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Robin Scheu set to retire from county business boosting post

MIDDLEBURY — Robin Scheu has spent the past nine years promoting business growth in the area as executive director of the Addison County Economic Development Corp. (ACEDC).
Now she’s preparing to have some fun.
Scheu, 60, confirmed last week that she will be retiring from the ACEDC in December.
It’s a job she began back in November of 2008 — which was an interesting point in history to be in the business of promoting economic development, Scheu recalled.
“The stock market crash had happened,” Scheu recalled, then chuckled. “It was a great time to come, because it could only get better.”
Indeed, when Scheu started, Vermont Coffee Co. was the only occupant of the sprawling building off Middlebury’s Exchange Street that used to host Highland Press. The Kennedy Brothers complex in Vergennes was up for sale. During her second day on the job, Autumn Harp officials announced they were moving that large manufacturing business out of Bristol. And the year after Scheu signed on, Vermont and New York authorities closed the deteriorating Champlain Bridge, triggering economic hardship for many nearby businesses.
Fast forward to today.
Middlebury’s former Highland Press building is now fully leased.
Kennedy Brothers was successfully sold, refurbished and is now thriving.
The former Autumn Harp headquarters in Bristol is transformed and now brimming with a variety of medical, manufacturing and food service businesses under the banner of Bristol Works. Kevin Harper, the architect of that renaissance, is now looking to create an additional industrial park in the Stoney Hill area of town.
The new Lake Champlain Bridge is installed and many neighboring businesses have rebounded nicely.
Scheu is not taking full credit for those economic development victories, though she is proud of the role the ACEDC played in helping those entrepreneurs with small loans, referrals and/or advice along their respective paths to success. She noted the local economy is characterized by peaks and valleys often based on statewide, national and even international trends.
“We helped, but there is a cycle, and it has been fascinating to be a part of it,” Scheu said. “A lot has changed.”
And the ACEDC has tried to change with the times, according to Scheu.
For example, the organization now places more emphasis on getting people the tools they need to launch a small business and grow it, rather than fishing for the next 100-plus employee business.
“I see our role as being connectors and facilitators,” Scheu said. “It’s also helpful to be the first stop when people have questions, and to be the portal for helping promote businesses, get them started and connect them to the right resources.”
Ultimately, Scheu believes the ACEDC’s growing number of revolving loan funds have been the biggest difference-makers for businesses trying to lay down roots, and expand, in Addison County. The organization currently manages five such funds that qualifying businesses can tap for much-needed capital at lower interest rates than a conventional bank could extend. The money gets replenished with the payback (with interest) so they can remain available for future generations of entrepreneurs.
“Since I’ve been here, we’ve made nearly 40 loans for almost $2 million,” Scheu said. The ACEDC has awarded a combined total of $4 million in loans since it was established in 1994.
She recalls the first loan she ever made was for $11,000 the owners of Aqua ViTea Kombucha in 2009. The money helped company founder Jeff Weaber acquire some additional fermenting kegs for the basement of his Salisbury home. Aqua ViTea quickly outgrew the Weaber household, then moved to a Bristol spot that it also out-grew. The company is now based in Middlebury’s industrial park.
“Jeff Weaber epitomizes what our loan fund should be used for,” Scheu said.
Stonecutter Spirits, Vermont Tree Goods, Beau Ties Ltd. and Nathaniel Group are other Addison County businesses that got an initial bump with loans through ACEDC.
The organization has also helped keep businesses in the county, according to Scheu. When Vermont Hard Cider Co. was considering the option of relocating elsewhere rather than invest in a new Middlebury plant, the ACEDC participated in the campaign to keep the company in Addison County’s shire town.
“They were being wooed heavily by Brandon,” Scheu recalled. “We had some meetings with (cider officials) and their landlord. We helped them feel appreciated and important to our economy here in Middlebury. The fact that we have good infrastructure was very helpful, too.”
But Scheu will be the first to admit that there have been some defeats.
One of the most substantial involved the company eCorp English, in 2012. Founded by Deborah Schwarz, eCorp offered English language training to corporate officials throughout the world through Web-based programs and expert trainers networking directly with clients throughout the world. The ACEDC joined several state economic development agencies in extending a generous loan package to Schwarz in order to establish the business at 1197 Exchange St. in Middlebury.
Schwarz at the time promised to grow the business to 100 workers by 2013. Instead, the business crashed in less than two years, with Schwarz citing the inability to leverage additional financing to market eCorp language software as the main reason. The business laid off all its workers and left many public and private creditors unpaid.
“They took this state for around $1 million,” Scheu said.
MANY SKILLS REQUIRED
But overall, Scheu has found great satisfaction in her role with the ACEDC. It’s a job that has called upon her to use the diplomacy, accounting and inter-personal skills she acquired in past jobs and on local boards.
She was a Bank of Boston executive who led hundreds of employees within the institution’s commercial lending department, which had a loan portfolio of around $130 million at the time. Then she moved on to the bank’s retail division, running a $3 billion operation with 500 employees with 42 branch locations around Boston.
Not long after her arrival in Middlebury around 25 years ago, Scheu served as manager of the Addison County Solid Waste Management District, and then as interim director of the Middlebury Area Land Trust.
She is a former chairwoman of the Mary Hogan Elementary School (ID-4) board and last year was elected to her first term representing Middlebury in the Vermont House of Representatives, where she serves on the Corrections and Institutions Committee.
“All of my past experiences can be used here,” she said of the ACEDC.
Scheu praised the ACEDC board for being very “engaged and supportive.” The board has established goals and a strategic plan to keep the institution on task.
“I am not micro-managed,” she said. “I am given the freedom to do things.”
She’ll get more freedom to do things of her own choosing when she retires at the end of this year.
Her husband, Ted, is an educator who travels throughout the region as an artist in residence, teaching students to find their voice through poetry. Ted Scheu will scale back his travels when his wife retires, thus allowing them to travel together and tend to other projects they have yearned to do.
“Life is so short,” Robin Scheu said.
Meanwhile, the ACEDC board has already begun advertising for Scheu’s successor, who will have big shoes to fill, according to Chairman Chris Knapp. He specifically credited Scheu with helping the board develop a strategic vision for the organization, establishing a track record in business development, forging community and legislative relationships, and managing all of the various loan programs.
He added Scheu has increased business membership and “built solid communications” with the other Vermont regional development corporations, state agencies and local financing institutions.
“Robin has transformed ACEDC,” Knapp said.
“She has consistently achieved the mission and objective of the organization to promote economic prosperity in Addison County,” he added. “Now that Robin is leaving, the board’s goal will be to find an executive director who will continue the work that Robin has done and ideally her successor will be someone who is knowledgeable about Addison County.”
Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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