Editorial: The hardship is already here; now, what will Middlebury do?

With the recent news of two more businesses closing in Middlebury’s downtown, in the immediate vicinity of the construction zone, when is it time to recognize that the hardship that had been predicted is real and must be addressed before more businesses close? There are, after all, two and a half more years of intense construction still to go.
Recently the town learned that The Diner, after 80-plus years, will serve its last meals this weekend, and just down the street, Carol’s Hungry Mind Café and coffee shop was forced to shut down due to financial duress. The added stress of the downtown construction project and loss of storefront parking were contributing factors to both businesses shutting their doors.
“It was very bad year last year (after the temporary bridges closed the roads for a couple of weeks and parking was lost), and it’s looking to be worse this year,” Carol’s Hungry Mind Café owner John Melanson said of his business since the construction began. And in prior conversations with the owner of The Diner, he said he saw the handwriting on the wall and decided to sell before losses piled up.
Two blocks away, on the southern end of the downtown on Main Street, Ben Franklin’s has announced its impending closing, while Clay’s (a woman’s clothing store) across the street has not renewed its lease on that downtown location. That represents four substantial losses of retail or commercial establishments on the Main Street-Merchants Row downtown corridor. And it’s not hard to see another few businesses deciding it’s time to call it quits if the road gets rougher and they’re facing monetary losses partially because of the downtown project.
We’ve argued in the past that financial help should be made available to the businesses most effected by the construction, but were assured measures would be taken to boost those businesses through marketing efforts and that would be adequate. Reality suggests a more pragmatic and direct approach, if town leaders want to assure there are viable commercial businesses in the downtown once the rail bridges project is complete.
Not all of the stresses, of course, are due to the construction. Online shopping, especially with the Amazon.com juggernaut, has changed the nature of shopping for many. To that end, Middlebury would also be well served to commission a report on the type of businesses that would most likely thrive in Middlebury’s downtown in today’s (and tomorrow’s) environment. Then, take measures over the next three years to attract and support those potential businesses — as well as the existing businesses valiantly striving to make ends meet.
But act, the town should, and that might require more than a marketing plan that attempts to entice shoppers into a compromised business district where the comfort and pleasantries of a quintessential New England downtown are still a few years away.

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