A Call for Supporting Local Businesses


Graphic by Millie von Platen.

Within the past year, several Middlebury businesses have shut down, leaving “For Sale” and “For Lease” signs in once-crowded window displays. The facades of the empty buildings have cast a somber shadow over the town, and many are wondering what the lasting implications of the closures will be. 

A vibrant town is just as important to the Middlebury community as a vibrant college. With these losses, we have also lost unique opportunities to engage with the people of Middlebury by supporting businesses that are important to the larger Middlebury community. The relationship between the student community and the town community has often been fraught with tension, perhaps rightfully so, as the student body often does very little to engage with the surrounding town. One sad example was the cancellation of the Vermont Chili Festival; students loved the event, but hardly ever did more to make it happen than drunkenly consume chili. It should be the student body’s long-term goal to improve the existing relationship between students and the town’s long-term residents. This will take time, and perhaps a few generations of students, but we believe every student has the opportunity and the obligation to contribute to a thriving greater Middlebury community.

Carol’s Hungry Mind Café, The Lobby, Ben Franklin, Clay’s Clothing, Rough Cut and Storm Café, each on or near Main St., have all closed just in the last few months. Store owners say high rent prices, the joint railroad and bridge construction and increased competition from online retailers have all contributed to the closings. 

We know the college has worked in the past to help small business owners in the town. (A sizeable fraction of the town’s annual budget is made up of college funding.) We also recognize that some Middlebury students, or students participating in Middlebury programs, attend the college year-round and contribute to the local economy year-round. 

In September, several members of our staff had a conversation with Angelo Lynn, the editor and publisher of the Addison Independent. He asked us to think about the types of businesses that would bring Middlebury students into town more often and get them invested in the community. In light of his question, we have been thinking about what could fill the town’s unfortunate new vacancies. 

The success of a college depends on the success of the town surrounding it.”

Taste of India and Sabai Sabai, restaurants that serve international cuisines that can be hard to find in rural Vermont, are enduringly popular with students, who often come from urban areas with a wide variety of foods. We think it would be great to fill in gaps left by closed restaurants with more types of cuisine. The Lobby has been replaced by the newly-opened Italian restaurant The Arcadian, but we hope that this will be only the beginning. 

Other ideas include more social spaces, where students can spend more than an hour in town. On a campus that sometimes feels overcrowded, spaces for group hangouts are more needed than ever. A bowling alley or arcade could also bring in revenue. Some of the successful businesses in town, like the Tinker and Smithy Game Store, offer social experiences in addition to merchandise or food. 

However, this conversation cannot occur in a vacuum. While these options seem appealing to us as students, we must consider the town’s need to fill the vacant storefronts with businesses that will benefit the entire community. This past summer, the Town of Middlebury email list (you can sign up to be on the list and receive town updates at go/middmailinglist) asked residents what alternatives they would like to see replace Clay’s and Ben Franklin. Of the 230 respondents, over 80 stated that they would want a clothing store of some kind. Over 60 said they would prefer a small-format Target. 

Some argue that the responsibility to revamp local infrastructure should be placed on the town. The Editorial Board believes that the onus should be equally placed on students. We think the success of a college depends on the success of the town surrounding it. Therefore, supporting the local economy is essential to ensuring the longevity of the college. The Black Student Union (BSU), for example, rents out the Middlebury Marquis to screen films for their members. BSU has actively engaged with the town community, making that space part of college activity and helping to bridge the gap between Middlebury students and town residents.

Our ways of participating do not have to be solely economic, however. The Middlebury Campus has a longstanding relationship with the Addison Independent; Campus editors often intern with the newspaper over the summer. 

Recently, The Campus covered the local midterm elections in Addison County. After our election issue came out, our staff compiled a live report on Election Day of the results of local and state elections. The issue and live report received positive feedback from students, faculty and most importantly, town residents. Other organizations have taken similar steps to integrate the college with the larger community through their work.

This Saturday, the Better Middlebury Partnership will host Very Merry Middlebury, a public celebration to kick off the holiday season, with events in town from 9:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. There will be horse-drawn wagon rides, hot chocolate, gingerbread house-making and a gingerbread house exhibit, caroling and free gift-wrapping for all presents bought in town, not to mention that Santa Claus is expected to make an appearance. It should be a perfect opportunity for students to have fun engaging with the community and support local businesses.

It is also the responsibility of the SGA External Affairs Committee to serve as a liaison between Middlebury, Addison County, the state of Vermont and other governmental and non-governmental bodies external to the college. Many students, particularly first-years, simply don’t know what the town of Middlebury has to offer. The SGA should but together a list or map of local business, interesting local places to visit, and ways to get involved with the community. The External Affairs Committee could host an event similar to Chili Fest — something that encourages collaboration between students and locals. But the change doesn’t have to come from our institution; it can start with interactions between us students and the members of our community who make Middlebury, Vermont feel like another home.