Group seeks to boost downtown Middlebury
MIDDLEBURY — The Better Middlebury Partnership (BMP) is looking to beef up its annual budget locally and through contributions from six neighboring communities as it works to help downtown Middlebury rebound from the impacts of a massive rail tunnel project and an eight-month-old COVID-19 pandemic that is currently surging.
Karen Duguay, executive director of the BMP, recently presented the Middlebury selectboard with a fiscal year 2022 request for $30,000 in town funding, up $5,000 from this year.
In addition, the BMP will ask for $1,000 each from the towns of Bridport, Cornwall, Ripton, Salisbury, Shoreham and Weybridge to add to a spending plan that will help promote the downtown and hopefully fill a disturbing number of storefront vacancies that have emerged during a brutal 2020.
Duguay and BMP board member Amey Ryan explained the organization hopes to assemble an annual budget of $100,000, through a combination of financial support from Middlebury and surrounding towns, fund-raising events, event sponsorships, Middlebury College investment and revenue from the Downtown Improvement District (DID). The DID encompasses the central village around Main Street and Route 7, in the heart of the village. Non-residential properties within the district pay a special tax that bankrolls improvements to public property within the DID. The tax currently yields around $34,000 annually.
A $100,000 budget would provide $50,000 in staff spending (this includes Dugay’s current part-time salary and allowing an increase for additional hours plus other sub-contract work), $25,000 for programming and events, $20,000 for marketing, and $5,000 for overhead and miscellaneous expenses, according to Duguay, who has been the BMP’s top administrator for the past eight years.
This will be the first time the BMP has reached out to the six other Addison Central School District towns for contributions. BMP officials are asking that the $1,000 request appear on the March 2021 town meeting ballots in all six communities.
“I’ve collected information from the towns to ask them for a nominal amount of money to support our organization, knowing full well the residents of their respective towns are benefitting either from events the BMP puts on, or the collaboration we have with some of the businesses here to keep them afloat and thriving,” Ryan told the Middlebury selectboard at a recent gathering.
Sadly, some downtown businesses haven’t been able to stay afloat — due to the pandemic, the tunnel project, the increasing popularity of online shopping, and a myriad other reasons.
The more prominent vacancies are listed here:
• Carol’s Hungry Mind Café, 24 Merchants Row
• 51 Main at the Bridge
• Ben Franklin, 63 Main
• Mendy’s, 66 Main
• Wild Mountain Thyme, 48 Main
• Marble Works Pharmacy, 99 Maple St.
• Sparkling, 56 College St.
• Neat Repeats, 3 Bakery Lane
• Bourdon Insurance, Merchants Row
• Riverside Health, 5 Park St.
• Bud’s Barber Shop, 44 Merchants Row
• 1 Frog Hollow Alley (Buy Again Alley moved to 60 Main St.)
• Dil Yoga, 3 Washington St.
• Coriander Restaurant, 1 Washington St.
• 44 Main St. a pop-up store until Christmas
The spot at 44 Main St. is now hosting a pop-up store called Addison West, which will operate there through Christmas (see related story on Page 2A). Community Barn Ventures, the previous occupant, has relocated to the Stone Mill building in Frog Hollow.
“We are seeing some interest in some of these spots so we’re anticipating at least a few of them will see new tenants within the next six months,” Duguay said of the current vacancies.
In addition to its mission of filling storefronts, the BMP’s 2021 agenda includes spearheading:
• Annual events like the Very Merry Middlebury, the Halloween Spooktacular and WinterFest. Duguay noted many of these events have been muted by the COVID-19 pandemic, but the BMP still managed to organize drive-by trick-or-treat festivities that drew an estimated 650 costumed kids who divvied up a combined total of 26,000 pieces of candy. And a good many of those children were from outside Middlebury.
“We are an organization that can be nimble, and we are always looking for opportunities to practice what we preach — asking businesses to be creative and adapting to challenges,” Duguay said.
• A variety of promotions, including Small Business Saturday and sidewalk sales. The BMP has also been partnering with such groups as the Middlebury Parks & Recreation Committee and Neighbors Together, a grassroots group that helped mitigate the impacts of the downtown tunnel project.
• ExperienceMiddlebury.com is a website that promotes business activities and the town of Middlebury in general.
• Operation of the Bundle pop-up store. While Bundle right now doesn't have a permanent, physical home, it continues to hold outdoor events to help showcase local products to benefit entrepreneurs and draw shoppers downtown during challenging times.
• “Middlebury Money,” a currency that can be used for purchases at participating local businesses.
Duguay said $39,125 in Middlebury Money was purchased in 2019, and $28,080 was redeemed.
• Downtown promotions that this year included two “Midd Night Strolls,” a Block Party and a Small Business Saturday that generated a combined total of more than $75,000 in investments in local enterprises.
The BMP also continues to serve as a liaison between downtown merchants and state/federal agencies. This has become particularly critical during the tunnel project and the pandemic, according to Duguay.
“I was often the first call from a business, which surprised me a little bit, because the information was coming from the state or federal level,” Duguay said. “What they were saying is they trusted me to be able to help them navigate through it. I wasn’t the one to necessarily answer the question, but I was someone who could put them in touch with the right person. It felt good that they could trust me, as the BMP entity, to be able to put them in touch with the right people.”
Partnership leaders have also mapped out a series of long-term goals and strategies, including building a stronger relationship between Middlebury College students and the community, providing start-up support to new businesses and growth support to existing businesses, continuing to promote the town to a larger audience, and mining the newly released downtown master plan for ideas to boost the local retail, restaurant and office scene.
Selectboard members acknowledged the FY2022 municipal budget will be tight. Town Manager Kathleen Ramsay on Tuesday revealed $298,854 in early budget drivers — including contracted increases in employee wages and benefits — that could add around 3 cents to a municipal property tax rate that currently stands at 80.34 cents. Still, board members are tentatively viewing the proposed $5,000 increase for the BMP as a wise investment.
“I know we’ll have to have a conversation about money and where we’ll fund it, but at the end of the day, I feel the work the BMP does is crucial to our town at this juncture,” selectboard member Lindsey Fuentes-George told Duguay. “I can’t imagine moving through this transition with COVID and the downtown construction ending and so much transition with downtown businesses, without the work you’re doing. You’re absolutely vital to what’s going to be happening moving forward. You certainly have my vote for being funded.”
Reporter John Flowers is at firstname.lastname@example.org.