By CYRUS LEVESQUE
MIDDLEBURY — Concerned Addison County residents voiced their fears about plans for a Staples office supply store in The Centre shopping plaza at a Middlebury Design Review Board (DRB) hearing Monday evening. A few at the hearing supported it, but most feared its impact on the neighborhood and on the Middlebury area in general.
Middlebury resident Paula Israel, who runs the Main Street store Wild Mountain Thyme, argued that whatever effect a Staples store might have economically, it would hurt the local small-town atmosphere.
“We live here for a reason, and I don’t think that reason is … so that we have great shopping,” Israel said.
Others among the about 40 people who attended the hearing supported the plan.
“If we don’t address the opportunity to create sales viability in Middlebury, you lose shoppers,” said John Tenny, arguing that a Staples would help the Middlebury area. Tenny is a Middlebury selectman, but at the meeting he emphasized that he was speaking only as a private citizen and the owner of Mill Bridge Construction.
The DRB scheduled the hearing so representatives of the developers could address concerns about the plan’s impact on Court Street traffic, the economic impact, and how well the proposal conforms with Middlebury’s town plan. Other concerns were raised as well, but the DRB said they were outside the scope of the hearing and another hearing will be scheduled for a later date.
The plan for a 14,600-foot Staples store next to the Hannaford supermarket is being pitched by Buffalo, N.Y.-based Myron Hunt Inc. Hunt, an alumnus of Middlebury College, owns The Centre. Tenny has worked for Hunt as a consultant in the past, according to Middlebury town planner Fred Dunnington. There was no representative of the Staples Corp. at the meeting.
The original application also included plans for a Starbucks coffee shop, but that part of the plan has been withdrawn. In January, the Starbucks Corp. announced it was scaling back plans for expansion of new stores, and the proposed Middlebury store was one of several applications around the country that the company withdrew. Mill Bridge was set to be a contractor on the Starbucks.
The traffic consultant’s projections for the impact on traffic on Route 7 predated the removal of the Starbucks store from the plans, however, so the estimates presented may be higher than the actual effects on traffic in the area.
Consultant David Debaie said that a Staples store would probably generate a larger amount of traffic through the area — an average of roughly 45 new trips entering and leaving The Centre to go to Staples during the evening peak hour, for example — but still a manageable amount.
Some at the hearing questioned how meaningful that estimate was. Debaie said that the evening peak hour was around 5 p.m., and he had not paid too much attention to increased traffic around 3 p.m. when school gets out at Middlebury Union middle and high schools. Members of the public argued that traffic congestion can get very bad on Route 7 during that time, and any increase in traffic could be a problem.
The predicted economic impact also drew criticism. Richard Heaps, economic consultant for Hunt, said that a Staples store would employ three managers, at least six full-time employees and up to nine part-time workers, all of whom would live and work in the area.
One supporter of the project among the members of the public agreed that the economic stimulation would probably be good for Middlebury. Jeffry Glassberg, one of the developers of the Middlebury South Village near The Centre plaza, said that the members of the public who chose to attend the hearing should be more focused on job creation and business growth than they were.
“We run a risk of ignoring the people who don’t show up for these meetings,” Glassberg said. “There are people for whom those jobs may be a good job if it happens to be your job.”
Heaps also claimed that most of the store’s business would probably not compete with local stationery stores too much, because unlike them, most of Staples’ business would be sales in large volume to commercial customers rather than individuals buying office supplies for home use.
Local business owners disagreed. Barbara Tomb, co-owner of Main Street Stationery in Middlebury, said that business accounts are an important source of income for her store — or at least, they were, until those businesses began buying from larger supply stores in Rutland and Chittenden counties.
“In the last eight years, our business accounts have been cut in half,” Tomb said.
New Haven resident Caroline Donnan said that the spread of chain stores and other large, corporate competitors have driven many small businesses out of the market as they compete in one service or set of products and then expand their offerings. She compared the process to pulling legs off a spider one at a time.
Tomb agreed that a Staples in Middlebury would likely have that effect. “We’re counting on walk-in (business),” Tomb said. “That’s the last leg of the spider we have left.”
Heap, however, argued that the town does not have the right or responsibility to block a development based on its effects on existing businesses. “Your criterion is not to ensure the survival of any individual store, your criterion is to ensure the overall viability of the downtown,” he said.
Whether the town plan would allow a Staples store at all was also debated. At issue is a part of Middlebury’s town plan that refers to commercial development, but Hunt and his representatives argued that they would not apply to this Staples.
For example, the plan prohibits “big box stores,” but attorney David Cooper, representing the developers, cited one common definition of the term that says they are generally more than 50,000 square feet, far more than the 14,600-square-foot design of the proposed Staples. In a few cases, Cooper argued, the town plan is too vague to be enforced at all.
Dunnington, however, disagreed, as did Tomb. Although Middlebury has seen much development by national franchises in recent years, like the Courtyard Marriott across Route 7 from The Centre plaza, Tomb felt that a major retailer like Staples would be too much.
“Add Staples to the bottom of the list, and I don’t know what our town plan is worth any more,” she said.