BMP seeks donations to boost downtown Midd activities
MIDDLEBURY — For the first time in its history, the Better Middlebury Partnership (BMP) is asking for out-of-town donations to help subsidize the special holiday and recreational events — like the annual Spooktacular and WinterFest — that county residents have come to enjoy through the years.
The BMP’s financial crunch has become more acute in recent years because it has had to drop a few popular fundraising events that have been key in underwriting its annual slate of activities. Chief among the fundraiser casualties was the annual Vermont Chili Fest, which attracted 40-50 chefs and thousands of hungry visitors to the county’s shire town each February. But BMP officials in 2017 made the difficult decision to at least temporarily shelve Chili Fest, citing a shrinking downtown footprint (due to the ongoing rail bridges project) and burnout experienced by some of the regular entrants.
Midd Summer Fest was another fun moneymaker for the BMP and local nonprofits. The annual August tradition brought crowds to the Marble Works complex to enjoy music and some of Vermont’s finest beer, wine, cider, cheese and other products.
But Summer Fest was very reliant on a huge volunteer effort that couldn’t be sustained, according to BMP Executive Director Karen Duguay. And the event soon spawned many imitators throughout the state, thus diluting interest.
“When it started, there were only a few festivals like it, and when it ended a few years later, there was one like it every weekend,” Duguay noted.
So in addition to losing these popular local events, the BMP lost cash flow for other programming aimed at giving people interesting diversions while supporting area merchants. Specifically, revenues from the Chili Fest and Midd Summer Fest was used to bankroll the Very Merry Middlebury slate of activities that each December bring hundreds of people to a festive downtown to enjoy extended store hours, caroling, meetings with Santa, and generous giveaways. Duguay placed the Very Merry Middlebury costs at $8,000.
The BMP dipped into its savings last year to float Very Merry Middlebury 2018, but it has no more reserves to underwrite the 2019 edition. So BMP leaders have agreed to dip into the organization’s operating budget to make sure there’s a Very Merry 2019, and will work to backfill that layout during the coming months.
“We’re just kicking the can down the road,” Duguay said of the current money woes.
The BMP is a non-profit civic organization dedicated to building community through annual events, business advocacy and community engagement opportunities. The organization is led by a 14-person volunteer board and Duguay.
Annual programs and events coordinated by the BMP — which are open to all — have included the annual Very Merry Middlebury, the Spooktacular, WinterFest, the Race for Sundaes, Chili Fest and MiddSummer Fest. The organization also oversees the “ExperienceMiddlebury.com” promotional website, and maintains Middlebury’s status as a “designated downtown” so that it can remain eligible for special state grants.
BMP activities last year benefitted from more than 600 volunteers who contributed more than 2,800 hours.
Moreover, the BMP is currently responsible for management of $228,750 of Vermont Agency of Transportation grants that are helping Middlebury market its downtown during the next two years of construction upheaval associated with a $72 million plan to replace the Main Street and Merchants Row rail bridges with a massive concrete tunnel.
It should be noted that the BMP can’t tap into the state grant money for its programming. The organization has been allotted a $15,000 yearly allowance to administer the grant, something that Duguay is doing above and beyond her regular BMP assignment, with the help of volunteers from the Neighbors Together citizens group. That group, led by Nancy Malcolm, is dedicated to supporting the downtown during the rail bridges project. Neighbors Together has mapped out specific uses for the $228,750 state grant.
The BMP has a $40,000 annual budget, most of which underwrites Duguay’s salary of $35,000. The town of Middlebury covers $25,000 of the BMP’s annual spending plan, with the remaining $15,000 coming from Downtown Improvement District funds. Established in 1996, the Downtown Improvement District encompasses the core Middlebury Village area, in which non-residential properties are assessed a special property tax of $100 per $100,000 of assessed value. Revenues are in part used to finance improvements to public property in the downtown.
Since they’re already paying a premium tax and are facing other economic challenges, BMP leaders don’t want to lean on downtown property owners and merchants for financial contributions to solve the BMP’s current budget pinch. Duguay said some storeowners are already experiencing sluggish sales due to construction disruption that will only get worse next summer when Main Street and Merchants Row are closed 10 weeks for installation of the new tunnel.
So in an effort to get the BMP and Very Merry on a more sound financial footing, Duguay is reaching out to non-Middlebury residents who have benefitted from BMP activities and events. She’ll soon send a letter to a combined total of 1,800 addresses in Cornwall, Ripton, Salisbury and Weybridge that in part reads: “The BMP positively impacts the surrounding towns as well. Over the years, most of us have participated in various events, like dancing in the street and the Annual Block Party, shopping, sipping and socializing our way through Midd Night Strolls, taking our children to visit with Santa or warming up with a cup of hot chocolate from the Hot Cocoa Hut, or most recently, attending an event at the new pop-up space ‘Bundle’ (at 51 Main St.). Our surrounding towns also directly benefit from the efforts the BMP puts toward advocating for businesses and for the community in general. The BMP has the unique ability to bring all of our community together.”
The letter asks the recipient to consider making a financial gift to the BMP as a means of maintaining a “strong and vibrant” shire town.
In another attempt to raise money, the BMP is teaming up with local businesses and The Daily Chocolate to offer “The Midd Nib Bar.” Featuring dark chocolate with maple roasted almonds and cocoa nibs, each $10 bar will include a golden ticket within its packaging. Winning golden ticket numbers will be randomly drawn on New Year’s Eve and posted for the winners to claim one of five donated prizes. Duguay is currently looking to local businesses for prize donations.
Midd Nib Bars will be sold at select Middlebury locations beginning Nov. 30.
Anyone interested in contributing to the BMP fund drive should log on to the experiencemiddlebury.com website.
Duguay is hoping for a financially stable BMP as the downtown enters what promises to be a tumultuous year because of the construction project.
“My biggest concern is wanting us to be proactive, because I know how much staff time this next year is going to take. I can’t be focused on shoring BMP finances next year, because all of my focus is trying to mitigate the negative impacts of this bridge project. It makes me a little nervous. I don’t want the BMP to be a casualty. I believe so much in the work we do and I think we make such an amazing, positive impact on this community at large. I feel it’s essential we’re financially healthy and can continue to do all these great things well beyond this year.”
Reporter John Flowers is at firstname.lastname@example.org.