This is the second opinion piece in a series discussing a proposal for Middlebury to create a fund that promotes economic development in town. G. Kenneth Perine is president and CEO of National Bank of Middlebury.
The recent New Hampshire primary has underscored that the economy is the principal concern of Americans today. And well it should be. Commercial loan demand is at all time lows as companies delay expansion and future investment, principally because sales are lackluster.
While we have been spared wholesale store closings in our neck of the woods, we do not have to think back too far to remember the loss of many manufacturing jobs over the last 5-10 years: Specialty Filaments, Standard Register, CPC, Geiger and VEMAS; and the loss of a major retailer, Ames.
The net effect of these losses is a drop in general economic activity so that the remaining merchants in town have seen less than robust sales numbers. Unfortunately, the all-too-often response to tight times is to 1) hunker down and 2) wait for Washington to fix it. Neither strategy is a winner in this day and age. I have yet to see a company save its way to prosperity. True success comes from an increase in “top line” revenue, i.e., sales growth. As far as Washington goes, pardon me if I’m not too optimistic that Congress will be able to identify potential fixes, let alone agree on one.
So what are we to do? As the response to Tropical Storm Irene so aptly demonstrates, Vermonters, when faced with a disaster or challenge, can act swiftly and effectively to meet that challenge. And that is what I think we citizens of Middlebury must do to lift ourselves out of the economic doldrums in which we find ourselves today. We rallied behind the Cross Street Bridge with the significant help from Middlebury College and achieved our goal in two years, a project that would have taken the state or federal governments at least 10. With every new proposal, there are skeptics and the bridge project was not immune. However, many of those skeptics are now converts and agree that the bridge and roundabout are a great boon to the town.
So, act we must to improve the fortunes of businesses in our community. In fact, we have already started. The Better Middlebury Partnership has hired a part-time marketer who is working to increase the out-of-town visitors to our major downtown events, highlighted by the state-renowned Chili Fest. The Chamber of Commerce is actively marketing Addison County destinations for weddings, vacations and conferences. Addison County Economic Development Corporation (ACEDC) has focused on strengthening the health of current businesses, a concept known as “economic gardening.” By offering access to revolving loan funds and employee training, to name just two of its programs, ACEDC is working to grow jobs within our current business structure. ACEDC also maintains a database of potential commercial/industrial sites for interested companies looking at our area, but ACEDC does not have the resources to actively recruit new businesses to our town.
That is the missing piece, active recruitment for businesses that will bring jobs to Middlebury, jobs that will help grow our community’s payrolls, grand list and overall economic activity. But, old-fashioned recruiting, i.e., going to job fairs, is not a recipe for success today. The tactics that brought us Geiger, Standard Register and CPC in the ’70s will not work in today’s global economy. What can work is building “clusters” or attracting businesses here that have a synergy with existing companies. We can tout the many resources we have to offer: excellent water, sewer capacity, healthy living environment, low crime rate and a highly educated work force. We must also however look to target business that is related to successful companies already operating here, such as Middlebury College, Cabot and Green Mountain Beverage.
A group of five civic-minded individuals has worked hard over the past year to advance a notion of creating an economic development fund to build resources necessary to perform the “targeted recruitment” discussed above. Jim Robinson, a global entrepreneur; Dave Donahue from Middlebury College; Robin Scheu from ACEDC; Bill Finger, Middlebury town manager; and Donna Donahue, president of the Better Middlebury Partnership, presented their case to the Middlebury selectboard in late 2011. The selectboard voted 6-1 to place an article to the voters to approve an additional one cent on the tax rate to provide $72,000 a year for five years to help build the development fund. Middlebury College has pledged to match that amount. The business community is raising an additional $36,000. This fundraising represents a true collaboration, leveraging town tax money to create a fund two-and-a-half times its size.
This is Vermonters (Middlebury residents, in this case) meeting a challenge by rolling up their sleeves, pitching in and acting. We are taking matters into our own hands to improve the economic fortunes of our town, our businesses and our citizens. There is risk, just like the risks some took in stepping up in the wake of Irene, but doing nothing and waiting for Washington is a bigger risk. When it comes time to discuss this movement at town meeting, I urge you to participate and support this effort. Your neighbors will thank you.