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Creative ideas for local economy

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June 11, 2007

By JOHN FLOWERS

MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury can strengthen its local economy by making better use of the Otter Creek; by becoming a center for alternative energy production and innovation; and by better harnessing the diverse strengths of its cultural, community and business assets.

Those were the conclusions of a group of more than 75 Middlebury residents who gathered at a June 5 forum to brainstorm ways to energize their town’s economy. It was the second of three scheduled “Creative Communities Program” forums, organized by the Vermont Council on Rural Development (VCRD).

The VCRD this spring picked Middlebury to participate in the program, through which townspeople come up with a wide range of ideas to promote a more creative local economy. The council then helps townspeople pare their ideas down to the leading three, and provides them with professional guidance to bring those top ideas to fruition.

“I feel there was a lot of energy, enthusiasm and civility, and people cared deeply,” Nancy Malcolm, a Middlebury Planning Commission member, said of the spirit participants showed at the June 5 forum.

“I think people came away feeling good about it, that they were able to say something and were heard,” Malcolm added.

More than 100 citizens showed up at the initial Creative Communities forum on May 15. They met again last Tuesday, developing a sizable list of ideas to bolster the Middlebury economy, including establishing a business incubator; hosting an annual event that establishes the town as a “creative center;” launching a year-round venue for selling local foods and crafts; improving traffic and pedestrian flow; erecting a Middlebury community center building; and launching a “buy local” campaign.

Forum participants affixed stickers on their top choices, each got a number of “votes” that they could cast for their favorite ideas. They arrived at the following top three:

• Making better use of the Otter Creek as Middlebury’s economic calling card. Residents noted that the creek bisects downtown Middlebury and provides one of its most scenic assets, yet it remains a largely untapped resource to promote jobs, businesses and tourism.

Forum participants proposed taking steps to make Otter Creek “a true local centerpiece,” by cleaning up its banks, creating a river walk and helping businesses capitalize on their proximity to the waterway.

• Establishing the town as a pioneer in alternative energy production and management. Supporters of this path noted several local initiatives, including the Addison County Relocalization Network (ACoRN); a small hydroelectricity project proposed for the Otter Creek Falls; and current manure-to-energy operations on farms in Middlebury and Bridport.

“The need for local, renewable power ties in closely with the need to provide viable business opportunities for farmers, foresters and others in the working landscape who could produce the biomass to fuel future energy production,” reads a group statement in support of the move.

• Founding a “creative economy association” that would bring together all of the local organizations, businesses and socio-economic groups that make Middlebury unique.

The VCRD will hold a final forum on Wednesday, June 27, to further flesh out the three leading creative economy ideas. The organization will provide consultants to advise the town on how to proceed with its ideas, and will generate a report summarizing the Middlebury’s participation in the program.

The June 27 meeting will held from 6:30 to 9 p.m. at the Ilsley Library. All are welcome.

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