Editorial: Middlebury’s economic future: Keep status quo or be proactive

Middlebury residents have received a real bargain from town taxes during the past two years as taxpayers have benefited from the same level of services with no additional tax increases. Think of that. While food prices have gone up, health care has skyrocketed 20 to 30 percent, and most other expenses have seen inflationary hikes of 4 percent or more, town taxes held steady.
It is not surprising, then, to see a projected increase of 2.13 cents on the municipal tax rate in the draft budget, and possibly more if the select board or townspeople think additional town spending is beneficial.
While frugality is important, one area in which the town has fallen behind is economic development. Middlebury has suffered the closing of several manufacturers over the past decade and has been slow to fill several prominent manufacturing sites. A roll call of industries that have closed or moved elsewhere recalls what amounts to about 1,000 lost manufacturing jobs: Polymers, Standard Register, Geiger of Austria (a retail store remains active), CPC, Simmonds Precision, Highland Press, Vemas, Questech (all in Middlebury), plus Autumn Harp in Bristol and Nexus Nano Electronics and Vermont Tubbs in Brandon.
During that time, Middlebury has recouped a few of those lost jobs (Green Mountain Beverage being a recent success story with 70 employees, Conner Building had been thriving until the recent recession, and Vermont Coffee Company is enjoying a recent boom), but for the most part, the town has not replaced the jobs lost since the mid-1990s.
It is important to ask why. Is the greater Middlebury are not a desirable place to locate a business? Is economic development non-existent and is Middlebury no worse off than other communities who have seen comparable jobs losses with too few new prospects?
Certainly, Middlebury is a desirable town to call home. But, like Middlebury, a few other towns have been hit hard and have not recovered the bulk of recent job losses. Yet other towns — St. Albans, much of Chittenden County and the Waterbury-Montpelier area, to name three — have seen job growth and the attraction of new industrial sectors.
What Middlebury is missing is a pro-active approach to recruitment. For the past few decades we have left our good fortune to chance. And, until the 1990s, that was sufficient. But when the global economy started putting pressure on manufacturers, Middlebury did not have the team in place to recruit the new jobs of the future. The town left any such initiatives to the county economic team and to luck.
The roster of shuttered industries, as noted above, is the result of that strategy Å along with the fundamental shift in the global economy.
But that shift is key to understanding what the future holds for Middlebury and Vermont. We no longer live in a world in which the job you start with is likely to be the one you have for a lifetime. The employment picture changes in a nanosecond compared to generations past.
Businesses and industries have to be nimble, constantly adapting to the changing times.
Towns must be equally adaptable and have the people and processes in place to help existing companies weather changes successfully, as well as entice new employers into the area as others wane. That’s just life in today’s world, and we either must embrace that new world and compete, or watch as existing industries and businesses bite the dust — just as many have over the past 10-15 years.
The lesson to have learned is that if we continue to be passive, we will watch our job base deteriorate.
Middlebury’s town selectboard faces this very dilemma as they consider the upcoming budget. In the draft budget, a modest increase of 2.13 cents on the tax rate equates to about $22 a year on a property valued at $100,000. But the draft budget does not include a proposal put forth by members of the business community to spend $75,000 to hire a full-time economic development director, whose focus would be to attract new businesses and industries to locate here, and to fund a part-time marketing professional to stimulate MiddleburyÅfs retail, lodging, dining and general services economy. That extra $75,000 represents about a penny on the tax rate, or about $14 dollars on a $100,000 property.
What would town residents get for that minor investment?
Optimistically, the town could see a couple new small businesses locate here each year. If successful, they would build a facility, which would add to the town’s grand list — thus lowering the tax burden on all residents. Those new businesses also bring employees, who build homes, buy goods and services and create the economic multiplier effect that is so vital to any sustainable economy. Those new families also drive the need for new retail businesses, which in turn meet the retail needs of the area Å allowing residents to do their shopping locally without having to drive elsewhere. In short, the town would help create an upward spiral of economic activity — reducing taxes along the way. Similarly, if we marketed town events better, we could grow the tax revenues from the local options tax (based on rooms and meals receipts) and likely more than pay for the modest ($25,000) expense.
The proposal, in fact, is prefaced with measurable benchmarks to demonstrate economic value. The goal is to generate more in tax revenues, than taxes paid out by the end of a five-year town commitment. If the initiative is successful, every town resident benefits.
But if the town doesn’t even try, if we leave our economic fate to chance, history is likely to repeat itself and the downward spiral will continue. To avoid that fate, we encourage public support to have the selectboard incorporate the $75,000 for economic development into the general fund budget at next Tuesday’s budget hearing. Come and voice your opinion.
Angelo S. Lynn

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