Downtown Middlebury land draws interest

MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury has received unsolicited inquiries from a handful of entrepreneurs interested in developing the so-called “economic development initiative (EDI)” parcel off Bakery Lane in the downtown. Town officials are now drafting a formal request for proposals intended to yield one or more applications to transform the 1.7-acre property into a commercial-retail-office hub.
The land in question roughly extends from behind the Ilsley Library to the Otter Creek waterfront. A fraction of that property has been owned by the town, with the majority (78 percent) owned by Middlebury College. For years now, college and town leaders have discussed the possibility of jointly marketing the land to a developer to build a project that might include a parking garage along with perhaps stores, offices and maybe even a residential component.
This past March, the college gave its share of the EDI land to the town as a gift, thereby allowing the community to market the entire parcel as it sees fit.
Middlebury Assessor Bill Benton estimated the value of the entire EDI parcel at $1.6 million in 2011.
Jamie Gaucher, director of Middlebury’s Office of Business Development & Innovation, is excited to get the ball rolling in development of the parcel.
“It will change the landscape of downtown Middlebury for probably the next 100 years,” Gaucher said.
Gaucher and Middlebury Town Planner Eric Blair are drafting an RFP that will be vetted by a local ad hoc committee and then posted for applicants  — probably by early next year, according to Gaucher.
In the meantime, some prospective developers have already inquired about the property, including a local group, Gaucher noted. He said that he is not at liberty to divulge the names of the interested parties. He did say some of the inquiries have come from people with experience building hotels, office, retail and parking garages.
“They really are multi-dimensional ideas, at this point,” Gaucher said.
The RFP will lay out some of the community’s expectations and preferences on how it would like to see the high-profile parcel developed. Gaucher said the RFP will be shaped by public feedback. Along with getting the best value for Middlebury, he said the RFP will likely touch on such project priorities as sustainability, accessibility, aesthetics and embracing “green” construction. Gaucher said that any venture(s) proposed for the EDI spot should complement, and not compete with, existing downtown stores.
“There will be a publicly available system to judge and grade responses to these individual proposals,” Gaucher said.
Helping to vet the RFP and process going forward will be a committee that includes Blair, Gaucher, Town Manager Kathleen Ramsay and Selectmen Dean George and Nick Artim. The committee has met once thus far and will, in the coming months, decide such issues as whether the EDI land will be leased or sold to the eventual developer, and whether one or multiple proposals for the site will find their way to the Middlebury Development Review Board. Any proposals will have to successfully go through DRB review, as well as pass any necessary state permitting hurdles.
Marketing of the EDI land figures to generate a lot of interest from local residents and merchants, who during the next two years will see many changes to the downtown. The biggest changes will include demolition of the Lazarus building next to Printer’s Alley; replacement of the railroad overpasses on Merchants Row and Main Street with a tunnel; and the construction of a new town office building at 77 Main St. that will supplant the current municipal building/gym at 94 Main St. (which will be turned into a public park).
For now, area merchants seem upbeat about the notion that an EDI enterprise could draw more shoppers into the downtown, according to Ben Wilson, president of the Better Middlebury Partnership. He believes a project would also inject some new life into what he now believes is an under-used, prime location adjacent to the visually alluring Otter Creek.
“It will require input and planning, and it will need to be done thoughtfully,” Wilson said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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