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Middlebury panel to study local economy: Will propose business growth ideas

MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury town officials had planned to ask voters at town meeting in March to help chart the community’s future economic development policy.
But after checking with lawyers and state officials, and discussing the issue amongst themselves on Tuesday, members of the Middlebury selectboard agreed to appoint a committee to recommend a new economic development course for the town come July 1.
This effectively means Middlebury will likely turn the page on its current business growth strategy — through the Middlebury Business Development Fund (MBDF) — on, or soon after, June 30.
“I don’t feel comfortable giving something that has been going on for close to four years another full year of continuation, knowing we haven’t achieved our goals to date,” selectboard Chairman Brian Carpenter said of his desire to shake up the current strategy, which he said “needs to be tweaked” sooner, rather than later.
“My sense is our structure needs to be changed in the way we go about economic development, and it needs to be changed to get a return on our investment,” Carpenter added. “Our goals were lofty … and probably unachievable to begin with.”
Last month, the selectboard agreed to ask local voters at their March 6 annual meeting to extend the MBDF for one more year (through June 2018), using the fund’s accrued surplus. Officials would then have used the coming year to re-evaluate the business growth expectations that the selectboard had set for the MBDF when it was established by voters in 2012. It is funded by Middlebury College, the local business community, and with revenues from a penny on the municipal tax rate, to make a total annual budget of $180,000.
Tuesday’s change in course will spur the selectboard to quickly appoint the new committee that will suggest changes in the town’s economic development policy to better reflect its size and needs. Board members will come up with candidates during the next two weeks in order to appoint the panel early next month.
The selectboard will oversee the MBDF’s surplus funds, which can only be spent for economic development purposes.
Selectman Nick Artim recently chaired a five-person taskforce to evaluate the MBDF’s efforts and accomplishments to date, and also pitch recommendations to the selectboard regarding its future. The task force in December authored a report asserting, among other things, that “business development and prospecting has shown no ‘visible’ results to date,” though the panel acknowledged that more time might be needed to land new jobs and enterprises.
Organizers of the MBDF had set a year-one goal of attracting visits from 12 “qualified” prospects, and sealing the deal on a business relocation, satellite office or a new business start.
Jamie Gaucher, executive director of the Middlebury Office of Business Development & Innovation, has been the public face of the MBDF. He sees some positives in the selectboard’s change of tack.
“I think this is a great opportunity to pivot and establish new goals and metrics for the MBDF,” Gaucher said.
Artim said Middlebury’s impending shift on economic development policy does not necessarily mean Gaucher will be out of a job. The new committee will, among other things, recommend how the new business growth strategy should be administered — and Gaucher could fit that profile, according to Artim.
“I think (the task force report) made it clear that our current effort has not succeeded,” Artim said. “I don’t blame anyone for this; I think a great effort was made.”
Artim said his task force heard from a variety of local businesspeople who said the town must continue to promote economic development, albeit with some new ideas. For example, Artim noted some local entrepreneurs would like to see more attention paid to helping/growing current businesses in town.
Selectwoman Laura Asermily agreed with the notion of rebooting Middlebury’s business growth strategies.
“I think there is an opportunity to reframe this by looking at it as economic health for our town, rather than maybe ‘economic development,’” Asermily said.
Artim is looking forward to the  new committee’s work on the issue.
“We need to continue economic development,” Artim said. “The question is, how do we do it.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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