Town Awarded Grant to Aid Struggling Businesses

%22Alligator+cracking%22+in+pavement.

"Alligator cracking" in pavement.

COURTESY OF ADDISON INDEPENDENT

COURTESY OF ADDISON INDEPENDENT

"Alligator cracking" in pavement.

By JAEHEE PARK

MIDDLEBURY — The town of Middlebury received a $75,000 grant from the Vermont Agency of Transportation to support local businesses as the impacts of the construction of the Middlebury Bridge & Rail Project start to hit the town.

The construction is projected to cost $71 million, as VTrans works with the town to replace the two rail bridges downtown with a tunnel. The bridges are located on Main Street and Merchants Row. The two original bridges were almost 100 years old and rapidly deteriorating, leading the state to declare them unsafe and in “emergency condition” in March of 2017.

Temporary bridges were installed in August of 2017 to address the problem until summer 2020, when the new tunnels are projected to reach completion. However, the temporary bridge currently in place on Main Street has begun to show “alligator cracking,” due to heavy vehicles and the grade of the temporary bridge. VTrans anticipated these problems, and plans to repave the bridge deck and perform maintenance this summer.

The maintenance will require the temporary bridge to be shut down for at least several days. This year, the project will also involve creating a new drainage system, relocating key utilities and creating better access to the parking lot at Battell Block.

Unfortunately, local businesses have already begun to experience financial difficulties as a result of the construction project. For instance, according to the Addison County Independent, Carol’s Hungry Mind Café owner John Mealanson reported economic struggles starting with the shutdown of the original rail bridges.

“Business dropped off dramatically,” Mealanson said. “The summer tourist season is what carries us through the year, and being down just for that brief period, and then making it more inconvenient with parking and for pedestrians, has really cost us.”

The construction has led to the loss of nine parking spaces in front of Carol’s Hungry Mind Café, as well as five more spaces near the post office. In addition, the construction has made traffic flow in Merchants Row much more inconvenient for pedestrians, leading to an overall decrease in customer traffic in downtown Middlebury. This makes attracting customers difficult for local businesses fronting Main Street and Merchants Row, such as Carol’s Hungry Mind Café, that rely on foot traffic walk-ins.

Jim Gish, the rail bridge project’s community liaison, acknowledged the temporary financial hardships for the local business community and said that he is “doing everything we can to drive business during the summer of 2020.” He predicts that the most challenging impacts will hit that summer, as the rail bridge project comes to a close and construction will require shutting down Main Street and Merchants Row for an estimated ten weeks in order to finish building the tunnels. This is notable, as many local businesses earn significant parts of their revenue during the summer tourist seasons.

The $75,000 grant by VTrans is the first of three parts. Two more similarly sized grants will be given to the town in 2019 and 2020 respectively, as construction on the rail bridges continues. This grant is a response to Middlebury and the Bridge & Rail Project directly submitting a budget request to VTrans last December to help support local businesses and make up for the financial loss during construction. VTrans has previously given grants to other towns in Vermont for similar purposes to help local businesses during large scale construction projects.

This first grant will be used to supplement the marketing branch that can help out local businesses through 2018. According to Gish, the grant is divided into three parts “so we can gain experience in what works and what doesn’t to be best effective in supporting local businesses. The key focal point is the ambitious local shop campaign driven by both traditional and new social media advertising, and then go back to the state in 2019 and 2020 for more funding.”

The marketing branch is coordinated by Neighbors Together, a local community action forum at St. Stephen’s Church with Reverend Susan McGarry. Neighbors Together includes not only St. Stephen’s Church, but also the Local Project Management team, Better Middlebury Partnership, Addison County Chamber of Commerce, Downtown Improvement District Commission, Middlebury College, Town Hall Theater and Addison Central Supervisory Union. The partnership group’s goal is to create a solution-driven action plan and help Middlebury sustain and flourish its local businesses during the construction project. According to the Addison County Independent, current proposed plans for 2018 include, “shopping promotions, a loyalty rewards program, multi-media advertising campaigns, events, website infrastructure and improved signage and beautification efforts.”

However, while the short term impacts are harmful to local businesses, Gish says that the $71 million improvement in infrastructure will be a “long term significant improvement in streetscape and infrastructure downtown, driving business up. The project will rebuild rail tracks up to Elm Street and include a fully upgraded rail corridor to pave the way for Amtrak to start and allow opportunities for Middlebury to connect to New York’s Penn Station in 2021.”

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Town Awarded Grant to Aid Struggling Businesses