New plan pitched for attracting businesses: Middlebury group offers growth ideas

MIDDLEBURY — A task force charged with re-booting Middlebury’s economic development strategy is proposing, among other things, that the town create a new revolving loan fund to support business start-ups, and use some of its surplus local option tax revenue to improve town infrastructure to help attract entrepreneurs.
The 11-member Middlebury Economic Health Task Force earlier this month drafted seven specific economic development recommendations that the town selectboard will consider at its meeting next Tuesday, July 25. The selectboard will then decide if it should endorse any or all of the ideas the advisory panel has offered to enhance the town’s ability to attract and retain businesses.
Local leaders formed the task force this past spring following the community’s decision to pull the plug on the “Middlebury Community Development Fund,” an ambitious economic development plan co-funded to the tune of more than $150,000 annually by local property taxpayers, Middlebury College and the business community.
Jamie Gaucher, former director of business development and innovation for Middlebury, recently started a new job in the town of Middleburg, Va. He is serving as Middleburg’s new business and economic development director.
Middlebury Selectwoman Heather Seeley chaired the Economic Health Task Force, made up of local officials, residents and business leaders. She said the committee mix made for some “good process and discussion. I want to thank all the members of the committee.”
That discussion led to seven specific proposals supported by six of the 11 task force members. Members Nick Artim and David Cole voted in opposition, sharing a view that they did not believe the recommendations went far enough, according to task force minutes. Three members of the panel were absent for the July 6 vote.
Along with the aforementioned revolving loan fund and local option tax surplus ideas, the task force is recommending the town:
• Not re-authorize the extra penny on the municipal property tax rate to help fund the Middlebury Business Development Fund.
• Create an Economic Development Committee that would review applications for the new revolving loan fund, and advise the selectboard on local economy and strategies to improve it.
The new Middlebury Economic Development Revolving Loan Fund would combine remaining Middlebury Business Development Fund money with funds from a prior federal Community Development Block Grant to create an initial pot of around $200,000.  That money would be used to support young and growing Middlebury businesses.
• Improve the town’s website to make it more helpful to people eyeing Middlebury as a potential spot to do business. Specifically, the task force is suggesting the site include such features as a “business support and resource section,” and information about permitting and the revolving loan fund.
• Create a local permitting brochure available for download and in hard copy at various locations.
• Continue to explore the prospect of creating a Tax Increment Financing (TIF) district in the downtown. TIF gives communities the ability to capture and use most of the increased local property tax revenues from new development in a specific geographic area to pay back investments on the infrastructure (such as water and sewer connections) to help make that new development possible. Middlebury is specifically considering TIF as a way to fund a new downtown parking garage
The task force’s suggestion about using surplus local option tax revenues as part of the new economic development strategy is likely to generate some particularly interesting debate.
Middlebury residents in 2008 voted 1,358 to 829 to pursue an amendment to Middlebury’s town charter in order to implement a 1-percent local option tax on sales, rooms, meals and alcohol sold in the community. Revenues are used to pay the town’s $7 million share of the Cross Street Bridge, along with occasional repairs and maintenance of the span.
But the local option tax fund is currently more than $1 million in the black, and local officials plan to ask citizens for ideas on how that money might be put to other municipal uses — such as taking on some deferred capital projects or even stabilizing municipal property taxes.
Middlebury is not allowed to apply surplus local option tax revenues to pay down its bridge bond more quickly.
“I’m sure we could come up with 20 recommendations on what to do with that (surplus) money,” Seeley said with a chuckle.
Seeley is pleased with the overall package of task force recommendations, and is particularly enthusiastic about the proposed revolving loan fund and town website improvements. While she is generally not a fan of creating new citizen panels, Seeley believes the new economic development committee would be useful in vetting loan requests and keeping the town informed on the local business climate.
Addison County Economic Development Corp. Executive Director Robin Scheu is also a task force member.
“I think this is a great start,” she said of the recommendations, which she said can be adjusted by town officials to adapt to any desired change in economic development strategy down the road.
“There are some built-in structures that insist on regular reflections and updates,” Scheu said of the recommendations. “And there is nothing that requires the hiring of additional staff.”
Middlebury selectboard Chairman Brian Carpenter applauded the fruits of the committee’s labor.
“They seem to be pretty sound recommendations,” Carpenter said. “It continues the focus on economic development, but ratchets back on our investment.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].
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