Middlebury explores help for businesses; Aqua ViTea asks for tax break

MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury’s efforts to re-boot its economic development efforts in town took a detour on Tuesday when the selectboard learned no one had stepped forward to join a new “Economic Health Committee.”
The board will instead ask participants on some of the town’s past business-promotion groups to serve on a panel that will specifically preside over the community’s new revolving loan fund and review Middlebury’s tax stabilization policy.
And the new task force will have to hit the ground running.
One local business, Aqua ViTea, has filed a request under the town’s current tax stabilization policy that it be excused from paying municipal property taxes during the next five years on the 63,454-square-foot facility at 153 Pond Lane that it leases from Vermont Industrial Parks. The company’s 2017 total property tax bill is $52,737, with the municipal portion being $18,480. The larger part of the bill relates to education property taxes.
In his application, Aqua ViTea Chief Financial Officer Jordan Benjamin said the tax break would help the company’s efforts to recruit and install additional tenants into a headquarters that is currently too big for the kombucha beverage-producer.
“Aqua ViTea does not require the full 63,454 square feet for production and has found other companies in need of both warehouse and production space,” Benjamin states in his application. “Some of these potential tenants could bring in synergies, such as shared warehouse space and production equipment use that would benefit both businesses. Any sub-lease agreement would pass along the pro-rata share of property taxes. Reducing the tax liability … would reduce the sub-lessee’s expenses and incentivize the tenant and encourage job creation.”
Benjamin estimates warehouse tenants could bring in two or three new workers to Middlebury in 2018, while production tenants “could bring in as many as six to 12 employees.”
Middlebury’s industrial park has emerged as a growing beverage hub, hosting such businesses as Vermont Hard Cider, Otter Creek Brewing, Appalachian Gap distillery and Stonecutter Spirits.
Aqua-ViTea has been an Addison County success story and figures to help fill out the space over time. The company currently has 41 full-time-equivalent workers, and plans to add around a dozen more in 2018 with salaries ranging from $35,000 to $80,000 annually.
“The short-term effects on the grand list in reducing the tax liability for Aqua ViTea will be more than offset by the long-term impacts of job creation,” according to Benjamin.
It was in 1997 that the Middlebury selectboard adopted a tax stabilization policy for the town. That policy was last amended in 2015. The board wants a new Economic Health Committee to take another look at the policy and review Aqua ViTea’s request for help. Middlebury Town Manager Kathleen Ramsay said on Tuesday two people have offered to serve on the panel — local entrepreneur Hudson Tilford, and Addison County Economic Development Corp. Executive Director Robin Scheu. Selectwoman Heather Seeley will recruit others for the new committee.
Selectboard members still want to form a panel to take a long- and short-term look at how to encourage economic development in town. The board earlier this year pulled the plug on the Middlebury Business Development Fund (MBDF), a town/Middlebury College-funded effort — staffed by a full-time director — that failed to attract any substantial new businesses to the community during a four-year run.
Following the demise of the MBDF, the selectboard formed an 11-member Middlebury Economic Health Task Force charged with re-booting the town’s economic development strategy. That task force, chaired by Seeley, recommended such steps as creating a new revolving loan fund to support business start-ups, and using some of the town’s surplus local option tax revenue to improve municipal infrastructure to help attract entrepreneurs.
Middlebury officials want to have the new Economic Health Committee appointed and ready to deal with the revolving loan fund rules and tax stabilization policy by the end of this month.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected]

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