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Middlebury eyes economic boost

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Posted on December 16, 2010 |
By John Flowers



Part 1: Business leaders making plea for economic development director

Jump to part 2

MIDDLEBURY — The Better Middlebury Partnership (BMP) is lobbying for the town to hire an economic development director who would woo new businesses and jobs to the area.

The proposed $100,000 position (inclusive of benefits) — which Middlebury College and the business community would help underwrite — is part of a two-pronged effort the BMP is taking to stimulate the local economy and build on the town’s recent accomplishments of completing the Cross Street Bridge and landing education company e-Corporate English.

The BMP’s other proposal, also presented to the selectboard on Tuesday, is to hire a part-time “marketing coordinator” to promote special events and increase the flow of shoppers in downtown Middlebury (see story at right).

G. Kenneth Perine, a BMP board member and president of the National Bank of Middlebury, said the notion of hiring an economic development director arose around five years ago when the town and college began discussing the development potential of a parcel the two entities jointly own behind the Ilsley Public Library.

“One of the frustrations for those involved is that (the process) has sort of dragged,” he said of planning for that parcel. “And seems like now we have really got to up the ante.”

Upping the ante makes even more sense, Perine said, in light of e-Corporate English’s recently announced plans to expand in Middlebury and build a workforce of more than 100 within the next three years. Perine said e-Corp’s decision came by “happenstance” rather than out of a pre-scripted effort — something BMP officials say an economic development director could do proactively.

“We were lucky,” Perine said. But he stressed Middlebury will not be able to depend on luck in the future, in light of the increased competition among communities to land major employers. That means Middlebury will need to be more proactive in searching throughout the region, country and world for new businesses to lay down local roots.

Perine and David Donahue, special assistant to Middlebury College President Ron Liebowitz, said the town has the right assets to attract employers. Those assets include good quality of life, infrastructure, schools and Middlebury College, according to BMP members.

“This is the kind of position that can have a full-time focus on being competitive and being ready for those kinds of opportunities, but also going out and seeking them, and helping young and upstart businesses grow and become the next e-Corp,” Donahue said.

BMP officials said they envision the economic development director as part of a team that would include the Addison County Chamber of Commerce, Addison County Economic Development Corp. (ACEDC), town officials and other entities.

Donahue noted the college and its base of 80,000 alumni could be valuable resources for such a person.

“We have never really gone after our alumni body to recruit, to encourage this area,” Donahue said. “There are quite a few alumni in this area. It is a highly desirable place to live and work. We think we could make a pretty strong case on why folks would want to return to this area.

“The college is enthusiastic and willing to step up and be a partner in this,” he added.

Specifically, the college has offered to pay 35 percent ($35,000) of the total cost of the new position, with the town taking on 50 percent and the business community absorbing the remaining 15 percent.

Organizers would be looking to fill the post with an executive-level background, or senior manager with experience in the for-profit world — preferably with entrepreneurial experience.

“This would be someone who would be focused all day, every day, on Middlebury,” according to Donahue.

Donahue said Middlebury would not be setting a precedent in hiring an economic development director. Burlington, he noted, has an entire office devoted to promoting business growth in the Queen City. The town of Brandon recently hired a half-time economic development director, and Killington and Bennington also have such positions.

Selectboard members agreed on the need for the new position, but remain concerned about how the town could come up with its $50,000 share in a tough budget year. Combined with a related request for $25,000 toward the marketing coordinator’s salary, that would amount to a $75,000 bump in the municipal budget. That’s in the neighborhood of a penny on the tax rate.

“We have a lot of thinking to do,” Selectman Victor Nuovo said.

Officials also questioned whether some of the new employee’s work might be duplicative of what is already being done by the ACEDC. But supporters argued the new Middlebury-focused person could assist ACEDC Executive Director Robin Scheu out of her office, thereby giving her and her staff more time to focus on economic development initiatives in other parts of the county.

“I know the ACEDC has done a lot of work in Middlebury and I would hate to see this replace the work it is doing in Middlebury,” said Selectman Dean George.

Scheu said she would welcome a Middlebury economic development director to her office, a position she believes could complement services provided by the ACEDC, as long as the person’s tasks are clearly defined.

“I would like to see some real clarity on expectations and roles,” Scheu said. “We don’t look very good if we don’t have our act together, from the business standpoint. I’d like to see it be something where we support and enhance (services) together as opposed to butt heads and overlap.”

And ultimately, Perine does not envision the economic development director as someone who would be spending much time in the office.

“I see this person as a salesperson and recruiter, someone who is on the road all the time talking to people,” Perine said.

Selectboard members will spend the coming weeks determining whether to include a town share for the new positions in the 2011-2012 municipal budget that will be voted at the annual town meeting next March.

Donna Donahue, president of the BMP, said townspeople should consider the requests as an investment in the next generation of local workers.

“We’ve got a lot of young people who would like to stay here,” she said.




Part 2: Proposed municipal employee would coordinate marketing of town, events

Jump to part 1

MIDDLEBURY — The Middlebury selectboard on Tuesday backed the notion of a new, part-time marketing official for the town.

The board must now decide whether to ask taxpayers to cover $25,000 of the proposed $40,000-per-year, part-time position.

Members of the Better Middlebury Partnership (BMP) board pitched the new post as a means of promoting and increasing downtown commerce, marketing annual BMP signature events like the Winter Carnival and Chili Festival, and advancing the town — through print, the Web and other media — as a four-season destination and great place to live and start a business.

BMP leaders spoke at the selectboard meeting of new energy in promoting the downtown with a successful series of events that have included the annual Spooktacular, Very Merry Middlebury and the resurrection of Middlebury Money as a means of encouraging local shopping. But they noted the aforementioned events have been volunteer-driven, and business owners would be hard-pressed to sustain the momentum without some paid help.
The BMP recently dropped a part-time coordinator’s position due to budget constraints.

“We would envision this position as a person who would provide outreach beyond the town, increase visitor traffic into town and at the various (BMP) events, and help provide administrative support and volunteer coordination,” said BMP board member G. Kenneth Perine. “It is a mammoth job.

“The volunteer support we have for running the events I think can continue, but someone needs to manage that,” he added.

Jed Malcolm, BMP treasurer, said he has been pleased to see new momentum on the board to improve local commerce. Part of that momentum, BMP officials said, stems from the recent completion of the Cross Street Bridge and planning for a new economic development venture on land behind the Ilsley Public Library that is jointly owned by the town and Middlebury College.

“We want this (momentum) to proceed,” Malcolm said. “It would be a shame not to take advantage of the energy.”

BMP President Donna Donahue noted the organization’s special events are drawing in upwards of 4,500 people per year — without marketing beyond the greater Addison County area.

“We know we can expand upon it,” Donahue said. “It’s the time and energy and coordination of that that needs to take place, and a marketing coordinator does that kind of work.

“There are a lot of things we can do if we have paid support,” she added, citing bus tours, a more aggressive “buy local” campaign and adding weekend promotions as possible additions to the BMP agenda.

The BMP is proposing a $40,000 annual budget for the new position — $25,000 for salary, $5,000 for benefits and $10,000 for supplies. The organization is suggesting that, at least initially, the town foot $25,000 of that bill with the BMP covering $5,000 and the remaining $10,000 derived from revenues through the Downtown Improvement District tax. That special tax on non-residential property has been in effect for almost two decades and raises revenue to make improvements to public assets in the core village area.

Officials noted that other towns sponsor similar economic development efforts. More than 57 percent of the state’s designated downtowns receive direct funding from town government, according to a 2010 state survey.

CONCERNS OVER COST
Selectboard members unanimously embraced the concept of the new post, but voiced some concerns about the cost and the impact on a 2011-2012 municipal budget that is likely to require a property tax hike for the first time since 2008. The board is currently looking at a draft spending plan that would require a 4-cent hike in the municipal rate just to maintain level services. As such, town officials are wary about adding new expenses.

Selectman Craig Bingham said he supports the new position, but suggested the BMP follow the same route as human service agencies do in obtaining town funding: Circulate a petition to get their financial request on the Town Meeting Day ballot. If the request gains support, it is built into the town’s regular budget for future years.

Perine said such a process has “not been a model” in other towns that have supported marketing positions, and added he believed it was important for the selectboard to get behind the plan as opposed to having it presented to the public as a petitioned item.

Selectman Dean George said he wondered if $40,000 would be enough of a budget to attract and retain a qualified person.

Perine said the BMP wanted to start small and that he and other board members “didn’t feel we could ask for a full-time position.”

Ultimately, BMP officials believe the new position will prove its worth through growth in local option tax revenues and the grand list.

“Our hope is that this position becomes self-funding,” Perine said.

Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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