Middlebury survey: Views on business climate vary

MIDDLEBURY — The Middlebury Economic Health Task Force has been poring over the results of a recent community survey in anticipation of recommending a new town strategy for local business growth.
The 11-member task force — made up of town officials and business leaders — began meeting in March in anticipation of delivering its recommendations to the selectboard by the end of this month. The selectboard formed the new panel after its decision to pull the plug on the Middlebury Business Development Fund (MBDF).
Spearheaded by Jamie Gaucher, the MBDF was a multi-year effort to recruit new businesses to town and help existing enterprises expand. But the selectboard decided to move on from the program this summer after it did not deliver the success that officials had anticipated.
The Economic Health Task Force is looking to re-boot the town’s economic development efforts, and has been gathering feedback from citizens, entrepreneurs and municipal leaders. The task force, chaired by Selectwoman Heather Seeley, met Monday evening and will next meet June 19.
“I think we have reached a consensus that we don’t want things to stay the same, but we are not yet in agreement with what we’d like to see the town do, going forward,” Seeley said.
“It’s a complex thing,” she added.
Meanwhile, committee members have been reviewing, with interest, the results of an on-line survey that drew 290 responses. Roughly 55 percent of the respondents were women, and 45 percent were men. Around 30 percent of those who took the survey were between the ages of 30 and 44 years old, while another 30 percent of the respondents indicated they were 60 or older.
Committee members were also pleased to see that 34 percent of those taking the survey declared themselves a business owner or leader. Roughly 32 percent identified themselves as a business employee; 12 percent were middle managers; and more than 12 percent were self-employed.
Seventy percent of the respondents said they work in Middlebury. Of those, 32 percent indicated their company is planning to expand.
Here are some of the survey highlights:
•  Seventy-seven percent of those who took the survey said Middlebury should invest money and/or staff time for economic development initiatives.
“If we do not find ways to innovate and attract new talent and new families to our community we have little chance of sustaining Middlebury,” one respondent wrote.
“I believe that economic development should be a priority for the town and that the time, money, and effort needs to be consistent and evolve with changing needs and conditions,” another one wrote.
Not everyone shared that view, however.
“I wasn’t in favor of the economic development position in the first place,” one person wrote, speaking of the business development director job that is being phased out. “That position is doomed to fail without businesses wanting to come here.”
•  People cited “not enough good paying jobs,” inadequate child care opportunities, taxes, a lack of parking, poor internet connectivity, high prices, a lack of large shopping stores, “too many zoning restrictions,” and a shortage of affordable housing as among Middlebury’s weaknesses as a place to do business.
•  Respondents identified friendly people, quality of life, great agricultural land, a family friendly environment, an educated workforce, the presence of Middlebury College, and a good climate of volunteerism as among Middlebury’s biggest strengths as a place to do business.
•  Almost 52 percent of those surveyed indicated the business at which they work is able to find qualified employees, while 30 percent replied “no.”
“It is challenging to find young people (20s and 30s) who want to be in or close to Middlebury,” one respondent elaborated.
“Finding skilled professionals willing to work in Middlebury for a wage commensurate with the local market is very difficult,” another wrote.
“It can be difficult to find qualified employees interested in working for the wages we can afford, but generally we are able to attract and retain a good employee base,” another said.
Respondents were invited to chime in with other, general comments about economic development in Middlebury and Addison County. Some of those commenters said they believe there is a substantial shortage of jobs for area residents with college degrees. Others lamented the power the college wields within the town. Others said the town needs larger stores and more “mid-level jobs.”
Seeley is grateful for the community feedback.
“I think (the survey) provided us with some valuable information,” she said. “I was encouraged by the number of responses.”

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