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Middlebury cuts break to retain hard cider firm

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Posted on February 11, 2010 |
By John Flowers



MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury selectmen took a big step toward retaining a major, growing local business on Monday at a regular selectboard meeting when they offered to waive sewer and water tap-on fees for an expansion project being considered by Green Mountain Beverage (GMB) on Pond Lane.

The board also agreed to discuss a tax stabilization agreement with GMB, a company of 60 employees that produces its fast-selling brand of Woodchuck Hard Ciders and markets it throughout the country. GMB is the leading hard cider producer in the United States, holding approximately 60 percent of the market share.

Bret Williams, GMB’s president and CEO, said the company has been bursting at the seams at its current home in roughly 60,000 square feet of rented space at 153 Pond Lane. Office and warehouse space are particularly lacking for GMB, which is seeking to ramp up to 70 workers by the end of this year, according to Williams, who said expansion details are still being made final.

GMB buys apple juice locally from Champlain Orchards. The company also does business with orchards in Washington State, a chief growing area for the Granny Smith apples the company requires for many of its increasingly popular products.

“The company has doubled in size since 2003,” Williams said.

That also happens to be the year that Williams finalized a deal to buy GMB after having signed on as its first salesperson in 1996. The operation began in Proctorsville back in 1990. Early on, the small workforce used a 1940s-era soda bottle-filling machine to get 10 ounces of cider in each bottle. But since the bottles were 12 ounces, each one had to be painstakingly topped off with an additional 2 ounces of cider, Williams recalled.

MOVE TO MIDDLEBURY

It was in 2000 that GMB moved into Middlebury’s industrial park, in space owned by J.P. Carrara & Sons. The new space and Middlebury’s water/sewer infrastructure have allowed the company to upgrade its operation significantly, to the extent that its fully automated production line can now crank out 11,000 cases (264,000 bottles) a day of hard cider, which are shipped by the truckload to distributors in all 50 states.

Getting better has meant getting bigger, and it had become apparent during the past two years that GMB could not reach its growing potential within the 60,000 square feet it now has at its disposal on Pond Lane. That prompted GMB officials to look at expansion opportunities in, and outside of, Middlebury.

SAVING LOCAL JOBS

Local officials recently began crafting financial incentives that could induce GMB to stay put, especially when they learned of a mounting effort to lure the company to Brandon, said Middlebury selectboard Chairman John Tenny.

“If they were to go to Brandon, we would be looking at going from 60 workers to zero workers there,” Tenny said.

Middlebury has already seen a handful of manufacturing companies close or move during the past few years, including Standard Register and Monahan Filaments.

Waiving water and sewer tap-on fees for an expansion at GMB would save the company around $78,000 in one-time charges based on their proposed expansion figures, according to Tenny.

“That certainly makes a substantial difference to their business in not having those capital costs up front,” Tenny said.

Middlebury increased its water and sewer rates during the fourth quarter of last year, largely due to diminishing use of those municipal services. Town officials are calculating that the loss in revenue from waiving tap-on fees for GMB will be more than offset in the long run by greater water/sewer use by the company as it grows. New construction would also add to Middlebury’s grand list and new employees could bump property tax revenues and contribute to the local economy, they said.

“We have got to have more of a grand list to pay for all the services we’ve got,” said Selectman Dean George.

Plans also call for town officials to sit down with GMB officials to discuss other economic steps the town and state could take to facilitate expansion plans.

Those plans are still taking shape and should be firmed up in the near future, Williams said, adding he is pleased the company will be remaining in Middlebury.

“We’ve been in Middlebury for a long time. It feels like home,” Williams said.

It’s an address that could have easily changed, as other communities are competing for successful businesses.

“In the end, townspeople and the board rallied around us and made our decision a lot easier,” Williams said. He noted that J.P. Carrara and Sons, and it’s employee Bill Townsend, had a “very significant influence on us staying.”

ELIMINATING M&E TAX

Selectboard members believe residents can send businesses another positive message on Town Meeting Day. That’s when voters will be asked to approve a six-year phase-out of Middlebury’s machinery and equipment tax, a levy aimed at businesses that most communities in Vermont have long-since abolished.

“It simply makes us more competitive and signals we’re open for business,” Tenny said of the proposed elimination of the tax.

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