Panel recommends steps to grow more businesses in Middlebury
An economic vision — an ‘elevator pitch’ for Middlebury that could really represent the town’s vision for economic development — was really needed as the guiding force and principle to tackle all the other pieces.
— Ben Calvi
MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury should resume its economic development efforts through a new entity — with staff either hired or volunteer — that would reach out to business prospects, as well as invest in better broadband infrastructure to boost new and growing enterprises in Addison County’s shire town.
Those are but two in a series of recommendations contained in a report released last week by the Middlebury Economic Health Committee, or MEHC. The Middlebury selectboard created the committee in 2018 to recommend economic development tools, policies, strategies and actions the community could employ to improve the local business landscape.
The 10-member MEHC was created in the aftermath of a more ambitious (but ill-fated) “Middlebury Community Development Fund” effort that was discontinued in 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.
Led by Addison County Economic Development Corp. Executive Director Fred Kenney, the MEHC included members of the business community, the selectboard, citizenry and the Better Middlebury Partnership business organization. The panel met 23 times and received feedback from some 86 business owners, citizens, officials and economic development professionals.
Based on that feedback, the MEHC developed three broad assignments the town could undertake to accomplish its economic development mission. They include:
• Develop a brief economic vision/strategy for the town of Middlebury based upon the community’s unique strengths, which could galvanize investment in the local economy. Committee members identified the town’s economic calling cards as agricultural diversity, outdoor recreation, arts/culture and craft beverages.
“After spending two or three months looking at the issues, that first need of having an economic vision — an ‘elevator pitch’ for the town that could really represent the town’s vision for economic development — was really needed as the guiding force and principle to tackle all the other pieces,” MEHC member Ben Calvi said. “Once that vision is created, we need a champion to spearhead that.”
• Establish an entity to “act on behalf of Middlebury’s economic health and implement the town’s vision.” The panel suggested this entity could be a new municipal hire; a new independent, nongovernmental organization; or a nonprofit corporation. The group also suggested the town could hire the new staffer in collaboration with the Better Middlebury Partnership and/or the Addison County Economic Development Corp. (ACEDC).
“There’s difference of opinion, and it’s up the selectboard and town to decide how to go about that,” said Calvi, who is general manager of Vermont Hard Cider. “Whether the ambassador is town-paid or a nonprofit partnership, someone needs to be doing this every day, full-time, and not ad-hoc committee style with volunteers, to really get that sustained effort in economic development that the town really needs.”
Kenney and his colleagues said that regardless of which entity the selectboard picks, a town official should serve as a liaison to the economic development effort.
“Someone with the authority and gravitas to speak on behalf of the town, meet with existing businesses to discuss current issues to bring back to the selectboard for action, and conduct welcome visits with new businesses on behalf of the town,” the MEHC report states in describing the liaison.
Among the new economic development entity’s varied duties: act as an initial point of contact with new and existing businesses/organizations; develop, in multiple formats, a welcome packet for new businesses; connect developers to and help navigate state, federal and local permitting requirements; and assist existing enterprises with growth plans while recruiting new enterprises, with the primary goal of filling vacant properties in town.
• Focus on maintaining and improving essential infrastructure and amenities to keep and attract businesses and families. The committee cited specific examples of what the town should support, including: a revitalized Ilsley Library, more affordable housing and child care facilities, a community center that serves all ages, an “art mart” similar to the farmers’ market, improved high-speed broadband internet services and cell phone service, and special attention to services for the state’s fastest growing demographic: Folks age 55 and older.
Kenney noted the town has a community development revolving loan fund that has accrued to $160,000. He and his colleagues are suggesting that money be invested in a manner that could leverage other funds — such as in the improvement of high-speed broadband, as a further inducement for new businesses to settle in Middlebury. The committee specifically suggested investing the funds in the recently established Addison County Communications Union District, or CUD, designed to enhance the availability and affordability of high-speed broadband.
The MEHC also gave the selectboard a primer on how to tap into Vermont’s Tax Increment Financing (TIF) program. It’s a program municipalities can use to finance improvements for public infrastructure like streets, sidewalks and storm-water management systems. Here’s how it works, according to Vermont Agency of Commerce & Community Development website: A municipality and the Vermont Economic Progress Council must OK the creation of a TIF district, then voters must authorize municipal bonds or other debt to finance construction or improvement of public infrastructure to serve the TIF district. As the infrastructure is built and improved, the private sector follows with investments in new and/or renovated buildings.
This private investment incrementally increases the value of the grand list. The boost in the value of the grand list and the generation of incremental revenue are the result of the TIF financing that paid for the infrastructure improvements that attracted new investment, business and visitors.
According to statute, the Legislature now only has four more TIF districts to award.
It’s too soon to tell whether Middlebury could benefit from a TIF district, according to Kenney. Middlebury doesn’t yet have a specific project lined up, and thus can’t yet calculate how much public infrastructure would be required and how much it would cost.
“You need to be able to mitigate or eliminate the risk, the biggest one being the town commits to some public infrastructure and goes into debt for that infrastructure, and then the development doesn’t occur or occurs more slowly than planned, so you have a period where you have to cover that debt somehow.”
The selectboard on Oct. 27 unanimously accepted the MEHC’s report and said they hoped to implement some of its recommendations during the coming months.
“There were a couple of things that came out of this that will help us in guiding our future efforts,” selectboard Chairman Brian Carpenter said. “I appreciate you doing the heavy lifting.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].
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