Three pitches; three home runs

Middlebury received a bushel basket full of good economic news this week in three announcements: Vermont Hard Cider, LLC was bought by a global Irish company that will strengthen the company in its effort to stay atop the national hard cider market and expand its operations and job growth here in Middlebury; the Vermont Transportation Department announced it will finance the Western Corridor rail project without waiting for federal assistance and have it completed by 2017; and the town of Middlebury was given control of managing the railroad tunnel project that will rebuild the overpasses on Main Street and Merchant Row, including a capped tunnel in the green that would recapture more green space between the fountain in Triangle Park and St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church.
Each is a ringing endorsement of the Middlebury area and should help strengthen economic growth in the area, but each for different reasons.
The news that any locally owned business was is being sold to a larger firm based in another country is always disconcerting. The fear of the unknown is palatable. But President and CEO Bret Williams minimized the anxiety of workers, family and friends by being certain that this unsolicited offer was not only in the best interests of the company, but also of area workers. The contract, he said, ensures the plant operations will remain in town and that the planned growth will go ahead as scheduled — meaning that the company will have two buildings, one of 64,000-square-feet on Pond Lane in the industrial park, and another new 100,000-square-foot manufacturing, office and showcase space less than a mile up on the road on Exchange Street. That’s setting down roots for the long haul and, barring the unforeseen, is a good indicator of a long-term industrial patron.
Moreover, the Irish firm, C&C Group, has kept Williams as President and CEO, as well as the other top three managing officials at Woodchuck Hard Cider to remain at their posts, and have established the business as a stand-alone enterprise. In essence, the crew at Woodchuck Hard Cider will get to have their autonomy and some deep pockets, too. That important because some of the nation’s largest brewers just starting to get into the hard cider business, and some extra marketing muscle and the ability to expand into new markets faster, may be necessary in order for Woodchuck to keep its predominant hold on this sector.
Equally as exciting, is that they are already talking about building an even bigger space than the proposed 100,000-square-foot building, which would mean increasing capacity even further and, most likely, growing the job force that much more. Plus, in the Irish tradition, the C&C Group could bring interesting practices they employ with farmers, including long-term contracts with area families and operations to provide apples on a consistent basis. That could provide a steady and stable income stream in the agriculture sector as well.
That’s good news all the way around, but it didn’t come without some effort.
In its search for a new location in which to expand, Williams and company spent the better part of three years contemplating their best move. Vermont was always their only choice as a state, but Middlebury had to compete with other attractive sites as well. The town didn’t sit idly by, and wooed the company with the resources necessary to help a good company grow in town for years to come. Having good schools, a vibrant downtown, an active arts community, good hospital and all the resources of Middlebury College played a role as well — as did the quality of its workforce and their desire to work close to where they live — but those efforts by the town helped make the decision to stay here easier.
What the company will give back to the town for the next couple of decades — in terms of good jobs, full schools and economic vitality throughout the business community — will the effort well worthwhile.
With the announcement Tuesday night that the Vermont Department of Transportation will move aggressively ahead with the Western Corridor rail project, businesses along the western half of the state can depend on rail as a reliable and lower cost way to move their goods — and potential train passengers can anticipate another mode of transportation other than navigating Route 7 in their vehicles.
The decision will not only pour $45 million or so into improving the rail lines between Burlington and Rutland between now and the anticipated date of opening in 2017 (which has the immediate effect of stimulating growth during the construction), but will trigger economic development at key spots along the corridor as cheaper rail transportation offers businesses another avenue to become more competitive. It’s a long overdue development (and in the works for the past couple of decades), but credit Gov. Peter Shumlin’s administration for making it a priority and devoting the necessary financial resources out of the $550 million annual transportation fund to make it possible.
In a tip of the hat to Middlebury’s ability to manage the Cross Street Bridge construction, the state has also given town management control of the rail improvements through the critical section that includes the Main Street and Merchant Row rail underpasses. It also appears that everyone is on board the plan to build a capped tunnel over the section spanning the two streets that would allow removal of the barrier fences currently there and effectively expands the usable space on the town green. That’s huge not only in terms of beautifying the town green, but also of managing the construction at the most advantageous times (seasonal and during each business day) for local merchants.
It is also a confirmation of the town’s management prowess. It’s refreshing, too, to think that this administration is willing to admit that local governments might be better able to manage such projects more cost effectively, and with more deference to local concerns, that a state department. That Middlebury has already proven itself in this regard says volumes about how well this aspect of town is managed.
In light of what’s going on the national and international stage, this is welcome news.
Angelo S. Lynn

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