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Editorial: Middlebury can show the wisdom – or folly – of economic planning

A microcosm of a age-old debate played out during Middlebury’s Tuesday night selectboard meeting on the issue of economic development. The specific issue was whether to support an economic development plan proposed by an 11-member task force, but the larger question looming in the background was the more interesting: Just how much can government do to stimulate the economy?
As small town governments do, very seldom is a task force’s recommendation on such a broad issue rejected — and, true to form, this recommendation passed with a 5-1 vote.
But it wasn’t without discussion and the challenge to do better — rebutted by others who suggested it wasn’t government’s place to do better.
Here are the key comments to those points:
• “This (plan), to me, is a lot of parts and not a plan,” said selectman Nick Artim, noting that it was “good, but not unique… I’d like to endorse it, but I feel like I would be endorsing ‘average.’… I want to endorse great.”
Countering that were comments from task force member Bill Townsend and selectboard chair Brian Carpenter.
• “It’s my belief that an expectation that the town, the selectboard and the town manager is what’s going to be the driving difference between whether economic development is successful or not, is a little bit misguided,” said Townsend, noting that it’s the people and businesses in town that will determine economic growth.
Added Carpenter: “I don’t find government does a very good job running businesses or creating businesses. I think our money is better spent ensuring we have the structure in place to support businesses that you want.”
In the larger sense, both sides are right. Seeking “greatness” in the town’s economic development plan should be the goal, moderated by how much resources a town can reasonably provide. And, no, of course economic development won’t rest solely on the shoulders of town government or the selectboard. The marketplace and individual incentive (capitalism itself) will hopefully provide the biggest thrust toward success.
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But peel away those shallow political arguments and let’s get more specific about the obstacles to business growth we face in Middlebury, as in much of the county:
• We have a shortage or affordable housing, without which it is difficult to attract workers to fill new jobs (or existing ones.) Because of that businesses too often grow elsewhere. Do we, as a town, have a plan to do better or are we leaving that outcome to chance?
• While unemployment is low throughout the county, we have a paucity of good-paying jobs outside of a few key employers: Middlebury College, Porter Medical Center at UVMNH, and the school systems dominate the labor force in Middlebury and largely set the wage standard. While we have construction jobs, the typical mix of retail and professional businesses, and a couple handfuls of manufacturers, we’re lacking in high-tech jobs and the more creative careers that many millennials are seeking (the Dealer.coms of the world, and the more laid-back style of a Burton.) While we have a thriving creative arts and beverage scene, it’s small and needs nourishment to be a major attraction. In short, if we want to create the jobs of tomorrow, the town will have to cater to that marketplace better than we have been.
• And while we have one of the top liberal arts colleges in the country in town, are we benefitting from that influence as much as we might be? It’s well known that universities are driving economic forces in larger communities, but has Middlebury town laid the support network needed to capitalize on that association? If not, how do we get there?
Let’s also consider some government success stories right in our backyard. When Gov. Peter Shumlin created tax incentives for the solar industry several years ago, that sector caught fire and generated thousands of good-paying jobs across the state. The market forces had been there all along, and would have been added some jobs without the incentives, but there is little doubt the tax incentives gave that industry a big boost and catapulted Vermont to the number-one solar producer in the country on a per-capita basis. That’s government incentivizing job growth here rather than elsewhere. Similarly, Vermont has long incentivized the captive insurance market to great effect.
On the local level, get to know the story behind St. Albans growth over the past decade. It has been transformative, and anyone who thinks it is not because of the effort of a strong mayor and a growth-centric group of town leaders is missing the heart of that story.
It is not, therefore, that government isn’t good at creating jobs, but at what cost and effort.
Certainly, small towns should provide industrial parks, adequate water and sewage infrastructure and transportation. Creating a Tax Increment Financing district, as we have recently said, is a no-brainer, as is a revolving loan fund to help existing businesses grow. Making key information available on a town’s website is basic fare. If a town is not doing those things, it’s not destined to be an economic center.
But how about putting money into bike and pedestrian paths, and enhancing the Trail Around Middlebury and its town parks — the very types of amenities Gen X and Millennials consider as basic necessities. Should our schools supplement Nordic or alpine ski programs, or hockey, at area schools — key programs that make the quality of life here better, and attract families that think such programs are so cool they are willing to move here? (Several Vermont ski towns have half-day school programs once a week that are wildly popular.) Should Middlebury pursue tourism as an economic driver to a greater degree?
How about creating denser development rules in town to allow for mother-in-law apartments, and other rentals, that would make housing more affordable? Or creating tax incentives for new housing priced for first-time buyers? Talk to contractors today and one of the reasons for the dearth of affordable housing is that contractors can’t make ends meet at anything considered affordable — and there’s plenty of business in the markets above that. As long as that’s the case, what is going to bend that curve if government doesn’t step in to help create an affordable price point?
Government, in short, should be looking at the existing market forces and playing the minimum role necessary to meet crucial community’s goals. The town’s economic plan could have helped identify those goals and the path to achieve them.
In Middlebury’s case, there is ample room for discussion between “greatness” and a more hands-off, market-driven approach and, for the most part, Middlebury has done well creating the basic infrastructure needed and being willing to cultivate what businesses come its way.
Can we do more? Yes. Should we? Therein, lies Middlebury’s future.
— Angelo Lynn

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