Editorial: It's a start, but is it enough?
Middlebury’s $50,000 appropriation to boost the downtown is a needed step in the right direction. The money will seed “Kick Start Middlebury,” an effort to fill downtown storefronts with viable businesses by way of offering $10,000 incentive packages for interested entrepreneurs.
It’s a bit of a gimmick, and the timing’s not perfect being as we’re still in the midst of a pandemic, but the hope is that the $10,000 will jumpstart conversations about what types of potential businesses would not only succeed in the downtown, but contribute to its vitality.
The hurdles are high. Retailers, as well as eateries and bars, have been hit hard by the pandemic and entrepreneurs in that sector might hesitate to open shop in a downtown that has struggled for the past four years. Pedestrian traffic through the downtown has diminished significantly in the past two years because of construction, and the finishing touches of the downtown project (Triangle Park and Lazarus Park) will create minor construction headaches for the first part of summer. It’s also unknown how much the pandemic will have changed retail shopping, but we all know that online shopping has grown these past few years and more than ever these past 12 months. Figuring out what stores are economically viable will be no small feat.
In short, dangling a $10,000 start-up package on the doorknob of an empty storefront may not be enough.
To that end, the town would be wise to pursue complementary measures.
As Town Planning and Zoning Administrator Jennifer Murray suggested in today’s story (Page 1A), supporting town infrastructure is the best way to promote economic development. Since the intent is to boost the downtown, the types of infrastructure now needed are amenities that attract people to the downtown to walk, congregate, enjoy the riverfront, and attend events.
The beautification of the riverfront — from the expansive metal footbridge below Middlebury Falls to the Cross Street Bridge (or further south to the TAM’s footbridge) — is one idea. Such a project could include enhanced pedestrian walkways and trails along the Otter Creek, benches and landscaped gardens and terraces that invite people to linger, sit, read, eat, play — all of which would boost pedestrian traffic that in turn supports downtown businesses.
This is a critical opportunity that has been passed by time and again. The state has one-time funds in this year’s budget for precisely this type of outdoor trails and downtown improvements. Hopefully, the town will act swiftly to develop a plan and secure available funds.
Bringing back big annual events to the downtown is also imperative. The Middlebury Chili Fest and the downtown’s Summer Beer and Wine festival were huge draws that boosted the downtown’s image and vitality. A concerted effort to either revitalize those events, or create others, will go a long way to show potential business owners the town has the energy and spunk needed to make having a business here not only successful, but fun.
And having fun is a vital component in today’s landscape. People crave experiential activities. What that means is simple: If you can imagine scores of people eager to take selfies of themselves doing something in the downtown, you’ve been successful. If it’s not worth a selfie, you need to try something else.
That said, this $50,000 is a great start. We hope it kicks off the first of many successful endeavors.