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$50,000 ‘kick start’ OK’d for downtown Middlebury

MIDDLEBURY — The Middlebury selectboard on Tuesday unanimously agreed to allocate up to $50,000 in unspent economic development funds to help the Better Middlebury Partnership (BMP) fill vacant downtown storefronts with new businesses.
“Kick Start Middlebury” is a collaboration of the BMP, Addison County Economic Development Corp., Addison County Chamber of Commerce, Vermont Small Business Development Center and Middlebury College. Patterned after a similar program in the southern  Vermont town of Wilmington, Kick Start will award incentive packages to three or four stores committed to making downtown Middlebury their home.
Each package is to include a $10,000 grant and additional supports for such things as marketing, advertising, printing and consulting services. Plans call for some of those supports to be donated by existing Middlebury businesses.
The program will be funded with some of the unspent money in the Middlebury Business Development Fund (MBDF).
Landlords of vacant spaces will also be asked to chip in with temporary rent reductions and/or space improvements for new tenants, according to BMP board member Amey Ryan and Executive Director Karen Duguay.
Kick Start applications will be evaluated by a panel that will include representatives from the BMP, the college, the town, the chamber of commerce, Addison County Economic Development Corp. and Small Business Development Center, and current business owners and community members.
Organizers want to see a Kick Start beneficiary set up in one of the downtown’s vacant storefronts by this June.
Selectman Nick Artim gave high marks to the program.
“This is thinking big, thinking different,” Artim said. “If we do it right, we can put the vibe back in downtown Middlebury.”
But a few town officials voiced a few reservations. For selectboard Chairman Brian Carpenter, it was the timing of the program — amid a pandemic. He suggested the BMP initially work with $20,000, instead of $50,000, “to see what the draw is” for Kick Start. He expressed concern that current COVID conditions might impede what would otherwise be a successful program.
“There will be a natural surge (of mercantile enthusiasm) when the vaccination rate is at 80%,” he argued. Still, he backed the program.
Middlebury Planning & Zoning Director Jennifer Murray suggested the remaining MBDF funds might be best spent on improvements to downtown infrastructure, such as streets, sidewalks, parks, trails, bike lanes, crosswalks, and water-sewer-stormwater systems.
“The best thing that a town can do to support economic development is support the infrastructure,” Murray said. “It’s not (my) opinion; it’s professional practice. This is what consultants tell the towns every time, because towns often want to use money to directly impact how the public sector works, and it just doesn’t always work out well in practice.”
She placed the current downtown vacancy rate at around 8.5%, which she said is close to the 6% norm for a “healthy downtown.”
Ryan acknowledged the need for infrastructure upgrades, but said those could come after new businesses are recruited.
“It’s a classic ‘chicken and the egg,’” she said. “What do you do first, and how do you support everything? No matter what, not everyone is going to be happy with every outcome … There has to be a reason for people to be in the downtown in order to move them around the infrastructure that’s there.”
Ryan said the current empty storefronts are not a good calling card for the downtown.
“Certainly, the optics of the Middlebury vacancy rate is far worse than 8%, when you look at what’s available for space downtown,” Ryan said.
With the program now cleared, organizers will turn their attention to refining an application and review process that will include criteria deemed important to Middlebury (as opposed to generic). Ryan made it clear that Kick Start will be looking for businesses that can not only be successful, but that can also serve as magnets for shoppers and other enterprises.
“Our hope is that we can get businesses in town that are a draw to a variety of different demographics,” she said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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