Editorial: Which is the greater gamble?

If I had been writing the story covering Middlebury’s selectboard meeting on Tuesday night, I would have written a different beginning than the one we used on today’s front page.
It would have read like this:
“Creating ‘good jobs close to home,’ was the message a group of 25 area community leaders took to the Middlelbury selectboard in an hour-long presentation Tuesday evening, along with their unanimous endorsement to hire an economic development director to create jobs in Middlebury.
“That effort culminated in a 6-1 vote by the selectboard to warn an amendment for Town Meeting devoting a penny on the tax rate, about $72,000 annually, for the next five years to support the position and associated expenses. The town’s contribution would be matched by a like amount from Middlebury College and the Middlebury business community to fund an estimated $150,000 to $200,000 annual budget.
“We can sit back and let things come to us, but nothing is going to come that way,” said Ken Perine, president of the National Bank of Middlebury and a supporter of the initiative. “If we believe we want to grow our economy and maintain its vitality, we need to go out and be proactive.”
Readers will note that the story was covered and written by reporter John Flowers, who has covered Middlebury events and meetings to high praise for much of his 20-plus years at the Addison Independent. His lead focuses on the fact that town voters will have to consider whether to “tax themselves” to pay for the position at the upcoming Town Meeting.
It’s worth a moment to substitute these different introductions to the story on Page 1A, headlined “Middlebury to vote on economic post,” and see how it creates a different slant — albeit both are accurate and fair.
It is the norm for reporters and editors to collaborate on stories in a back-and-forth discussion about the proper emphasis to avoid our own biases and portray the story in the most accurate context. It’s never a perfect process, but in this case we left the lead-in to the story as John wrote it for two reasons: First, I spoke at the meeting in favor of the initiative, have been involved for several years in that effort and, therefore, have a pronounced bias on the issue; secondly, John’s focus inadvertently puts the weight of this decision where it should be: of the people, by the people and for the people.
We embrace that concept wholeheartedly and encourage the community to weigh in with concerns, suggestions and personal involvement — as well as a commitment to become educated about the issue.
The knee-jerk reaction to John’s first paragraph is to rant something like, “there they go, again, spending money that’s not theirs,” and then mutter a few things about why other existing agencies can’t do the job well enough and save taxpayers a bunch of money.
Believe me, it’s an argument we hashed over for the past year, and one that only recently was resolved: the consensus is that existing development officials can not adequately pursue county economic development burdens andfocus on the many opportunities that specifically apply to Middlebury.
Residents might also note that during the past decade, mainly because of the consequences of globalization and a changing business climate, the greater Middlebury area lost about 1,000 manufacturing jobs. That’s not a criticism, but rather a reflection of the magnitude of the task. Furthermore, their primary objective is to help maintain and grow existing businesses, not to recruit new ones. That is job enough on the small stipend afforded economic development efforts by the state. There is no time left to actively recruit and attract new industry — nor is there a budget to do so.
Suffice it to say that at Tuesday’s meeting, the county’s economic development personnel were front and center, and arm-in-arm, in the appeal for a specific position that could tap into Middlebury’s unique opportunities.
Residents might also suspect that the money could be spent more wisely by some different approach.
We’re all ears and welcome all ideas.
But again, we’ve considered it carefully. An ad hoc committee of five business and professional people was formed several months ago at the selectboard’s request to fine-tune the job description, duties and financial structure of this position and to research other avenues that could be more successful. What was discovered is that most of the state’s designated downtowns received direct funding from town government to help finance economic development and have done so for years. Middlebury is one of the larger towns in the state not to have such a position already financed, while many smaller towns have been taxing themselves for years to help their communities remain prosperous and vital.
We’re not saying there is no better way, but we have considered many alternatives and have proposed what six out of seven members of the selectboard think is a well-considered plan that has great potential.
Still, other arguments could be made — or naysayers could just be negative — to oppose the initiative and save the tax dollars. But consider this:
• In the 1980s, Middlebury’s job base was 18 percent manufacturing jobs, compared to 11 percent in 2000 and even less today. Of the top employers in Middlebury in the 1980s and 1990s only three entities remain standing (Middlebury College, Porter Medical Center and Agri-Mark/Cabot, which bought the Kraft plant), while all the other leading manufacturers folded. Think of that. In the 1980s and ’90s, when my three daughters were growing from infants to toddlers to teenagers, few in town would have thought the 200-plus jobs at Standard Register were in jeopardy; or that the 80 jobs at CPC or another 100 at Geiger’s plant, would be gone in a few years. Maybe some could foresee that the 120-plus jobs at Polymers, which later was bought by Specialty Filaments, were in trouble, but watching jobs at Simmonds Precision decline countywide high of 2,200 jobs to less than 800 over a few years was certainly unexpected, as was the loss of jobs at technology start-ups like Questech and Vemas, firms we once considered as future hubs of growth.
The lesson is simple: the job market is fluid. It changes constantly, always evolving. The new replaces the old, just as the horse and buggy gave way to Henry Ford’s contraption. And in today’s global economy, the pace of change is more rapid than ever.
An important question for every working Middlebury resident to ask is whether their job will be around a decade hence? And, if not, are there new ones in the area being created that might satisfy their interests and meet their financial needs?
An economic development director is a vital link to help the town and Middlebury businesses take advantage of that constantly changing world and attract the new jobs that are vital to every healthy community, as others fall to the test of time. We applaud the selectboard’s decision to put the question in front of the voters and to lend their recommendation of support.
The real gamble for the town, and town residents, is not to act.
Angelo S. Lynn

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