Middlebury forms business panel to create more jobs

MIDDLEBURY — The Middlebury selectboard on Tuesday OK’d formation and charge of a new Middlebury Economic Health Committee, an up-to nine-person panel that will recommend specific strategies to boost economic development in Addison County’s shire town.
Borrowing from the work of the 2017 Economic Health Task Force as a starting point, the new committee will meet four or five times this summer with the goal of delivering its recommendations to the selectboard early this November.
Middlebury officials continue to look for a less costly but more fruitful economic development path in the aftermath of a more ambitious but ill-fated “Middlebury Community Development Fund” effort that was discontinued in the spring of 2017 after failing to deliver substantial new business start-ups and jobs. The development fund, led by a paid staffer, was co-funded to the tune of more than $150,000 annually by local property taxpayers, Middlebury College and the business community.
The selectboard appointed an Economic Health Task Force last summer to re-boot the community’s economic development aspirations. That 11-member task force, chaired by Selectwoman Heather Seeley, proposed a seven-point strategy that included creating a new revolving loan fund to support business start-ups, and using some of Middlebury’s surplus local option tax revenue to improve its infrastructure to help attract entrepreneurs.
Officials saw the task force’s work as a strong foundation to an economic development plan that could be further defined by a new group — the Middlebury Economic Health Committee. The panel is being asked to:
•  Consider ways of retaining and expanding existing retail operations.
•  Provide a basic analysis of the economic viability of Tax Increment Financing to support infrastructure improvements in the downtown that could serve as a magnet for future enterprises.
•  Pitch the most effective use of remaining money in the Middlebury Business Development Fund, including — but not limited to — providing revolving loan funds or other low- or no-cost economic development tools that have been successful in other Vermont communities.
•  Explore use of Vermont Community Development Program revolving loan funds to support economic development.
•  Use a website to further promote the economic health of the town.
Committee members will need to include in their report how their proposals could be carried out — by a committee, staff and/or a combination thereof.
The new committee already has four members, all of whom know a great deal about the business world: Addison County Economic Development Corp. Executive Director Fred Kenney, Middlebury Selectman (and One Dollar Market owner) Farhad Khan, and Community Barn Ventures Co-founders Mary Cullinane and Stacey Rainey. Based in downtown Middlebury, Community Barn Ventures is a company that helps entrepreneurs and growing businesses succeed.
The current four panelists will recruit up to five additional members to join them.
Having the report due in November would allow its money-related recommendations to be considered for the fiscal year 2020 municipal budget, which will be in the works at that time, noted Middlebury Town Manager Kathleen Ramsay.
Middlebury selectboard Chairman Brian Carpenter is anxious to get the group to work. He noted some troubling events on the retail front this spring, including the shuttering of The Diner back on Memorial Day, and the scheduled closing of both the Sears Store on Exchange Street (on July 1) and the Ben Franklin Store (this August).
The owners of Ollie’s Other Place, the book, toy, game and educational gift store on Washington Street, announced on Wednesday that they would close the business on June 30 due to weak sales.
“It’s not all related to the bridge project; it’s the economic environment that we’re in right now,” Carpenter said.
Seeley agreed, and pointed to a recent trend of vacant storefronts in downtown Bristol.
“They aren’t going through a bridge project,” Seeley noted of Bristol.
“I think the bridges project has become a bit of a scapegoat,” she added. “Downtown retail is suffering all over.”
Selectwoman Laura Asermily is pleased to see the town continue to pursue an economic development strategy. She recommended that Middlebury offer, on its website, some helpful links and pointers to businesses while the committee is doing its work.
Cullinane noted the Better Middlebury Partnership’s “Experience Middlebury” website is currently being updated to reflect — before the end of this August — the assets and resources available to residents and entrepreneurs.
“You will have, prior to November, a place that is being marketed and shared in a way that’s attractive and people will know what to do with it when they get there,” Cullinane said of the website, experiencemiddlebury.com.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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