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Group readies plan to boost downtown Middlebury

MIDDLEBURY — A group seeking to keep downtown Middlebury a destination during the next three years of rail bridges construction is refining a game plan that includes financial rewards for dedicated shoppers, a new website, beautification efforts, a brochure, advertising campaigns and a series of outdoor concerts and movies to attract people into the village area.
The plan is being spearheaded by Neighbors Together, a citizens’ group devoted to helping the downtown and its merchants weather an estimated three years of construction disruption caused by a tunnel project to replace the Main Street and Merchants Row rail bridges. A variety of other local organizations are participating in the effort, including the Better Middlebury Partnership (BMP), St. Stephen’s Church, Middlebury College, the Addison County Chamber of Commerce and Porter Medical Center.
“We’ve seen a lot of excitement around getting these things up and running,” said BMP Marketing Coordinator Karen Duguay.
“We have a full slate and many different organizations are part of it.”
Organizers are pleased to have a $115,000 budget to promote the downtown and its businesses this year. Resources include a $75,000 grant through the Vermont Agency of Transportation and another $40,000 through the United States Department of Agriculture and Middlebury’s Downtown Improvement District Commission.
An important part of the effort is the “Middlebury Money Match (MMM),” a promotion through which shoppers will receive a monetary bonus for shopping at local businesses. Here’s how it will work: Shoppers will have access to MMM cards. Each time the shopper makes a purchase of $10 or more at any Middlebury store, he or she is issued a stamp to stick on their MMM card. When the shopper has collected 10 stamps on their card, he or she can redeem it for $10 in “Middlebury Money,” a currency that can be used at local stores.
Duguay believes MMM will encourage people to shop in the community and thus lead to more money circulating in the local economy. Plans call for 2,000 MMM cards to be made available through the program. If all are turned in, that would represent well more than $220,000 (which includes the $10 rewards Middlebury Money payouts) in local spending, Duguay noted.
“At the end of the day, we are literally paying people to shop locally,” Duguay said of the program, which she believes is unique. And supporters are pleased that all businesses in Middlebury are to be included in the program, not just those in the downtown.
“This is definitely a townwide issue,” Duguay said. “When the downtown begins to be impacted, that will affect everyone else. I think it’s important all the Neighbors Together efforts are really focused on the town as a whole.”
Officials have thus far reached out to 75-percent of the businesses, only one of which has declined to participate in MMM, according to Duguay.
“Businesses so far have been really receptive to it,” she said.
Here’s an overview of the other pieces of the downtown marketing game plan, as described by Duguay:
•  A revamp of the current “Experience Middlebury” website that will focus more on promoting Middlebury businesses, featuring an events calendar with all the different events happening in town on a given day. The re-tooled website will launch this August, according to Duguay.
•  A digital advertising campaign that will include digital media to extoll what Duguay called the “hidden gems” in town, as well as a multi-media campaign to promote shopping locally. The campaign will also focus on attracting tourists from throughout New England through Yankee Magazine.
Duguay is compiling a list of local lodging establishments, caterers and venues that could host, or serve, conferences and retreats that could be held in Middlebury during the next few years. The group will reach out to organizations to encourage them to hold their conferences in Middlebury in spite of the bridge work.
•  Beautification efforts to brighten up some of the temporary construction-related upheaval. This will include a rotating series of art exhibits to adorn chain link fences (courtesy of Town Hall Theater and local artists), along with planters and flower boxes in construction areas.
•  A brochure to feature a listing of all Middlebury restaurants, retail and hospitality to be distributed throughout the state at brochure racks.
•  A variety of way-finding and parking signs to help people navigate through construction.
•  A series of outdoor special events — including a block party, two concerts and four movies this summer — aimed at attracting people to the downtown.
The movies will begin at dusk and will be held at the new municipal park at the intersection of South Main and College streets. The lineup includes “Ferdinand” on June 27, “Hidden Treasures” on July 18, “The Great Showman” on Aug. 1 and “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” on Aug. 15. That Aug. 15 film will be preceded by a block party from 5 to 8 p.m., during which Main Street will be closed from the intersection of Merchants Row to the rotary. The block party will feature food, entertainment (the Horse Traders musical group), fun activities and extended hours at local businesses.
And here’s a potential new wrinkle to this year’s block party — organizers are looking into the possibility of temporarily laying down sod on Main Street from noon to 10 p.m. period, with hay bails and a pop-up playground to give it an entirely new feel to the often-busy road.
The two concerts will be held at Riverfront Park in the Marble Works shopping complex. “Quinn and the Confluence,” a folk-rock group, will perform at 7 p.m. on July 5. But the fun will begin at 6 p.m. with lawn games. And American Flatbread will be selling pizza by the slice, along with wine and beer.
The second concert, with the same format and venue, is scheduled for July 26 and will feature “Deb Brisson and the Hay Burners,” an alt-country group.
FEELING THE PINCH
Duguay said she realizes some downtown businesses are already feeling a financial pinch as a result of disruption caused by removal of the two rail bridges last summer and in wake of some of the preliminary drainage work on the project this spring. As previously reported by the Independent, The Diner has closed, the Ben Franklin store will shutter in August and Carol’s Hungry Mind Café suspended service for several days last month in connection with a state tax debt brought on by slower sales.
She stressed Neighbors Together members have been aware of the business hardships and have been working behind the scenes to come up with some assistance.
Current outreach, according to Duguay, is providing information for a comprehensive database of area businesses that will serve the Better Middlebury Partnership and Neighbors Together during future promotional efforts, according to Duguay.
“So much of what we are doing is long-term,” Duguay said. “We have done a lot in a short amount of time, and people will see the results this summer.”
The Independent will follow up on MMM and the other Neighbors Together initiatives when they are ready to launch this summer.
Nancie Dunn owns the Sweet Cecily store at 42 Main St. She’s looking forward to the upcoming slate of activities.
“I especially love both the public art project and the neighborhood block party in August,” she said through an email. “I feel they provide some levity and fun within a disruptive environment and say to local people and visitors ‘come and enjoy our town no matter what we are!’”
She said the extra way-finding signs will be helpful and hopes they are placed in “new and imaginative spots to really help out the lost and confused.”
Dunn is hopeful the new marketing efforts and MMM will help promote local sales. 
“There can’t really be a ‘magic bullet’ to prevent loss of business, lack of parking, access, but at least there are organizations that  have stepped up to be proactive and we should all be very appreciative,” she said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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