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Fund would help create new jobs

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Posted on March 1, 2012 |
By James Robinson



Middlebury is a great place to live. It’s a beautiful and safe community that nurtures our families. It is a wonderful place to raise children. We love our town and we’re lucky to live here.

Yet, our town has many challenges, as noted by a number of the commentators regarding the proposed Middlebury Business Development Fund (MBDF) have pointed out. We have lost jobs and times are tough. As selectman Nick Artim pointed out in a recent commentary, we can’t do much more trimming of fat at the town to maintain services. And Fred Baser noted we needed growth just to maintain current commitments.

So how do we stay great? How do we meet these challenges without losing our commitment to our values and our sense of community? I believe the MBDF is part of the answer. The fund seeks to create good jobs close to home.

To understand my perspective you should know I fell in love with the area when attending Middlebury College in the 1980s. I also fell in love with my wife, an eighth generation Vermonter. After a decade of traveling and living all over the world, we decided to move back in 1994, since Middlebury was the “best place in the world to raise a family.”

Professionally, I wear several hats. I am an entrepreneur having started dozens of companies around the world, including a number in Weybridge. My main one is a financial firm in NYC that focuses on funding and building fast growth companies. (Current projects are in the clean-tech and medical device areas.) My passion for start-ups can be seen here in Vermont, too, as I was an early investor in Fresh Tracks, sitting on their investment committee.

I now sit on the Vermont Seed Capital Fund Investment Committee where in less than two years they have invested a little more than $1 million in nine young Vermont companies that helped attract another $5 million of capital. These companies have generated more than $6 million in revenues last year, creating more than 80 jobs and almost $3 million in payroll. This is why I can be very enthusiastic about the prospects for the MBDF — it’s what I do.

The Middlebury Business Development Fund has two goals:

1)   to grow existing businesses, and;

2)   over the longer term, to bring new companies to town to continue to grow and expand job opportunities.

From firsthand experience, I can tell you creating jobs is hard work, but it is not complicated. A business needs new customers, new products, new markets, new capital, new ideas — something new to prompt the business to invest in more people to take advantage of these new opportunities.

For many businesses in Vermont to continue to grow they must look beyond our borders to sustain growth. Good examples of those local companies that have seized these opportunities and brought good jobs to Middlebury are companies such as Cabot/Agri-Mark, BeauTies Ltd., Danforth Pewterers, Otter Creek Brewery, and currently, Woodchuck Cider, and Connor Homes — all have extended sales beyond our borders to bring good jobs to Middlebury.

So how does MBDF bring something new to the table and help reach beyond our borders to create jobs here? What will the MBDF actually do, and how will it work? What are its chances for success?

MBDF will tap our greatest resource — the people who love Middlebury. It’s a bigger network than you may think. While we may live here, there are many times as many people who do not live here, but love the town and who can also help. Consider that Middlebury College has a network of almost 80,000 alumni and parents. All of these people have a connection to this town.

MUHS alumni are also spread all over the world, as many have left to seek fortunes elsewhere. Second homeowners are also a great resource.

You can see this hidden love for Middlebury in the rapid growth of our retirement communities: When given the opportunity to be involved with Middlebury, people jump at it.

The business development director that the MBDF affords will be able to connect with the huge network of Middlebury College alums to make new connections and tap into a new pool of resources. This person can systematically connect these people with local companies to grow existing businesses.

All this sounds great in theory, right? But how does it actually work?

First, we work with existing economic development groups to ask our successful businesses what they could use to help grow their businesses. We then match them up with people outside of Vermont who may be able to help.

Imagine a food specialist in Atlanta who meets and shares a coffee with the CEO of Vermont Coffee. The specialist likes the Vermont Coffee story and introduces the company to a distributor in Atlanta who helps spread the product into new markets.

OK, that’s growing existing businesses, but how will the MBDF attract new companies to town? What do we have to offer?

We have a great story to tell about the “Hidden Middlebury.” There is a lot more here than you would think and a lot more than meets the eye. Many people pass through and fall in love without really knowing the town.

While developing the outline for the MBDF, I learned a lot about our town I didn’t know even after living here more than 22 years! While our strengths in education, health care and tourism are well known, we have surprising strength in niche manufacturing, specialty foods, alternative energy and, as Ken Perine pointed out, one of our fastest growing sectors is in the retirement business.

The town has already done a lot in recent years to build a better community: we’ve built the Cross Street Bridge, created a thriving Town Hall Theater, created new town events like the Chili Festival and Summer Fest (Beer, Wine and Cheese), and other events, as well as many other activities. Our community spirit and the resources we have committed are commendable, but generally inward focused.

It’s a big world out there. We need to reach beyond our borders and tell this story. This is the job of the business development director — to tell the Middlebury story, while trying to connect people who live in Middlebury to our existing businesses. In the process, we will find businesses that would “fit” with the Middlebury community and culture that can take advantage of all we have to offer and can start-up here or move here.

In closing, I believe the MBDF is really smart. It taps new resources that are open to helping our existing companies grow beyond our borders. It plants the seeds to attract new companies by telling the Middlebury story to people who already know and love Middlebury.

It is also a great value. For every dollar the town contributes, the college and business community match more than a dollar. MBDF will not overcome all of our challenges alone, but it has a good chance of success.

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