Middlebury gets grant to market downtown during rail bridge construction

MIDDLEBURY — The Vermont Agency of Transportation (VTrans) is giving the town of Middlebury $75,000 to help promote its downtown businesses and amenities this year during the first phase of work on the Main Street and Merchants Row rail bridges.
The $75,000 is likely to be the first of three, like-sized annual grants VTrans will pass along to Middlebury to aggressively market and support its downtown through 2020, when work will be in full swing on a $71 million tunnel project that will replace two temporary spans.
Jim Gish, Middlebury’s community liaison for the rail bridges project, said the grassroots organization “Neighbors Together” is currently collaborating with the Better Middlebury Partnership and other downtown stakeholders on marketing programs and activities that could be sponsored through the $75,000 grant.
“The group will focus on special things we could do in 2018, and we’ll go from there,” Gish said during a recent phone interview.
With a major assist from the Rev. Susan McGarry of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, “Neighbors Together” formed in early 2016 with the goal of encouraging residents, property owners and merchants to collaborate on ways to lessen the headaches that will be caused by jackhammers, heavy equipment, detours, parking loss and dust that will temporarily envelope the downtown area during tunnel construction.
Neighbors Together is now compiling its list of activities that could help downtown businesses and residents this year while crews construct a new drainage system for the rail bed, move some utilities, and build a temporary access road to the Battell Block parking lot. Work on the project will intensify in 2019 and climax during the summer of 2020 with a scheduled 10-week closure of Main Street and Merchants Row while the massive concrete tunnel is being installed. Railroad freight traffic will be detoured during that 10-week period.
Karen Duguay, marketing director for the BMP, said the VTrans grant will be put to good use.
“The BMP is thrilled VTrans has awarded the town this money to be used to support marketing efforts this year,” she said. “It’s something that the BMP has been working on and advocating for since learning that other towns in Vermont had received funds for similar purposes during their construction projects.”
She added Neighbors Together is “committed to stretching that $75,000 as far as it can go in efforts to invest more money into our local economy, bring people into town, and motivate people to shop and dine in Middlebury. We’re also examining infrastructure improvements with an eye on revitalization efforts beyond the project. If approved by the selectboard, plans for this year would likely include shopping promotions, a loyalty rewards program, multi-media advertising campaigns, events, website infrastructure and improved signage and beautification efforts.”
At the same time, some merchants have been appealing for direct financial aid to help cover some of the losses they’ll experience during the busiest construction periods. Some downtown businesspeople have voiced concern about their ability to financially weather the project.
“Our businesses are facing a huge challenge … we’re talking about people’s livelihoods and I definitely understand their perspective of wanting to advocate for themselves to receive additional support,” Duguay said. “At this point, the BMP, along with the many partnering organizations of Neighbors Together, is focused on promoting the businesses and community of Middlebury to the best of our ability in 2018, while also looking ahead and planning for the impacts of the next several years and beyond.”
Gish said there’s still a chance merchants will receive some kind of monetary life preserver. Middlebury officials have lamented the lack of any state or federal programs providing direct aid to businesses affected by lengthy infrastructure work.
“All options are on the table,” Gish said. “We’re looking at anything that would support the downtown business community, as well as the greater business community outside the downtown that could be impacted by the project.”
In other Middlebury rail bridges-related news:
•  Funding for the Middlebury rail bridges project is now reflected in Gov. Phil Scott’s proposed state budget, not only for next year, but into fiscal year 2022.
•  Middlebury officials and VTrans have agreed to extend funding for Jim Gish’s community liaison position through completion of the project (estimated spring of 2021). Original funding for the job had ranged from 2016 to 2018. The project start has been delayed on three occasions.
•  Pavement on the temporary Main Street rail bridge is starting to deteriorate. Gish called it “alligator cracking,” and he said is not a cause for alarm.
“The steel panels that make up the temporary bridge flex under the weight of passing vehicles, causing faster breakdown of the pavement,” Gish wrote in his most recent emailed project update. “The high volume of tanker trucks and other heavy vehicles traveling on Main Street, which of course is also Route 30, as well as the grade of the temporary bridge are contributing factors.”
Gish added VTrans anticipated the need for maintenance of the temporary spans and plans to repave the Main Street bridge deck and tighten its bolts this summer.
“This would involve either closing Main Street bridge altogether for one day, or alternating lanes for two to three days,” Gish said. “We’ll work out the best timing for minimal impact downtown …  Merchants Row bridge is not showing the same signs of wear as it sees far less truck traffic, but it, too, will be monitored for needed maintenance.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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