Middlebury EDI building plan draws scrutiny

MIDDLEBURY — A member of an ad hoc committee charged with reviewing the only development proposal for a town-owned parcel off Bakery Lane urged the selectboard on Tuesday to instead shift its focus to a Mill Street property that he believes would be better suited for a mixed-use project — and potentially a multi-story parking garage.
John Freidin, a member of the town’s Economic Development Initiative (EDI) Request for Proposals Review Committee, also took specific issue with the NexBridge Partners LLC proposal for a multi-story, L-shaped building on the Bakery Lane parcel that would include retail, office and residential uses.
Middlebury selectboard members listened to Freidin’s presentation but reiterated their support for the ongoing vetting of the NexBridge proposal, a process they said could result in changes to the plan to make it more advantageous for the town.
Freidin claimed the NexBridge plan would result in insufficient parking, an inadequate financial return to the town, and would deliver an affordable housing component that would be beyond the financial means of many low-income citizens.
“I’m not really interested in stopping the project; I’m just interested in making sure it’s the best possible project we can do for the town of Middlebury,” Freidin said. “I would encourage the members of the selectboard to read the request for proposals and look at the essential elements … and you will see that the current proposal does not meet the requirements, it does not pay for the land, it does not provide any substantial economic benefits to the town in terms of a lease and it does not in my opinion provide any substantial ongoing benefit, in terms of taxes.”
Freidin, an Ilsley Library trustee and former candidate for the Middlebury selectboard, asked town leaders on Tuesday to “temporarily suspend” its consideration of siting an EDI project on the Bakery Lane property until the repercussions of the planned replacement of Middlebury’s two downtown rail bridges are known, and until the Mill Street parking lot — also owned by the town — is evaluated as an alternative location for the project and associated parking.
NexBridge includes a partnership of five Addison County entrepreneurs. They include Rob Alberts, principal of the EastView at Middlebury retirement community and founder of Middlebury Fitness; Becky Dayton, owner of the Vermont Book Shop; Chris Eaton, long involved in residential real estate development and solar equipment sales; Aaron Harris, principal of Tiger Ventures LLC; and Bryan Phelps, a real estate professional and recent owner of Noonie Deli in Middlebury. NexBridge representatives explained their proposals, and fielded questions on it, at a Sept. 10 meeting. At Tuesday’s selectboard meeting, Phelps said that at the earlier gathering he had provided incorrect information on tax impact of the NexBridge project.
Freidin was present at that Sept. 10 meeting and based some of his project criticism on information provided by NexBridge at that gathering. His criticism included:
•  NexBridge has told the public it can’t absorb the cost of either purchasing the Bakery Lane parcel or leasing it.
“Middlebury taxpayers will have to forego an estimated $1.5 million the land was expected to bring in,” Freidin said.
•  Plans by NexBridge to provide 126 parking spaces for its proposal, which is 91 fewer than the 217 specified in the RFP. He added the 63 current spaces behind the Ilsley Library would be lost for two construction seasons.
“Furthermore, NexBridge has told the public that it plans either to charge for parking in the indoor garage it proposes to build or to request tax abatements from the town to offset the cost of that construction.”
NexBridge Partners LLC was among four Vermont companies that had been invited to respond to Middlebury’s request for proposals to develop the Bakery Lane site. NexBridge was alone in responding to the RFP by the Aug. 3 deadline. The other groups that had been in the mix elected to take a pass, with some citing an inability to devise a project that would meet Middlebury’s RFP requirements while assuring a decent return on investment.
•  A projection that the affordable housing component of the NexBridge plan would not “in any substantial way” benefit the 50 percent of Middlebury families with annual household incomes below $50,000.
Another Freidin criticism may be based on bad information. Freidin asserted that the NexBridge project would only generate $40,000 to $50,000 a year in municipal taxes, a sum that he said would be 25 percent of what had been anticipated.
The Addison Independent reached out to NexBridge representatives on Wednesday morning to get reaction to Freidin’s claims. Bryan Phelps of NexBridge acknowledged “misstating” municipal tax figures at the Sept. 10 meeting — the figures Freidin cited. The development would in fact generate an estimated $300,000 annually in municipal property taxes, and not just $50,000, Phelps said on Wednesday.
Freidin also argued that the Bakery Lane site sits on fill, and would thus require using “expensive (up to $1.5 million) and noisy pile drivers to sink structural supports.”
He added half of the proposed office space within the NexBridge project would be rented to Middlebury College and Porter Hospital for the relocation of some of their respective employees. That would “reduce by half the potential economic inflow of attracting new downtown office workers,” Freidin said.
Phelps issued the following statement on behalf of NexBridge regarding the concerns raised by Freidin:
“I think it is important to note that his comments/concerns should not overshadow what was an overwhelmingly positive and constructive conversation. The discussions regarding the development of the site were insightful and helpful to our team as we continue to examine and refine our conceptual plans for this important downtown parcel. The challenges and opportunities presented by the site were discussed at length and we believe that the review committee, our team, and the community members in attendance were generally aligned in the overall vision and hopes for this project. Without question, there are numerous details that need to be analyzed and negotiated, and the exact figures and counts that Mr. Freidin referenced are far from finalized but are rather very rough estimations based on a wide range of initial assumptions.  Overall, NexBridge Partners is excited and energized by our conversations on Sept. 10th and we look forward to continuing the discussions with the Review Committee and the Middlebury selectboard.”
Freidin drew some heat on Tuesday from some town officials who contended he should have worked to resolve his concerns through the committee process.
“The part that I am disappointed in, John, is that you are part of the committee, and that I would hope before something comes to the board for discussion and decision, the committee would have made some recommendation as a group,” selectboard Chairman Dean George said. “My sense is that some of these issues you have brought up are certainly ones that need to be negotiated with NexBridge before any final decisions are made.”
Jamie Gaucher, director of Middlebury’s Office of Business Development & Innovation, was also present at Tuesday’s meeting and stressed that Freidin was speaking as an individual and not on behalf of the EDI Request for Proposals Review Committee.
“This is the fourth or fifth time he has tried, for varying reasons, to stop progress on this EDI project,” Gaucher said. “From a factual perspective, early on, the committee unanimously agreed that the NexBridge proposal did meet the basic requirements of the RFP.
 “We’re all entitled to our own opinion, but we are not entitled to our own set of facts,” Gaucher added. “The proposal from NexBridge did meet the requirements in the RFP.”
Gaucher said he was grateful that Freidin had developed a list of concerns, but suggested that they be addressed during the committee’s scrutiny of the NexBridge proposal, which he noted will ultimately have to go through state and local permitting reviews if it is endorsed by the selectboard. The committee’s next meeting is slated for Monday, Oct. 5, at 5 p.m. at the Ilsley Library.
“There are a lot of variables and we have not made any decisions, other than to continue the conversation,” Gaucher said of the committee’s work.
Middlebury Selectwoman Donna Donahue is also a member of the EDI Request for Proposals Review Committee.
“We are at a very early stage of discovery on this project,” Donahue said. “If you stop (the project) here, it’s before you’ve even looked at all the possibilities that are there, which seems very counterproductive.”
Further discussion of the NexBridge plan could produce some new angles, Donahue said, including possibly a “public-private partnership, which might change the financial dynamics of the entire project.”
Freidin said he “did not take lightly” his decision to speak out on the project in advance of the EDI committee. He said the panel has no current timetable for issuing a recommendation to the selectboard on the NexBridge plan.
“I think that both you as a board, and particularly the public, are uninformed about a lot of the facts,” Freidin said. “I have no interest in misstating any of the facts. I know that to do so would only weaken my argument.
“There is obviously, as you can sense in this room, a great deal of steam behind getting this project built,” he added. “Who knows what that’s going to do and whether that’s going to allow, in my opinion, adequate consideration of all the issues?”
Selectwoman Susan Shashok indicated some information that Freidin brought forward on Tuesday should be added to the debate surrounding the EDI property. She suggested that if the town is willing to negotiate with NexBridge on such things as the price of the Bakery Lane land, perhaps the three companies that elected to drop out could be revisited for new talks.
Donahue said the town is not allowed to take such an action.
“You have to fully vet the bid you received; you can’t go back and offer three people who failed to bid additional information when they had no interest in discussing the project,” Donahue said. “Legally, we could not go back to those three without rebidding the entire project.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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