Middlebury group praised for efforts during construction

MIDDLEBURY – It started modestly five years ago through St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church: a local effort to reduce the anticipated impacts of a $ 72 million tunnel construction project that would soon envelop downtown. town of Middlebury.

Now that the tunnel project is complete, it can be said that the efforts of the citizens’ group Voisins, Ensemble were anything but modest. He was successful in recruiting dozens of stakeholders and volunteers who created and implemented dozens of programs that steered trade towards cash-strapped businesses and helped locals and tourists navigate a sometimes landscape. barricaded and pockmarked.

“I don’t think (the Vermont Transportation Agency) had any idea that we would be successful,” said Nancy Malcolm, who co-chaired Neighbors, Together (NT) with Linda Horn.

“They trusted us, and we took that trust. “

A final report from the volunteer organization shows that when the construction dust settled, NT had:

  • Organized a series of community forums to identify ideas for preserving and supporting the downtown core’s most important qualities over two years of large-scale construction. These forums generated more than 700 ideas on how Middlebury could overcome the disruption.
  • Has run over 110 different events and promotions to help the community thrive.
  • Invested $ 303,000 in state grants in diverse programming including block parties, pop-up businesses and Middlebury cash that could be redeemed at local stores. The group’s initiatives have had a direct economic impact of at least $ 615,000, according to state and local authorities.
  • Helped change the narrative of the community’s response to the project from negative to acceptance.

Keys to success, according to Karen Duguay, executive director of the Better Middlebury Partnership, included investing community stakeholders in the NT effort and having a paid administrator to coordinate messages and activities. Duguay served as a part-time administrator – approximately 15 hours per week.

“We can only expect so much from the volunteers,” explained Duguay. “I think it’s really important to have the responsibility of someone who says, ‘I’m responsible for seeing this through to the end, and I’m getting paid to do it. “”

It also helped Duguay devote the rest of his work week to BMP matters, which matched NT’s priorities well.

“In the end, it worked well to have that cohesion,” she said.

But there have been bumps and potholes along the way – including a major and unexpected headache from COVID-19.

Indeed, communities preparing for large construction projects in the future are unlikely to face the additional challenge Middlebury faced during its tribulations in the tunnels: a global pandemic. So NT had to suddenly drop a bunch of program ideas early on due to the social distancing mandates imposed by COVID-19.

“There was no plan for us,” Duguay said of the COVID curve. “We created it as we went.”

Malcolm recalls spending a lot of time mastering downtown parking, knowing that many spaces would be temporarily lost due to construction. She worked with Tri-Valley Transit to establish a shuttle system for shoppers who must park further away from stores. Ultimately, many of these stores closed for several weeks or limited hours due to COVID.

“It was like, ‘Are you kidding me?'” She said of her frustration.

NT has therefore learned to be agile in allocating resources and reviewing programs.

“We called audibles,” said Malcolm, using a football metaphor to improvise.

To complicate matters further, NT officials have learned that none of the VTrans grant funds can be used for COVID-related programs.

“(But) almost everything has become a COVID-related thing,” Duguay lamented. “It was so hard to work in these parameters last summer. Everything had to pass the test bluntly: “Can you say this (program) would have happened, anyway?” “

GIFTS, PROMOTIONS

Fortunately, many programs on the NT list – including Middlebury Money giveaways and various downtown promotions – had already been run in 2018 and 2019, and could thus pass the non-COVID test, according to Malcolm.

Some of Duguay and Malcolm’s favorites include:

  • Bundle, a pop-up market business that has been featured in multiple storefronts and an outdoor location. The bundle allowed merchants to display their wares securely and prominently, resulting in a direct economic impact of approximately $ 250,000 during the tough times.
  • Middlebury’s aggressive marketing, online and in various publications.
  • The use of “Middlebury’s money”. The number of companies buying up Middlebury Money has risen to 121.

“It turned into a community supporting local businesses,” said Malcolm.

  • Neighborhood parties downtown, offering free food and fun for adults and kids. It gave people yet another reason to come downtown to shop and dine at local restaurants that really needed a boost.

“There were so many points of contact around this event that created a sense of engagement and investment in the community,” said Duguay.

In the end, the timing of the pandemic proved to be a double-edged sword, according to NT officials. This compounded the shortage of customers that downtown merchants had anticipated. But at the same time, funding for COVID relief – including grants from a new local charity called “Table 21” – has helped limit the revenue losses.

“Our businesses would probably have suffered the same way – maybe a little less – with just building downtown, as opposed to punching one-two,” Duguay said. “I think having the money available for direct financial assistance to these companies actually mitigated the blow a bit.”

NT’s success prompted some to call on NT to stay active in tackling other community challenges. But Malcolm and Duguay don’t think it’s a good idea.

Duguay believes that one of the keys to NT’s success was that its mission had a beginning, a middle and an end.

“We really stuck to it and built a framework around our business to keep them focused,” she said. “At no point did those involved think this was going to turn into something else on the road.”

The organizers are quite happy to see new groups of volunteers emerging to take on other specific tasks.

“We’re done,” Malcolm said of NT. “We had a mission and we followed it to the end, which was to mitigate the negative effects of the rail and bridge project. This project is done. We have had a lot of busy and dedicated speakers. Everyone gave of their time, it was appreciated, and we do not want to abuse our welcome.

That said, NT officials believe their programming and strategies could be replicated in other communities facing long disruptive infrastructure projects. Duguay and Malcolm acknowledged learning a lot from the experiences of Barre and Bennington, who set up their own programs to help citizens and businesses overcome massive construction projects.

Malcolm and Duguay are both delighted with the results of the tunnel project. One of the highlights for them is the new plaza created in Triangle Park, between St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church and Merchants Row.

“I can’t describe how happy I feel to go downtown and see all the people in the square – having a cup of coffee, chatting with each other,” said Duguay, who is also thrilled to see the long vacant storefronts fill up.

“That’s what we were working towards: bringing that vitality and energy back to the city center. “

It is a much different and improved landscape than when NT was first formed.

“It turned out better than I expected,” said Malcolm.

Middlebury Selection Committee Chairman Brian Carpenter said the community owed a debt of gratitude to Neighbors, Together.

“The downtown bridge and railroad transformative project we just completed would have been different without the volunteerism, the spirit of cooperation and the focus on our downtown businesses for which Neighbors, Together carried the torch. “, did he declare. “The positive synergies from all parties working together that they helped to energize were remarkable. “

Journalist John Flowers is at [email protected]


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