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Middlebury nets COVID relief funds

The restaurant business in Middlebury lost around 175 employees out of around 350 during the pandemic … Now the restaurants are trying to hire like crazy, and … they’re getting no responses.
— Selectman Dan Brown

MIDDLEBURY — U.S. Rep. Peter Welch figuratively applied a little salve to Middlebury’s municipal and educational pandemic wounds on Tuesday evening with news of federal recovery grants: $2.57 million for the town, and $3.14 million for the Addison Central School District.
That money is Middlebury’s cut from the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), which was aimed at helping the nation rebound from the COVID-19 pandemic that has taken a financial toll on municipalities, schools, businesses and individuals.
The Vermont Democrat delivered the good news during a 15-minute Zoom appearance at Tuesday’s Middlebury selectboard meeting. His remarks were at times muffled by the shrill ringing of the Capitol Building bell signaling an imminent vote on the House floor.
“The federal government’s role was to get some resources back to our communities, but the decision on how best to use them has to be made locally,” Welch told the selectboard. “Those of you who have been elected have been entrusted with this enormous responsibility, and you’re the ones who are going to be making these decisions — and you’ll be getting direct input from members of your community.”
He noted municipal officials will have flexibility in how they deploy their ARPA funds. He outlined the basic use parameters.
“It has to be COVID-related,” he said, though he called that a “broad definition.” Local officials could use the money to mop up red ink linked to the pandemic. They could also use it to contract with nonprofits to get food to residents in need. It could be used to give extra pay to frontline workers. And it could be spent on water, sewer and broadband infrastructure needs “that are a part of every town’s challenge,” according to Welch.
Middlebury selectboard Chairman Brian Carpenter raised the issue of “fine print” that could come later about ARPA ground rules.
It’s a justifiable, though not insurmountable concern, according to Welch.
“I suspect that when this money finally gets out and allocated, you’ll run into some rules and regulations that are, from your perspective, impediments to the best use of the money,” he said. “Let us know what the problems are because we’re going to want to advocate to realign the rules to achieve the goals  — which is maximum flexibility and benefit for the people of Middlebury.”
Communities will get the first half of their ARPA allotment later this spring, and the second half a year later.
Unlike with the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations (CARES) Act — where grants originally had to be used by the end of 2020 — communities will have until the end of 2024 to spend their ARPA funds. Town managers will be asked to keep an accounting on how the money is used.
Meanwhile, ACSD officials are already drafting plans for use of the $3.14 million it will receive through a subset of ARPA, called the Elementary & Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) fund.
“A central priority in ACSD is literacy, and we are using some of the ESSER funds to hire positions to provide targeted intervention and district-wide focus on literacy,” ACSD Superintendent Peter Burrows told the Independent.
“In addition, we’ll be hiring positions to improve home-school coordination, support student wellness, and focus on Pre-K transition. We also expect that as we build a strategic plan for equity in the coming academic year, we’ll use this grant funding to support that work and our commitment to closing the opportunity gap across our district.”
Plans call for the Middlebury selectboard to schedule a retreat in the near future to consider potential ARPA spending strategies. Citizens will also be asked to weigh in.
“You’re going to have a hard job here, because there will be lots of folks advocating how to use this money coming your way,” Welch said. “And that’s a good thing, because you want as much civic engagement as possible. But at the end of the day, you’re going to have to make these decisions.”
Carpenter thanked Welch and his colleagues for the federal pandemic assistance that’s been flowing since last year — including the Payroll Protection Program that has allowed businesses to keep workers employed.
“There are many of us on the board who are small business people, and I think I speak for every one of them that your CARES Act was critical to the survival of so many of these small businesses, and certainly our customers,” he told Welch. “It’s helped Vermont immensely, so we appreciate that. We appreciate the opportunity to have time to be methodical in using the money that’s forthcoming…
“The work you’re doing down there is being seen here at the local level, and I think you’d be very proud of the way Middlebury and the greater Addison County community has held together and kept most of our businesses and people safe and continuing to move forward,” Carpenter concluded.
Selectman Dan Brown, former co-owner of the Swift House Inn, cited a new problem some Middlebury businesses are facing as COVID-19 restrictions gradually dissipate.
“There are no employees right now for anyone to hire,” he said. “The restaurant business in Middlebury lost around 175 employees out of around 350 during the pandemic, because of layoffs and everything. Now the restaurants are trying to hire like crazy, and are offering anywhere between $20 and $25 (per hour) for someone to come and start in a restaurant and they’re getting no responses. So are the inns. It’s going to be desperate. There are going to be businesses that might be in as bad a trouble as they were during the worst of the pandemic, just because they can’t open fully and will have to reduce their hours of operation. I’m sure it’s across the state, but Middlebury is in great difficulty right now.”
The director of Welch’s Vermont office, Rebecca Ellis, promised to look into Brown’s concern.
Vermont’s lone Congressman paused to reflect upon the turmoil triggered by the virus 13 months ago.
“Restaurants were closed, town offices and schools were closing, and everyone who had a business was wondering, ‘What in the heck am I going to do, and how am I going to keep body and soul together,’” Welch said. “It was staggering and abrupt change.”
He applauded Vermont’s efforts in keeping infection rates down while Congress came up with what he called a “very ambitious response” that included the CARES Act and ARPA. Both were designed to help Americans and the national economy weather the coronavirus storm and rebound to pre-pandemic conditions.
Welch hailed the rollout COVID-19 vaccines — though the Johnson & Johnson version was “paused” early this week after it was linked to a potential blood clotting issue.
But recent progress aside, Welch acknowledged, “we still have a ways to go, as you know. There are more steps to be taken on this journey before it’s behind us.”
“Get your shots, social distance, wear your mask,” he added. “The end is in sight.”

RAIL TUNNEL
Welch touched upon one non-coronavirus issue during his Tuesday appearance: Middlebury’s $73 million downtown tunnel project that will conclude this August after several years of planning and heavy construction work.
He saluted Middlebury officials for their stewardship of the project.
“That was pretty ambitious,” he said of the 360-foot concrete tunnel that’s replaced the 1920s-era Main Street and Merchants Row bridges.
“I never thought it would happen,” he added, noting all the moving parts — which included a 10-week train detour and shutdown of major downtown thoroughfares last summer. “If you can keep everyone happy and maintain the patience that it takes to do a project like that — underground and in the middle of downtown — you’ve got to come down here (to D.C.) to straighten things out.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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