BMP has been operating with one part-time coordinator who also has had to spend ample time applying for town-wide grants. Partnership officials are hoping to spend more time on downtown promotions and events, while having another entity take on economic development and marketing chores.
“Part of this is to look at the marketing issue for the greater downtown area and look at ongoing support for mercantile efforts, and the other (part) is economic development that might be looked upon to create jobs, add to the grand list and so forth,” said selectboard Chairman John Tenny.
“I think we all recognize there are needs here to be met, and if the downtown is to flourish, more has to be done than is being done today. How to … apply the limited funds and resources we have is the real question.”
In the short-term, the town has agreed to pitch in with grant writing assistance. The BMP, through former coordinator Gail Freidin, has been very successful in applying for grants to make capital improvements to the downtown. That grant money has been added to revenues from a special tax on non-residential property in the core village area to make such purchases as historic streets lights in the downtown. More than $1.25 million in improvements have been made in recent years.
In the long term, town officials and business leaders will look at the prospect of increased marketing and perhaps hiring an economic development official. Those scenarios will, of course, require funds, which are in short supply right now.
Middlebury College is also taking a keen interest in the economic development discussion.
“This is an issue that affects all of us,” said David Donahue, special assistant to Middlebury College President Ronald D. Liebowitz. “We are enthusiastic participants in the discussion.”
Plans call for town officials and BMP representatives to gather again on Monday, Sept. 27, at 5:30 p.m. in the municipal building to further discuss joint economic development plans.
“I do think everyone has finally internalized the notion that Middlebury has to take the initiative of recruiting new employers, retaining and supporting the ones we have and finding innovative ways to foster appropriate economic development that will build our grand list,” said BMP board member Bruce Hiland.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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