Editorial: Looking good, Middlebury, but we need more spark
With camera phones rolling, hundreds of area residents lined the streets as ribbons were cut at the reopening of Middlebury’s Main Street and Merchants Row last Friday and the first train rumbled through the newly minted tunnel downtown. The scene sparkled with marble curbing shining on expanded sidewalks, the asphalt black without a blemish, and a clear, blue sky on a crisp autumn day adding to the overall euphoria.
The opening symbolizes, as selectboard Chair Brian Carpenter said at the event, a new era for the town.
Most Middlebury residents agree and are looking ahead with the utmost optimism. Hurray, everyone has said, for Middlebury! We did our best to persevere. We, collectively, survived. And the core of the downtown looks brand-spanking new.
In our eagerness to move forward, let’s admit that the first step in the town’s evolution is to access where we are with sober honesty.
From a retail perspective, the downtown may be as weak as it’s been for many a decade. Almost a dozen storefronts are empty, leaving but a handful of retailers that remain open. Partly that’s because of three years of disruptive construction; partly it’s due to the COVID-19 pandemic, partly it’s because Amazon and online shopping have dismantled much of the bricks-n-mortar retail world; partly it’s because too many area residents choose to shop elsewhere when craving that experience — whether that’s in Burlington or Rutland or further afield.
It does no good to cast fault. The challenge to pose is whether Middlebury can reclaim its retail vitality.
But our downtown, as do others across the nation, faces many obstacles.
Middlebury’s Town Hall Theater — a jewel essential to the downtown’s cultural vitality — faces the daunting prospects of not being able to host events with crowds of any size for several more weeks or maybe months. What can we do to help them remain robust to keep them front and center in the public’s mind? Similarly, the Marquis Theater was a vital hub for many of the 45 and under crowd in recent years, but understandably has closed its doors until the coronavirus can be controlled. If movies, dances and social gatherings are taboo during this pandemic, how can we help restore the Marquis’ fortunes and revitalize that aspect of community culture? The town’s bars and restaurants face struggles as well in what is an already tough environment. How can community residents help? Good questions residents need to resolve, hopefully with a roadmap for those interested to follow.
On the retail front, the lack of local stores selling apparel is a disappointment to many families and is part of the reason that retail flight to larger venues, or online, is so dramatic. In the past year alone the town has lost Wild Mountain Thyme, Clays and Mendy’s Clothing, all within a block of each other on Main Street. Shopping locally for new clothes is barely an option.
Do other towns Middlebury’s size face similar problems; have any other towns solved this puzzle? Is, perhaps, a hub of local boutique shops feasible? Could the town, or a business collective, help spur such a development? Have the most creative minds in town focused on the issue and drawn a blank, or were there other issues to focus on and there are stones still unturned? We don’t know that answer, but if it’s a problem that can be solved, let’s get on it. If there’s no good answer, let’s put lipstick on that pig and move on.
But before we give up on such speculation and lay all the fault at the consumer’s feet, let’s also admit that downtown businesses could do more to generate traffic.
For instance, when 90 percent of the retail businesses in the downtown close their doors at 5 p.m. or 5:30, it’s difficult for many area residents to get to those stores before they close. Longer hours at least once during the weekdays would be helpful. More frequent sidewalk sales, and other shopping events (almost anything works, but have something more frequent that a few times a year) bring people together and give them an excuse to socialize in an informal way. It’s the unplanned meeting with acquaintances (as frequently happens at Festival On-The-Green) that makes those events such fun. So create something to establish a community routine and expectation. And if town regulations put too strict a limit on such events or create other obstacles, let’s work to get those amended now.
If it’s going to be a new era, let’s work to make it so.
Selectman Farhad Khan speculated that with Merchants Row now being one-way and with an expanded sidewalk the town could host more frequent pedestrian gatherings with that road partially closed — a gem of an idea. It creates a mini-Church Street, which is exactly the type of thinking this “new era” should prompt.
Nor should all of the town’s energies be spent looking at our navel. We must also look to bigger issues — our changing demographics, declining school population, and a town culture that is more attune to Covid-19 isolation than to Jazz Fest in New Orleans. Middlebury, and all of Vermont, have opportunities to attract new families. Are we doing all we can as a town to make that happen?
If not, let’s do more.
In our wildest dreams, a bit more spark and spunk would do all of us rural Vermonters, Middlebury included, a world of good. Let’s put that on our list of things to work toward — always grateful for the bounty we have here in Vermont, while recognizing we have a way to go before those young families who are fleeing to warmer costal hubs of innovation or the Boston tech scene come knocking on our door.