Exchange Street looked at as tax assessment district

MIDDLEBURY — Some Middlebury business owners are floating the idea of creating a new tax assessment district that could generate more revenue for public infrastructure improvements — including perhaps water main upgrades — along Exchange Street and within the community’s industrial park.
Such a tax assessment district would become Middlebury’s second.
It was 20 years ago that property owners in Middlebury’s core village area successfully petitioned to create what is known as the Downtown Improvement District, or DID. The DID features a special tax on non-residential properties amounting to $100 per $100,000 of assessed value. That annual yield of around $35,000 has, during the past two decades, leveraged more than $1.5 million for such downtown upgrades as landscaping, historic streetlights and signs. A small portion of the revenue also helps fund Better Middlebury Partnership operations.
A DID commission, appointed by the Middlebury selectboard, helps prioritize projects within the district.
“It is a great selling point with the grant funding agencies,” Middlebury Town Manager Kathleen Ramsay said of the special tax. “They like to see that commitment from the property owners.”
Middlebury selectboard Chairman Brian Carpenter has been a fan of the DID, and believes its success could be replicated within the town’s industrial park and environs. Carpenter is also owner/general manager of Champlain Valley Equipment, which is located on Exchange Street. He said he’s spoken informally with several other area property owners who are receptive to a new tax assessment district.
Supporters, according to Carpenter, are keen on seeing more investment in the Middlebury Industrial Park, which has helped the community attract and retain some major businesses providing local jobs. Some of the park’s heaviest hitters include Agri-Mark/Cabot, Otter Creek Brewing and Vermont Hard Cider Co. But the park is also home to a variety of smaller, successful concerns like Vermont Coffee Co., Vermont Sun, Vermont Soap, Appalachian Gap Distillery and Catamount Park.
“A lot of people work down there,” Carpenter said of the industrial park.
And the selectboard has been looking at ways to make the growing workforce there more mobile and safe. To that end, the town recently applied for — and landed — around $700,000 in state and federal funding for the first two phases of an Exchange Street sidewalk project that is to eventually span the length of that heavily traveled road, from Elm Street to Route 7.
The board is also supporting a local group’s quest for a $300,000 grant through the National Creative Placemaking Fund to finance public art and “creative community-building activities” along Exchange Street. Local representatives of the Community Workshop LLC are co-leading a discussion of what specific amenities the grant might produce. Early suggestions include pocket parks, landscaping and art displays.
Carpenter and other industrial park boosters believe a special tax assessment district could dovetail nicely with the upcoming sidewalk project and potential $300,000 creative community grant. And they believe the new tax could build more resources for an oft-discussed roundabout at the intersection of Exchange Street and Route 7. The selectboard has long advocated for such a project, but has not been able to place it on the Vermont Agency of Transportation’s “to-do” list.
Middlebury officials explained there aren’t enough local resources for the town to proceed anytime soon on a roundabout or other major capital improvements in the industrial park. For example, the Exchange Street water line has sprung some leaks in recent years, officials noted.
“We have found that we are not raising enough to address all of the capital needs that we have,” Ramsay said.
Middlebury’s infrastructure committee (formerly public works) on June 9 discussed the capital improvement funding challenge. Some members suggested recommending a water rate increase of 3 percent, though the panel has made no decision.
But it will ultimately be up to Exchange Street-area property owners, and not town officials, to build momentum for a special tax district. According to state statutes, supporters of a special assessment district would have to circulate a petition among the property owners within the geographic area in which the new tax would apply. The petition would have to bear the signatures of at least two-thirds of the affected property owners, whereupon the selectboard could consider the special assessment district request.
Ramsay crunched some numbers back in 2014 on what a special assessment district tax could generate in the Exchange Street/industrial park area. She identified a potential of 45 property owners in a new district including around 200 acres. The lineup represents a combined total of $46,691,000 in assessed value, in which a special tax of 1 cent per $100 in property value would generate $4,669 annually; a tax of 5 cents per $100 would yield around $23,345; a tax of 10 cents per $100 would produce around $46,691.
Carpenter said he has no immediate plans to circulate a petition among his industrial park colleagues, but he would like to continue the conversation about a special tax district. He’d also like to see the formation of a Middlebury Industrial Park committee.
“This should be done methodically,” Carpenter said. “We need to make sure everyone has a chance to provide input.”
Vermont Coffee Co., owned by Paul Ralston, is based in rented space at 1197 Exchange St. Ralston said he would enthusiastically support a special assessment district for the industrial park.
“The larger issue is that it’s time for the community to really dig in and imagine the future of Exchange Street,” Ralston said.
It’s an area that Ralston believes has great potential not only for industries, but also for office space, some retail and residential housing. As such, Exchange Street should become more “walkable” for its present and future users, Ralston said.
And that will require investment.
“Our company would happily participate in (a special tax),” Ralston said.
Agri-Mark/Cabot has one of the largest footprints in Middlebury’s industrial park. The company’s giant plant on Exchange Street employs 110 people who make some of the nation’s finest cheddar cheese using milk from many area farms. Agri-Mark/Cabot spokesman Doug DiMento said the company already pays $200,000 in property taxes, as well as substantial payroll, corporate and unemployment taxes. Agri-Mark/Cabot is also one of Middlebury’s largest consumers of municipal water and sewer services.
“We are open to listening (about a special tax), but we want to make the point that we are a major contributor to the local economy right now,” DiMento said.
“We have tried to be a good corporate citizen, and are willing to listen to specific proposals.”
Mike Rainville is founder and CEO of Maple Landmark Woodcraft at 1297 Exchange St., a nationally renowned manufacturer of educational wooden toys, games and gifts. Rainville said he, too, is willing to listen to a proposal for a special tax assessment district. He is particularly concerned about improving the nearby Route 7/Exchange Street intersection that carries a lot of tractor-trailer traffic.
“It’s a nightmare,” he said of the current intersection. “I don’t know if the businesses should be footing the bill, but I don’t mind contributing a little to it.”
Robin Scheu is executive director of the Addison County Economic Development Corp. (ACEDC), which helps existing local business and recruits new ones to the area.
“I think it’s a good thing that the businesses and property owners on Exchange Street have the opportunity and authority to pursue to concept of a special tax district if they so choose,” she said. “Often, our businesses don’t have a say. In this case, the businesses get to decide (with final approval by the selectboard, of course) if they’d like to petition for an assessment and propose the purpose for its use. Should the businesses and property owners choose to move forward with this option, ACEDC stands ready to assist in any way we can.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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