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Middlebury to revisit jobs growth strategy

MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury voters in March will be asked to extend the town’s current economic development office for one more year, instead of the 5-year renewal that officials had originally contemplated. Officials will use the coming year to re-evaluate the grander business growth expectations that the selectboard had set for the Middlebury Business Development Fund, or MBDF, when it was established by voters in 2012.
It’s a change in course recommended by the MBDF Evaluation Committee, recently charged with scrutinizing the performance of an economic development office during its 3.5-year history.
Townspeople in 2012 agreed to partially bankroll the MBDF through an additional penny on the municipal tax rate for a term of five years, an action that would yield roughly $72,000 annually. Middlebury College agreed to match that $72,000, which, when coupled with support from area businesses, produced a total MBDF annual budget of $180,000.
The biggest financial layout for the MBDF has been for the $87,838 annual salary of the director of business development and innovation, Jamie Gaucher.
The broad goal of the MBDF was to bring new businesses and good-paying jobs to Middlebury, a community that lost 415 manufacturing jobs between 2005 and 2009, is losing a significant portion of its young workers to better job opportunities in other states, and has seen the industrial portion of its grand list remain stagnant at 3.1 percent of the total grand list since 2008.
Plans called for a March 2017 town meeting vote on renewal of the penny on the tax rate to extend the MBDF for another five years. But the selectboard this fall appointed a five-person taskforce to evaluate the MBDF’s efforts and accomplishments to date, and produce a series of recommendations to the selectboard regarding its future.
Led by Selectman Nick Artim, the task force looked at the MBDF’s record during the past 3.5 years and in the process interviewed 45 individuals and/or businesses that had either contributed to the MBDF, had received support from it, or were simply major players in the town’s economy. The interviewees included National Bank of Middlebury President Caroline Carpenter; Better Middlebury Partnership Coordinator Karen Duguay; Paul Ralston, CEO of Vermont Coffee Co.; Mike Rainville, president and founder of Maple Landmark Woodcraft; and Addison County Economic Development Corp. Executive Director Robin Scheu.
“What we found (from those interviews) is there is a strong response that we should continue to have an individual who focuses on economic development,” Artim told the selectboard at a meeting Tuesday evening.
“Success appears to be on the horizon.”
The task force on Tuesday unveiled a “white paper” outlining its findings and recommendations to the selectboard. Here’s a sampling of the group’s findings:
•  “Business development and prospecting has shown no ‘visible’ results to date. Our interviews throughout the community reinforced this conclusion … It is clear that the MBDF has not met a vast majority of these benchmarks as yet, in particular in its lack of success recruiting businesses to Middlebury.”
“I think certainly there was great disappointment by many, many people at how this has evolved,” Selectwoman and task force member Donna Donahue said. “Going into it, we might have been naïve about expectations, that we maybe should have better defined them.”
Task force members tempered that finding with an acknowledgement that “economic development is a long and tedious process that can take many years from working with a prospective business’ initial concept until the business is running and contributing to the community.” The task force also noted Middlebury is competing with many other towns throughout the country to attract new businesses, and other communities are able to offer more financial incentives to entrepreneurs.
“Writing big checks is not a strength that we have,” Artim said on Tuesday.
“It takes a long time to settle a business here,” he added. “Because of that, we haven’t had a huge amount of success here, but there are some promising opportunities coming down.”
Among the prospects is Ekopolimer, a business looking for land in Middlebury’s industrial park. The business would turn tough-to-recycle plastics into such durable products as manhole covers, railroad ties and portable mats that will allow crews to work in areas with soft, wet soils.
The Addison Independent in September featured an article about the MBDF’s history and struggles in landing new business prospects. Organizers had set a year-one goal for the MBDF to attract visits from 12 “qualified” prospects, and sealing the deal on a business relocation, satellite office or a new business start.
•  “Innovation and technology-based economic development has also shown no results to date.” But the white paper alludes to “an exciting effort between a Middlebury College professor and a local engineer” that is seeking federal grant money and could soon pay dividends.
•  “Leveraging Middlebury College assets has been a major disappointment. At the outset of the MBDF, it was expected that alumni ties could lead to some economic development success. However, it has been difficult to make these connections. Our interviews also found broad recognition of the lack of success in this area.”
•  The “MBDF’s work in the infrastructure arena has shown more promise.” The report specifically cited efforts to expand the Middlebury State Airport infrastructure, as well as planning for a roundabout intersection at Route 7/Exchange Street.
FIVE-YEAR TIMEFRAME
Task force members noted some of the MBDF efforts might not come to fruition within its initial five-year timespan. With that in mind — and in an effort to avert what members believe could be a “contentious” discussion at town meeting to renew the one cent tax that helps fund the MBDF — the panel on Tuesday recommended that the selectboard not ask voters to re-up the MBDF for another five years, but instead allow it to function through fiscal year 2018, which concludes June 30, 2018. The MBDF is currently carrying a surplus of $196,255, sufficient to fund it through fiscal year 2018.
The panel also recommends the selectboard appoint a new MBDF evaluation task force to “define realistic performance objectives and clear measures of success for economic development.”
Voters at the 2018 town meeting could then consider that future task force’s recommendations.
Panel members had not recommended any 2017 town meeting actions on the future of the MBDF, believing the selectboard could simply implement their advice. But selectboard members Susan Shashok and Victor Nuovo successfully argued that voters next March should be asked to endorse the new economic development path.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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