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Middlebury launches retail study

MIDDLEBURY — The Better Middlebury Partnership (BMP) has launched a yearlong study of retail options in the community. It will allow residents to again weigh in on the controversial topic of big-box stores, while at the same time help local officials identify the town’s current shopping voids and how they could be filled in a way that would not compromise the community’s rural character.
Dubbed Middlebury’s “Future of Retail Study,” the project is an outgrowth of the considerable debate surrounding the municipal town plan update finished earlier this year. It was retail, and specifically the issue of whether the town plan should reflect an existing zoning ordinance that limits future retail proposals to 50,000-square-feet, that generated the most controversy and feedback during the town plan review.
The updated town plan OK’d by the selectboard does not include a 50,000-square-foot limit on future retail projects, but it does call for reflecting “in the zoning ordinance, a means to identify the appropriate locations for industrial, commercial office, or commercial retail development and specify characteristics consistent with all themes and objectives in the town plan.”
BMP officials hope their work will further that town plan objective. A “Future of Retail Study” narrative recently released by the BMP states, “This project will reframe the conversation from the singular focus on ‘big box or no big box’ to one that determines how we can achieve greater retail diversity while protecting what people love about Middlebury.”
To that end, the BMP has formed a special committee to pursue the study.
“Everyone is committed to working to foster a community dialogue,” BMP Director Ben Wilson told the selectboard at a recent meeting on the subject.
Ariana McBride is among those who will be working on the Future of Retail Study. She is a senior associate with the Middlebury-based Orton Family Foundation, which among other things works with communities dealing with growth issues.
It’s a study that she said will seek to answer three primary questions:
•  What kind of retail do Middlebury residents want?
•  What can’t they buy locally now?
•  How can those gaps be filled while protecting the town’s unique character?
Organizers have already raised $7,500 to help fund the study, and like their prospects for securing another $7,500. Committee members will review any past studies that Middlebury has commissioned on the topic (including one undertaken in 2003).
“We don’t want to repeat any work the town has done; we want to build off those efforts,” McBride said.
The committee will tackle the study in four phases.
The first, to conclude late this year, will involve spreading news of the effort to townspeople and getting them energized to participate.
The second phase, slated for January to March of next year, calls for a community survey, a business survey and an analysis of retail potential in Middlebury.
Phase three, to be done between April and May of 2014, calls for another community workshop and a retail options study.
This will all culminate in June 2014 with phase four, an “action workshop,” final report and retail recommendations to the selectboard and the local business community.
BMP officials look to hire a consultant and invite Middlebury College students to help with the information gathering.
“We’ve been forming a strong project team,” McBride said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected]

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