Better Middlebury Partnership and Neighbors Together aid community distressed by pandemic

By Acadia Klepeis

Benjy Renton
Karen Duagay of the Better Middlebury Partnership hopes to hold more in-person events in 2021, such as the Very Merry Middlebury event pictured here in 2019.

During a year like no other, community organizations like the Better Middlebury Partnership (BMP) and Neighbors Together have been vital in helping businesses in the town of Middlebury overcome financial challenges brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic as well as the ongoing Bridge and Rail Project.

 “The role of the BMP has been to offer programming based on the needs of the town,” said Karen Duguay, executive director of the BMP. 

Those needs changed last spring when the unprecedented lockdown period began. The BMP has been operating for 40 years, working to build community and attract visitors to downtown Middlebury through events like the annual summer block party and festive Christmastime “Midd Night Strolls.” But in 2020 much of its traditional programming was no longer possible under social distancing guidelines, and most events on the calendar were either canceled or drastically modified, according to Duguay.

Created to mitigate the negative effects of the Bridge and Rail Project, Neighbors Together was instituted more recently in 2015. The group receives federal funding, which restricts its spending strictly to construction-related initiatives. However, in pursuing its mission to drive local business revenue by investing in the downtown district and fostering community partnerships, Neighbors Together’s work was often similar to the pandemic aid offered by the BMP. 

As economic strains intensified, the two organizations redoubled their efforts to bolster the vitality of downtown Middlebury. At the same time, they faced the new challenge of adjusting their work to comply with safety restrictions. 

One of their solutions was to move Bundle, a storefront venue for pop-up events started in 2019, into outdoor tents where local businesses and artisans could continue to sell new wares while respecting health guidelines. 

The groups also collaborated to sponsor The Great Middlebury Pig Out, during which townspeople were encouraged to patronize local restaurants and use their receipts as entries to win a range of prizes. 

Some of the BMP’s initiatives have gained support from the college community. In October, the Student Government Association passed a bill that will allow students to opt to receive $25 in Middlebury Money rather than the usual declining balance. 

“The college has been extremely supportive, getting students to embrace the community,” said Nancy Malcolm, a member of Neighbors Together. 

Middlebury Money is a currency available at the National Bank of Middlebury that can only be used at Middlebury establishments and is meant to encourage participants to keep their purchases local, whether that purchase be goods from a shop or paying a water bill. 

Moving forward, the BMP has big plans to redevelop Middlebury’s downtown, which currently contains several empty storefronts. 

Last Tuesday, Duguay made a request to the Middlebury Town Select Board for $50,000 from the Middlebury Business Development Fund to launch a new program called Kickstart Middlebury. The BMP will work with the Small Business Development Center and the Addison County Economic Development Corporation to form a panel that will solicit applications, including financial and marketing plans, from potential new businesses. 

Selected applicants will then benefit from facilitated communication with landlords and financial support from the program. Through Kickstart Middlebury, the BMP hopes to help multiple new businesses open downtown by the beginning of the summer.

As life in the pandemic nears its one-year mark, Duguay and Malcolm maintain a positive outlook, and there is a lot for local residents to look forward to from these groups in 2021.

Neighbors Together is set to dissolve in August, as the construction project is wrapping up, and the group plans to use the remainder of its funding in the coming months for a few final projects to support the town of Middlebury.

The organization collaborated with the BMP to sponsor an upcoming public art project called Find Your Wings, an initiative meant to support local artists as well as “enhance the beauty and appeal of the downtown district.” Three to five sets of wings are set to be installed around downtown Middlebury in early summer. 

Duguay is hopeful that normal programming, including the August block party, Spooktacular Middlebury and Very Merry Middlebury, can take place as usual this year. 

Despite all the challenges, the BMP and Neighbors Together remain optimistic about Middlebury’s resilience. 

“One thing that this year certainly taught us all is how to adapt,” Duguay said. “I really feel confident Middlebury is going to come back strong.”