May 3, 2007
By JOHN FLOWERS
MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury residents are being challenged to come up with three specific projects designed to creatively energize the town’s economy, which has taken a few hits in recent months.
The Vermont Council on Rural Development’s (VCRD) “Creative Communities Program” periodically loans select towns consultants and other resources to brainstorm ideas on how to improve the local economy in a way that uses a community’s unique assets — such as its location, geographic attributes, special products and/or homegrown talent.
In February Middlebury applied to become a part of the Creative Communities Program, which has already provided services to nine other Vermont towns, including Hardwick and Rutland.
“The local economy in Middlebury is at a critical juncture,” Middlebury Town Planner Fred Dunnington wrote in the town’s Feb. 28 application to the VCRD. “Our manufacturing industry suffered two rapid and severe blows.”
Those two severe blows were the announced closings last January of the Specialty Filaments and Standard Register plants. Specialty Filaments has since reopened under new ownership and the Standard Register facility is being purchased by Connor Homes, but local officials still believe Middlebury could use a shot in the arm.
“The losses in Middlebury’s manufacturing businesses have been occurring for some time, and the recent blows have focused attention on the need to innovate and define new efforts to support Middlebury’s economy and employment base,” Dunnington wrote.
He said Middlebury needed an “outside organization” to help harness the town’s many attributes to take its economic development ideas to the next level. He said the town’s attributes include a thriving arts community; Middlebury College; and a good collection of civic, businesses and government organizations.
On the downside, Dunnington acknowledged some of Middlebury’s negatives — including high property taxes.
“In summary, we are energized and looking forward to working with the Creative Communities Program,” Dunnington wrote. “The process will help us establish a tradition of synergistic collaboration that we intend to carry forward.”
The VCRD recently confirmed that it had accepted Middlebury (along with Manchester and Richmond) as part of its 2007 Creative Communities Program. As such, Middlebury will receive:
• Three public forums, coordinated by VCRD officials and planning consultants.
The first of these forums, scheduled for Tuesday, May 15, from 6:30 to 9 p.m. at the Ilsley Library, is open to anyone with suggestions on creative projects that could enhance the Middlebury economy and community.
A second forum will be held on June 5, from 7 to 8:30 p.m., to select three “priority projects” that could be taken from concept to reality.
The third and final hearing will take place on June 27, from 6:30 to 9 p.m., to draw up “action plans” to follow through on the three projects
• A final report that will summarize Middlebury’s participation in the Creative Communities Program, outlining the town’s project goals and specific ways to reach those goals.
• Assistance from VCRD consultants during and after the public forums.
Helen Labun Jordan, director of the Creative Communities Program, said the services that Middlebury will receive will be covered by a grant from Jane’s Trust.
She’s hoping for a big turnout at the May 15 forum. All ideas, big and small, will be welcome.
“If people care about the culture, economy and the community of the Middlebury area, they should be at this forum,” Jordan said.
Past participating towns have made good use of their Creative Communities Program experiences, according to Jordan. Hardwick, for example, was able to plan new business incubator/arts spaces for its “Centennial Building.” Grand Isle County is developing a trail system to showcase some of its thriving farms.
“If people are excited about the potential of their community, this (program) is the thing to do,” Jordan said.
Middlebury Planning Commission member Nancy Malcolm is looking forward to the forums and the ideas they are likely to spawn.
“The whole idea is to connect the culture, community and commerce,” Malcolm said. “It’s a wonderful opportunity for all of us to put our creative minds together and come up with something. It’s a win-win situation.”