BMP leader urges action on report

MIDDLEBURY — Better Middlebury Partnership President Ben Wilson recently gave the Middlebury selectboard an overview of the results of a Future of Retail Study that a consultant performed for the town earlier this year.
At the Oct. 28 selectboard meeting, Wilson urged  town officials and the business community to seize on the report’s results — which showed some gaps in the local retail market — and take steps to make the Middlebury more of a magnet for local shoppers and tourists.
As reported last June in the Independent, the Future of Retail Study drew an impressive 1,065 survey responses from folks who live and shop in the Middlebury area. Around 76 percent of those who answered the survey reported living in the 05753 zip code — which includes Middlebury, Cornwall and Weybridge — or in  East Middlebury and Ripton.
In addition, around 15 Middlebury merchants recorded the zip codes of more than 2,500 shoppers who did business within their stores within a set period last spring, information that consultants of the consulting firm of Arnett & Muldrow tracked to provide some key demographic information.
In a nutshell, the results showed Middlebury has a fairly strong and diverse retail market that could be improved by a general merchandise store, more restaurants, and more clothing and electronics options. It also noted, according to Wilson, that the community should not fret about a “big box” entity seeking to build a megastore in town, because the amount of shopping dollars leaking from the community to other retail hubs is not enough to induce a developer to build such a store in Addison County’s shire town.
“It gives us an incredible data set,” Wilson said of the study results, which he said confirmed that Middlebury College students shop extensively at local stores.
But the study also revealed that the Middlebury market is losing out on an estimated $34 million in general merchandise sales — including toys, hobbies, books and music — and $6 million in annual clothing sales as a result of prospective shoppers heading to the Burlington and/or Rutland markets. Consultants said that while Middlebury isn’t in Wal-Mart’s crosshairs, the town is likely to be approached by a mid-sized store like Dollar General, which bills itself as a small-box discount retailer. Wilson suggested the town focus on ways to ensure that any possible, future Dollar General application calls for a store aesthetic that would fit into the character of Middlebury.
“We need to be proactive,” Wilson said.
In other BMP matters, Wilson suggested business leaders in the Exchange Street area discuss forming their own Downtown Improvement District, such as was created in downtown Middlebury in 1996 and last renewed in 2009. A Downtown Improvement District is created when non-residential property owners within a defined area agree to a special tax assessment to raise money for public property improvements within the district.
The current DID, which roughly encompasses Middlebury village, has a special tax assessment of up to $100 per $100,000 in property value. That tax has yielded more than $30,000 annually, a sum that has leveraged much more in grant money that has paid for such amenities as historic street lights, better curbing, sidewalks, signs and park infrastructure.
 Wilson noted that Exchange Street has evolved into much more than a hub for industries. It now features physical fitness, office and even recreation businesses. Exchange Street growth has prompted property owners and town officials to advocate for upgrades like sidewalks to make the neighborhood more pedestrian friendly.

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