Guest Editorial: Middlebury gets chance to shape downtown

Since 1996 the town of Middlebury has had an ordinance for “The Regulation of the Downtown Improvement District,” or DID. In brief, it requires owners of commercial or mixed-use properties within the district’s clearly defined boundaries to pay a small tax in addition to their regular property taxes. (The ordinance exempts exclusively residential properties, and the tax on a median value property is just $224.) The revenues total around $34,000 annuallyand are designated to fund — and to leverage grants for — “public improvements and benefitting properties in the district.” A five-person commission (known as the DIDC) composed of property owners, representatives from tenant businesses, a representative from town government, and an at-large, legal resident of Middlebury without commercial interest, identifies projects, develops a budget, and makes a recommendation for expenditure to the selectboard. (Learn more about the DID on the townofmiddlbury.org website under “ordinance” or online here: tinyurl.com/j5py7cz.)
Some projects that have been funded directly or by grants leveraged with DID funds include construction of new sidewalks, installation of historic streetlight fixtures, park improvements and wayfinding signs. Last year, with input from another community organization (VT Bike/Ped Coalition), the commission recommended full funding for two rapid-flashing beacon pedestrian crossing lights, removal of old and re-painting of new “Walk Bike” sidewalk stencils, and $15,000 toward landscaping the new town office building. Additionally, $15,000 was earmarked for “business support” during the railroad bridge construction. DID also contributes 15 percent of its annual revenue to the Better Middlebury Partnership (BMP) to fund its part-time marketing position, and 10 percent to maintenance of past projects.
On Jan. 12, a publicly warned meeting was held in the conference room at the town office building for the purpose of hearing public input regarding potential projects for 2017 and developing a budget. Attendance by commissioners, of which I am one, failed to produce a quorum, and one member of the public (not coincidentally, a selectboard member) appeared to request additional pedestrian safety measures. Despite limited numbers, those in attendance, who included our outgoing chair, the town manager and the community liaison for the railroad bridge project, were able to come up with some proposals: public water fountains/bottle fillers, parking locator signs, additional trash receptacles, solar device-charging benches, replacement banners, and signage for seniors-only parking spaces.
These are all good ideas worthy of our consideration, but as a district taxpayer, DID commissioner and downtown merchant, I have reservations regarding both procedure and practicality. Foremost is the lack of input from either district taxpayers or the general public. Close behind are the impact of the looming railroad bridge construction, the current state of Middlebury’s economic development efforts, and the failure, minor but aggravating, of the Public Works Department to execute our modest “Walk Bike” sidewalk stencil project. Moreover, the grant for which we committed $15,000 to “business support” during the bridge construction yielded a USDA grant of just $25,000, which, as of this writing, is either to be deferred because of the project delay or declined outright for its inadequate substance, scope and utility to downtown merchants — a classic illustration of throwing good money after bad. And finally, as is too often the case in matters of government, the same-old voices were heard, and even then, not enough to take any action.
Is the lack of public input an implicit approval of the modest tweaks to our public amenities and ornament we have been making of late, benign complacency, or — more worrisomely — an indication that the public just doesn’t really take much pride in its historic downtown? As matters of taxation go, the DID levy is as low-hanging as fruit can get for both taxpayers and community. All it takes to have an influence on how this sliver of municipal revenue is allocated is to speak up, either at a public hearing or to a selectboard member or district commissioner. The current seven-year effectiveness period of the DID ordinance runs out on June 30 of this year and will require, as it has twice in the past, endorsement of two-thirds of district property owners to be renewed. As a property owner who pays this tax, I am 100 percent in its favor, but we should not take for granted the district’s perpetuity, nor underestimate its potential.
Given that the railroad bridge project is delayed (but still imminent), a grant to fund a master town plan has been applied for, the Middlebury Business Development Fund economic development program is under review, and the Ilsley Library board has announced expansion plans, now seems a good time to jump on the revisitation bandwagon and undertake a review of the needs of the “Downtown Improvement District” in the long view. If the railroad project proceeds as planned the center of the district — the intersection of Main Street, Merchants Row, and Printer’s Alley — will be a massive, dusty, and noisy construction site, more or less intensely, for three years. I’m not convinced that it would be wise for the DIDC to continue on its current path of conjuring ways to spend district revenues without careful consideration of likely future needs. For, with destruction, there’s an opportunity for dramatic renewal, and three-to-four years of accrued revenue from the DID could contribute much more meaningfully to that.
While I, along with my fellow commissioners, seek public (district taxpayer and community member) input on the current slate of proposed projects, as well as other ideas for necessary and/or desirable improvements to any part of the district, I propose that, in our pursuit of the district ordinance renewal, we engage in a clear-eyed dialog with the public regarding the future of Middlebury’s historic downtown. A public hearing has been set for Friday, Feb. 24, at 4 p.m. in the town office conference room. I invite you to attend and to participate in our democratic process. It may seem low-stakes given the current political climate, but grabbing the low-hanging fruit might just be the consolation and empowerment you need right now.
Becky Dayton is Chair of the Downtown Improvement District Commission, and together with her husband, Chris, owner of 36-38 Main St., the Vermont Book Shop and Ollie’s Other Place on Washington Street. 

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