Editorial: Why postpone needed work?

In a letter to the editor in today’s issue, Middlebury resident Susan DeWind makes the case that now is not the time to be adding new expenses in the town budget — referring specifically to the proposed economic development fund — when the town is also considering bonding for an expanded fire department. She then throws out a worst-case scenario that might produce a hike of several cents on the tax rate.
We appreciate DeWind’s concerns but, in the interest of accuracy, several of her points need clarification, both minor and significant:
• Of the minor points, the one-cent proposal is to finance an economic development fund, not a single position. The fund will support the hiring of a person, plus all additional costs for that office and position. We encourage readers to consider the op-ed piece on Page 5A by Ken Perine, which reviews what the various agencies working on economic development do and why this new fund is important. Another minor point is that the stated Addison County Development Cabinet is non-existent. DeWind saw the name on the town’s website, but it’s simply an idea that didn’t materialize.
• More significant is DeWind’s charge that the issue hasn’t been fully vetted by the public and that it is the vested interest of only “a small group of business people.”
The history of this initiative is quite different. The idea to take a more pro-active approach to business development was first broached more than five years ago in a retreat held at the college by what was then the Middlebury Business Association. That was followed by two years of discussions, including with the town selectboard and many other businesses in the community. Those discussions culminated in a proposal last year around this time, but an effort to get funding put into the budget was postponed because a few selectboard members believed the idea had not been adequately vetted publicly.
For the past year, the Better Middlebury Partnership and the Middlebury Selectboard have held several public meetings on the topic and made lengthy public presentations — all of which have been extensively covered in this paper and in other mediums.
That discussion — flushing out the rules on governance, specific metrics to gauge success, and specific ideas of how to pursue business leads through Middlebury College’s extensive alumni base — convinced the selectboard of the economic development fund’s merit. The board approved putting the proposal on the ballot by a 6-1 vote several weeks ago. Again, that vote was the focus of a front-page story in this paper, an editorial, and subsequent letters — all furthering the public discussion.
Obviously, the only way to adequately get the public’s opinion outside of those public meetings and through media coverage is to hold a vote — which is set for Town Meeting Day.
In short, this issue has been thoroughly and exhaustively discussed for a solid two years and for several more before that.
• We also disagree that now is not the time to move forward, as DeWind suggests. On the contrary, the quicker Middlebury residents embrace this effort the more effective it will be. In today’s marketplace, being a step or two ahead of the next new venture, or at least up with the job-creation curve, is vital. Waiting for jobs to find Middlebury, in today’s global marketplace, is simply a losing strategy. Furthermore, with the college willing to be an active partner in this effort — sharing access to alumni and encouraging job creation here — is a tremendous advantage that, for our children’s sake, should not be squandered.
• DeWind also misstates that it is not clear who has oversight. The proposal specifically includes creation of a five-member board that will have direct responsibility over the fund and its director, as well as specific metrics to measure success or failure. It will be a public-private partnership that takes the best traits of capitalism mixed with the town’s common cause to grow good-paying jobs in this area. It is a plan that has been thoroughly considered for the past two years.
Finally, the hoped-for outcome is to grow the grand list, thus reducing the future tax burden. If we do nothing, as DeWind suggests, why should we expect anything different than what we’ve seen in the past two decades, which has been the loss of more than 500 good-paying, manufacturing jobs, stagnant growth and consequent shrinkage in the grand list? Is that the town’s future, or should we take the bull by the horns and get to work?
Angelo S. Lynn

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