Letter to the editor: Does Middlebury need a mayor?
For 20 years Middlebury has been in transition. And we are not alone.
Across the country, rural towns are changing from places where residents once purchased all they needed to places where they regularly shop online and at big box stores. Some of these towns have successfully remade themselves into thriving centers of entertainment, recreation, and non-essential spending. These usually historic towns appeal to visitors and still meet many of their residents’ needs. Middlebury is such a fortunate town.
There are three parts to Middlebury: Downtown, the US 7 corridor plus Exchange Street, and the open land that encircles these two.
Downtown — Merchants Row, Main Street, Frog Hollow, and the Marbleworks — already attracts many visitors. They are drawn here by our town’s charm; Middlebury College; Porter Medical Center; the surrounding farmland, lakes, and mountains; endless outdoor recreation; a dynamic craft beverage industry; a vibrant community of painters, sculptors, craftspeople, musicians, and actors; and an abundance of restaurants, inns, theaters, sporting events, bars, museums, and niche retail stores. Middlebury has become a smorgasbord of outdoor recreation, arts, entertainment, discretionary spending, and opportunities for investment.
Visitors are unhurried. They like to mosey about downtown and explore the ways it differs from their hometowns. They buy and do things that are not essential. Unlike residents, visitors are undeterred by inconvenient parking. Rather than build more parking, Middlebury might better up-grade downtown with gas lighting, brick streets, an art mart, and more opportunities for people to eat, drink and just sit outdoors. Even close Main Street to traffic several days a week.
Second is the space along US 7 and Exchange Street. US 7 South is especially suited to retailers who sell what residents need, because parking is plentiful and most Middlebury residents live, attend school, and exercise here. US 7 South is already the town’s prime location for residential development, supermarkets, pharmacies, eldercare, banks, clothing and furniture stores, sporting goods and dollar stores, automobile dealers, and paint, flooring, and hardware stores. Local residents can do their business here quickly and easily.
Exchange Street, on the other hand, is ideal for light manufacturing, such as craft beverages, dairy and wood products, and businesses selling farm equipment, auto parts, and building and garden supplies. (Conventional retail development along Exchange Street would require nearly everyone to drive through downtown to get there and would consume land especially suited for light manufacturing.)
Beyond this area lies Middlebury’s third part: a rolling landscape of farms, lakes, rivers, and mountains. This Land of Milk and Honey offers the most extensive assortment of outdoor recreation in Vermont: downhill and Nordic skiing, snowshoeing, sledding, skating, horseback riding, golf, tennis, pickleball, bicycling, hiking, fishing, hunting, swimming, sailing and camping.
In short, the Middlebury of the 20th century has been succeeded by a dynamic, diversified economy that makes Middlebury distinctive, dynamic, and a prime site for investment.
Our transition now calls for leadership, vision, and strategy. First we need an elected town leader, like a mayor, who has the time and responsibility to stimulate town efforts and galvanize public support for a shared vision of our future. Then Middlebury can develop a strategy and marketing plan that makes clear what distinguishes Middlebury from other small New England towns. And finally we must act to avoid sprawl and to create an attractive retail center south of downtown.
By nurturing, not fighting, current trends, Middlebury can build a vibrant, balanced economy. Let’s get to work!
Editor’s note: John Freidin is a member of the Economic Health Committee appointed by the Middlebury selectboard. The committee began its deliberations in July 2018 and halted them without making a report.
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