Middlebury eyes new bid to boost economy; composition of panel spurs discussion

MIDDLEBURY — The Middlebury selectboard on Tuesday wrote the first paragraph in the latest chapter about spurring economic development in town, though members got off to a rocky start in forming a new panel that will lead the effort.
Following a 50-minute-long discussion, the selectboard voted 4-3 on a slate of nine members of the new “Middlebury Economic Health Committee 2018,” a group charged with recommending “several economic development tools” the town could use to help current businesses flourish while inducing others to settle and grow in Addison County’s shire town.
Led by Addison County Economic Development Corp. Executive Director Fred Kenney, the economic health committee will spend the next few months speaking with area business leaders and studying state and regional programs that could make Middlebury a more attractive destination for entrepreneurs.
The panel is being asked to deliver its report and recommendations to the selectboard in mid-November.
Local officials are launching this latest economic development project with a lot of background and tempered expectations.
It’s Middlebury’s third stab at economic development policy during the past five years.
The selectboard last year discontinued the “Middlebury Community Development Fund” after it failed to deliver substantial new business start-ups and jobs. The development fund, staffed by a paid director, had been co-funded at more than $150,000 annually by local property taxpayers, Middlebury College and the business community.
The selectboard then appointed a 2017 Economic Health Task Force to re-boot the community’s business development aspirations. That 11-member task force, chaired by Selectwoman Heather Seeley, pitched 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 this past June decided to form a new group to expand upon the 2017 Economic Health Committee’s work. The panel is being asked to find ways to keep and expand current retail opportunities, analyze the economic viability of Tax Increment Financing to support infrastructure improvements in the downtown, explore a revolving loan fund for entrepreneurs, and determine how the town could impart its “open for business” message through social media.
Forming the “Middlebury Economic Health Committee 2018” proved a challenge for the selectboard on Tuesday, as individual board members differed on some of the proposed appointees. The selectboard in June agreed on the first four Health Committee members: Kenney; Selectman Farhad Khan; and Mary Cullinane and Stacey Rainey, the co-owners of Community Barn Ventures in downtown Middlebury.
But some selectboard members urged reconsideration of the appointments of both Cullinane and Rainey, saying it might be unwise to have two representatives of a single business voting on matters that come before the new panel.
Selectman Victor Nuovo recommended that either Cullinane or Rainey — who were both present at Tuesday’s board meeting — step down from the panel and contribute in a non-voting capacity.
“I should have been more alert earlier on; it’s not proper to have two persons who run a single business as voting members of a town committee,” Nuovo said. “It’s like having two members of the same family. I think, perhaps that this should be self-evident. ”
Selectman Nick Artim agreed, and suggested Rainey or Cullinane could either join as an alternate or ex-officio member.
“Both of you I know are talented and would be good contributors, it’s just the voting concept of two from the same organization; it really makes me uneasy,” Artim said. “I also don’t want to give up anyone on this list … I think it’s a good, overall balance of employers.”
The membership list pitched by Kenney also includes Steve Boyce, owner of Flatbread in the Marble Works complex; Vermont Cider Co. General Manager Ben Calvi; Vermont Bookshop owner Becky Dayton; Karen Duguay, executive director of the Better Middlebury Partnership and member of Addison County Chamber of Commerce board; and Tinker and Smithy Gamestore owner Scott Gemignani.
Former state lawmaker and Vermont Bicycle Touring founder John Freidin also offered to serve on the panel, as did Denecker Chevrolet owner Mike Capra.
“Everybody on (the list) expressed interest in one way or another,” Kenney said. “That’s why they’re on here.”
Kenney voiced concern about taking either Rainey or Cullinane off the list.
“You chose them to be on the committee as individuals,” he told the board. “They worked with me and Farhad to find and recruit people and interview them … It’s a bit odd that they’re now being told one of them can’t be on a voting person on the committee.”
Selectboard members Laura Asermily and Lindsey Fuentes-George also supported Kenney’s choices.
“I know they’re from the same business, and they are two different people,” Asermily said. “They’re both very valuable … They’ve already invested quite a bit of energy, both of them, into thinking about our economic health future.”
Fuentes-George added there will likely be future opportunities for other citizens to participate in the town’s future economic development plans.
“I think we should honor the work you’ve already done to get this off the ground,” Fuentes-George told Kenney. “I also want to say I don’t like shaving off two voting members who are women, from a committee that only has four women.”
With the board split 3-3 on the notion of keeping Cullinane and Rainey on the panel, selectboard Chairman Brian Carpenter cast the deciding vote to accept Kenney’s list. And the board agreed to make Freidin and Capra alternate (non-voting) members, and to have Town Planner Jen Murray serve as an ex-officio member.
“I agree it’s probably poor policy to have two family members or two people from the same business on one committee, but that said, we made a commitment on June 12 and I don’t feel good about pulling someone off that we’ve already voted on,” Carpenter said. “It’s probably an oversight on our part and something we should take as a learning lesson.”
He added Cullinane and Rainey were “the first ones who stepped forward after we’d been looking for a year to get volunteers. I can’t vote to pull one of them off at this time. I feel like we owe it to live with our original decision.”
In other action on Tuesday, the Middlebury selectboard got a brief look at a plan to build an anaerobic digester in the town’s industrial park that would produce methane from wastewater generated by the nearby Otter Creek Brewing and Agri-Mark/Cabot businesses. That methane would be used to generate electricity that would be sold to the local utility. The plan is being developed by a company called Purpose Energy Inc., which must secure permission from the Vermont Public Utilities Commission (PUC) to make the project happen on land owned by Tony Neri at 183 Industrial Ave.
The selectboard on Tuesday agreed to waive a requirement that Purpose Energy provide the town of Middlebury with a copy of its application at least 45 days prior to submitting it the PUC.
The Independent will feature a more detailed report on the Purpose Energy proposal in an upcoming edition.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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