Group is committed to survival of downtown Middlebury
MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury officials have long chanted the mantra “We’re all in this together,” when it comes to enduring the massive downtown rail bridges project that will create some hardship before culminating in a more alluring and utilitarian village core by 2021.
So it’s no coincidence that the citizens’ group that will help the downtown weather the construction storm is calling itself “Neighbors Together.”
The group — made up of area residents and representatives of numerous local businesses, religious institutions and civic organizations — is spearheading a series of activities and programs designed to encourage commerce in downtown Middlebury while workers are replacing the Main Street and Merchants Row bridges with a concrete tunnel. The $72 million project is expected to take around three years to complete, with the most invasive work to occur during the summer of 2020. Preliminary work has already begun with the drilling of a drainage system for the rail bed, which borders the Otter Creek.
“I think it’s really important to mention that in a small community like Middlebury, everything is tied to everything else,” Neighbors Together member and Better Middlebury Partnership Marketing Director Karen Duguay said through a recent Q&A prepared and circulated by the group.
“This isn’t just a downtown issue,” she added. “The health and vibrancy of a downtown impacts everything else in the community, just like the health and vibrancy of other industries have a direct impact on a downtown. Here in Middlebury, our merchants are our neighbors and their success is our success as a community. We all live here for a reason — and I think most of us really love living here. If we want to preserve what we love, we need to prioritize our community over cost and convenience whenever possible.”
The origins of Neighbors Together can be traced to St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, which is at the geographic epicenter of the rail bridges project. Resident Nancy Malcolm three years ago was part of a St. Stephen’s subcommittee that was looking at ways of maximizing community use of church facilities.
It’s an exercise that took on an added dimension as the bridges project became more defined.
“It became evident that we were sitting on top of the railroad tracks, and in 2015, a lot was still being discussed (about the rail bridges project),” Malcolm recalled. “We were concerned about the whole community, and thought we could use our church as a place for forums … So we invited people to join us.”
And join they did. Representatives of the Better Middlebury Partnership, Middlebury College, town government, Addison County Chamber of Commerce and other stakeholders added their voices and opinions to a common cause: How to help the downtown survive, and even thrive, amid three years of construction disruption?
Organizers were committed to making it a non-partisan effort.
“We made a conscious decision from the start to not weigh in on the pros and cons of the project,” Malcolm said. “It was strictly, ‘How can we support the community and the businesses through the rail and bridge project?’”
Malcolm said “hundreds” of ideas emerged from a series of four Neighbors Together forums held during 2016. Some of those ideas have already been implemented, such as a Midd Summer Movie Series and recruitment of volunteers to direct shoppers and visitors to their downtown destinations. Those and other efforts — as well as a “block party” — were in force while the Merchants Row and Main Street bridges were replaced with temporary spans last summer.
And Neighbors Together plans to turn up the dial on activities this summer, thanks to a $115,000 budget. It includes a $75,000 grant from the Vermont Agency of Transportation that can be used to market the community, and a $40,000 grant by the United States Department of Agriculture (with a local match from the Middlebury Downtown Improvement District Commission) to promote the entire Middlebury business community through a digital platform — a major overhaul to the experiencemiddlebury.com website.
The Independent in its Monday, June 4, issue provided an overview of this year’s Neighbors Together initiatives, which include a block party, financial rewards to shoppers, downtown beautification efforts and some outdoor movies and concerts. As always, all efforts are designed to drive more visitors to the downtown area in spite of occasional detours, noise and fewer parking spaces.
“We recognize that this is not easy and we are not naïve to the challenges that we face,” Malcolm said, acknowledging that retail businesses were dealing with market forces like Amazon.com even before the rail bridges project came to the fore.
“The reality is that retail is tough and business during a major disruptive project is even tougher,” she added. “Many downtowns have struggled with the exodus of brick and mortar businesses leaving, and Middlebury has not had to deal with this in the same manner as other communities. It is a reminder that it is even more important to support our local businesses.”
Neighbors Together is now meeting monthly and has welcomed new members. They include representatives of Town Hall Theater, Addison Central Teens and the Henry Sheldon Museum of Vermont History, to name a few. And the group is already starting to pivot to next year and beyond, when construction will intensify. Neighbors Together goals for 2019 and 2020 include bringing Wi-Fi to the downtown, bringing small conferences to Middlebury, and trying to get legislative approval for some tax free days for the town during the scheduled 10-week shutdown of Main Street and Merchants Row in 2020.
“In the fall we will assess how the summer has gone and determine our course for 2019 by building on what we have done,” Malcolm said.
Folks who want to contribute to the Neighbors Together effort can email [email protected]. Neighbors Together is currently revamping the experiencemiddlebury.com website, expected to go live within the next week or two.
Malcolm is hoping for a lot of input and support from the public.
“It is apparent that we need the backing of the community to be successful,” she said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].
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