Middlebury aims to 'kick start' new downtown biz

It really feels at this time that (Kick Start) is the single greatest thing we can do to help the existing businesses and get our downtown feeling ‘whole.’ — Karen Duguay, Better Middlebury Partnership

MIDDLEBURY — Concerned about the many storefront vacancies in downtown Middlebury right now, the Better Middlebury Partnership (BMP) is seeking $50,000 in local economic development money to bankroll a recruitment program for business start-ups in the core village area.

It’s called “Kick Start Middlebury,” a collaboration of the BMP, Addison County Economic Development Corp., Addison County Chamber of Commerce, Vermont Small Business Development Center and Middlebury College.

Plans call for “Kick Start” to be steered by a committee formed with representatives of the aforementioned organizations, as well as designees from the town and downtown businesses. This panel would develop the application process for two or three Kick Start incentive packages that would be awarded to the most promising business plans.

Kick Start comes at a crucial moment in the history of Middlebury’s downtown. It’s an area that’s suffered the one-two punch of a massive rail tunnel project, which closed Main Street and Merchants Row for 10 weeks this past summer and has hampered business there for the past three years, and COVID-19, which has seriously curtailed business activity for the past 11 months.

Those two issues, along with the ongoing trend toward online shopping and other factors, have conspired to create more than a dozen storefront vacancies in the downtown and environs.

“As the BMP, we’ve talked at length for the past several months now about ‘Do we wait and see what happens after the pandemic and after (completion of the tunnel) project, naturally, or do we try to give this a nudge and get the ball rolling?” BMP Executive Director Karen Duguay told the selectboard on Tuesday. “Frankly, it really feels at this time that (Kick Start) is the single greatest thing we can do to help the existing businesses and get our downtown feeling ‘whole.’”

More businesses mean more foot traffic and more economic vitality, she reasoned.

Each Kick Start winner would receive around $10,000 in start-up money, along with a package of resources — much of it donated by local businesses — including local advertising, printing and consulting services.

A small amount of funding would be allocated to marketing Kick Start to a larger audience.

Duguay acknowledged $10,000 isn’t a lot to plow into a business start-up, but said “it’s enough to get their attention.”

The Kick Start Middlebury Committee would be asked to carefully scrutinize applications to see if the selected businesses are good risks. Duguay believes applicants will be measured, in part, for the inducements they give to shop there.

“People are looking for multiple reasons to visit a store and they want an ‘experience,’ something they can’t replicate online,” Duguay said.

Board members asked if the BMP had checked into possible state grants, rather than tapping local funds. Duguay said she’d checked, but found few potential grant matches for Kick Start, and those that worked required the money to be controlled by a third party.

Town Manager Kathleen Ramsay confirmed there’s enough money in the Middlebury Business Development Fund to grant the $50,000 Kick Start request. That money was contributed by the town, the college and the local business community for a more ambitious economic development program — headed by Jamie Gaucher — that was scuttled a few years ago when it didn’t yield the jobs and new business startups that organizers had hoped for.

The selectboard can release money from the fund for economic development purposes. The board on Tuesday listened to Duguay’s presentation and is slated to rule on the $50,000 request next month.

Duguay noted Kick Start Middlebury is being modeled after a similar economic development initiative tried — with good results — by the town of Wilmington in 2018. That community essentially held a business plan competition — using start-up funds as a “carrot” — for entrepreneurs seeking to occupy a few vacant, prominent downtown storefronts.

Wilmington found the competition generated general enthusiasm around its downtown, to the extent that even those who didn’t win grants dedicated themselves to becoming part of the local retail scene, according to Duguay. Wilmington has provided the BMP background material on its business plan competition.

“We will (use the background) to now pick and choose what will work for Middlebury,” she said.

And what happens if Kick Start is a hit, and yields more quality applications than can be funded?

“If we don’t have enough money for the number of plans, we’ll try to fundraise and keep this going,” Duguay said. “If it’s successful, I think there are other opportunities for us. If we are lucky enough to get five businesses and we don’t have the funding for that, I think that’s when we get creative and try to see how we can make it happen.”

POSITIVE REACTION

Selectboard members gave Kick Start positive reviews at their Tuesday gathering.

“I believe there’s a pent-up demand for business resumptions and openings up, and we want to be at the forefront of that,” Selectman Nick Artim said.

“The downtown is our showplace. If it doesn’t show well, it doesn’t reflect well for the town as a whole,” Artim added. “We have to think better. And what I see in what you’re describing is ‘thinking better.’”

BMP board member Amey Ryan is very optimistic about the program.

“During my time on the BMP, we’ve had many times where as an organization we have questioned ourselves — ‘Is this the path that the BMP should go down?’ And it was crystal clear over the last year or so that this is a path we should take,” she said of Kick Start.

“Everyone (with the BMP) feels this is the right path to getting Middlebury back on the right track.”

Kick Start organizers have mapped out a timeline calling for the committee to finalize an application by March 1, followed by marketing and solicitation of applications (March 1-April 15), then a review of hopefuls (April 15-May 15), and winner announcements by May 14.

Duguay said she hopes this schedule leads to filling some store vacancies by June.

A BMP synopsis of the Kick Start program can be found at tinyurl.com/2at66pv2.

Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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