Editorial: The real gamble for Middlebury is not to try a business development director

At Middlebury’s Town Meeting, the one surprise came in the spur-of-the-moment discussion over the economic viability of the town’s newly hired business development director. In what started out as an introduction of the new director, Jamie Goucher, the conversation quickly turned to how the director’s performance would be measured and how committed the stakeholders were to funding the position over the first five years and thereafter. The concern was that taxpayers would be funding the position after the year 2017.
Such tough questions are what make Vermont’s Town Meeting system of government so engaging, and certainly these were fair questions to ask and have answered.
The correct answer is that with the expected success of bringing new businesses to town, and helping other businesses grow locally, the grand list will grow enough to support the added cost. Middlebury resident John Freidin questioned that the position could ever pay for itself, suggesting the town’s grand list would have to grow by $7.2 million annually to pay for the projected salary and office expenses. Actually, once the grand list grows by $7.2 million, that remains on the tax roles year after year — effectively covering the cost on an annual basis; it does not have to grow by an additional $7.2 million each year. And, quite frankly, the town does expect that much growth over the first five years. Hopefully more.
What exactly does that mean? If Woodchuck Cidery, for example, expands its facilities as projected (by more than $24 million), that more than covers the expected growth in the grand list. But that’s already in the pipeline, so while it serves as an example, it doesn’t count. What promoters of the position expect is that other businesses will get a start here, grow and expand little by little and, if successful, will one day expand into new buildings, or better utiltize existing ones. One moderate-size building will reach $2-3 million with a bat of an eye. It would not be unreasonable to expect two or three projects to reach that $7.2 million goal within the next five years — thereby more than covering the cost of the position.
Rep. Paul Ralston and resident Ed Barna rebutted Freidin’s comments in an even more articulate way by noting that looking at the value of the position in terms that are wholly fiscal misses the bigger point.
“I would say it is extremely shortsighted to think of the development director position simply in terms of getting back more taxes on the grand list,” Barna said. “It is very hard to assign a value for providing jobs which bring children back to the community. It is impossible to estimate the value to the community of the volunteerism that people will bring to Middlebury as a result of having new enterprises.”
Ralston added that the reason he supported the position was “because I personally have seen some of my friends and neighbors feel the result of this ‘great recession’ we have been in. It’s not enough just to hope it gets better. We need to do things to try to make it better.”
The gamble Middlebury takes by establishing a business development director is based on the premise that action is better than non-action; that if you want to grow your town economy, you have to work at it. That’s really not much of a gamble. To not try is the sure way to lose.
Moreover, Middlebury is a town that could potentially benefit significantly by being pro-active because of its inherent attributes: a strong college and college-based economy; the center of a strong agriculture community; numerous area recreation resources; a strong community water and waste water system with ample capacity for growth as well as a spacious industrial park ideally situated next to rail; good schools with ample capacity and the nucleus of a strong business community with room for growth. With hard work and steady effort there is reason for optimism and good jobs in the future.
–Angelo S. Lynn

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