Middlebury adopts new business growth plan

MIDDLEBURY — The Middlebury selectboard on Tuesday endorsed a new economic development policy for the town that, among other things, calls for creating a new economic development committee and establishing a revolving loan fund to help local businesses.
At issue are seven specific recommendations offered up by the Middlebury Economic Health Task Force, which spent several months considering ways to promote new business start-ups and encourage existing enterprises to grow in Addison County’s shire town. The selectboard charged the task force with writing a new economic development chapter for the town, following the recent phase-out of the Middlebury Business Development Fund (MBDF). That more ambitious effort — jointly funded by local taxpayers, Middlebury College and local businesses — failed to achieve the success that its organizers had mapped out for it.
As previously reported in the Independent, the task force has proposed:
•  Discontinuing the extra penny on the municipal property tax rate that helped fund the MBDF, which included an executive director who tried to recruit new businesses to the area and help entrepreneurs already selling their wares in Middlebury.
•  Establishing a Middlebury Economic Development Revolving Loan Fund that would combine remaining MBDF 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.
•  Creating a Middlebury Economic Development Committee that would review applications for the new revolving loan fund, and advise the selectboard on the local economy and strategies to improve it.
•  Improving the town’s website to make it more helpful to people eyeing Middlebury as a potential spot to do business.
•  Developing a “local permitting brochure” available for download and in hard copy at various locations.
•  Continuing 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, sewer connections) to help make that new development possible. Middlebury is specifically considering TIF as a way to fund a new downtown parking garage.
•  Using some of the town’s surplus local option tax revenue to help fund infrastructure projects directly related to economic development.
Selectwoman Heather Seeley chaired the 11-member task force. Members Nick Artim and David Cole voted against endorsing the recommendations. Artim, who also serves on the selectboard, again registered his opposition in the board’s 5-1 vote on the new plan on Tuesday.
“This, to me, is a lot of parts and not a plan,” Artim said of the recommendations, which he called “good, but not unique.”
Artim said if given more time, he believes the task force could have come up with a better proposal more uniquely tailored to Middlebury’s needs.
“I’d like to endorse (the current plan), but I feel like I would be endorsing ‘average,’” Artim told his colleagues. “I want to endorse ‘great.’”
But other task force members spoke up in support of the recommended plan.
“Some of us believe this (plan) is pretty reflective of what we actually believe the town’s role in economic development should be,” member Bill Townsend said. “It’s my belief that an expectation that the town, the selectboard and the town manager is what’s going to be driving the difference between whether economic development is successful or not, is a little bit misguided. It should be more recognition that the people who are going to create economic development and make Middlebury different are the people who are working and living on Main Street and Exchange Street who are already doing the things that are making Middlebury successful and thrive.”
Member Nancy Malcolm — who also chairs the local planning commission — said the task force recommendations dovetail with the results of an economic development survey residents fielded this spring. Those survey results, among other things, underscored Middlebury’s need to attract new families and innovators. And Middlebury is lacking some of the key amenities that entrepreneurs and working families are looking for, according to Malcolm.
“What came through loud and clear is that we are also an aging community, we don’t have a lot of people already here looking for jobs, and we don’t have housing here to recruit people and have them live here,” Malcolm said. “We felt we really can’t control what our population is right now and the housing situation that we have — and child care.”
Selectboard Chairman Brian Carpenter — owner of Champlain Valley Equipment — said the recommendations are in synch with his opinion that “Government is not a business creator.”
“I don’t find government does a very good job running businesses or creating businesses,” Carpenter said. “I think our money is better spent ensuring we have the structure in place to support businesses that you want.”
Officials will now turn their attention to appointing members of the new Middlebury Economic Development Committee. It is expected to have five to seven members with backgrounds in the business world.
“This is an opportunity to move forward, and I think we should seize it,” Selectman Victor Nuovo said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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