Jamie Gaucher, Director of Business Development, Town of Middlebury
How an innovative partnership between the College and town is boosting the local economy.
Just after breakfast on a warm fall morning, Jamie Gaucher walks down the steps of the Middlebury Inn and around to his Honda minivan. He noses the car out of the parking lot, following an itinerary that’s become very familiar. “I like to start downtown,” he says, pointing out the white façade of the Congregational Church, driving past the town green and down Merchant’s Row, then heading left on Main Street and up toward the College campus.
He’ll take a visitor inside the Davis Family Library before returning to the car. Then he continues out past the athletic facilities and back toward Middlebury’s industrial park on Exchange Street. All the while, he asks polite questions about the guest’s business, what resources it needs to be successful—and offers subtle guidance on why setting up shop in Middlebury would be a great way to help the enterprise grow.
Gaucher may seem an unlikely tour guide: Before 2012, he’d never been to Vermont. But since April of 2013, when he became the town of Middlebury’s first-ever director of business development, he’s been talking up the region at trade fairs and on cold calls—and when he finds a receptive business owner, he invites them for this nickel tour.
Gaucher, a 6-foot-4-inch New York native who came to Middlebury after 14 years as an economic development official in West Virginia, is the most visible evidence of an unusual initiative that’s the culmination of years of work by College officials. The aim: to bring new economic vitality and more jobs to the town of Middlebury in an attempt to reduce tax burdens, assist with faculty recruitment, and create new opportunities for students. “We have a guiding principle that what’s good for the College is good for the town, and vice versa, so to the extent we can help each other, all the better,” says College President Ronald Liebowitz. “Jamie Gaucher’s position is part and parcel of that.”
It’s an effort that goes far beyond the hiring of the man the local press has dubbed “Middlebury’s jobs czar.” It’s an opportunity to leverage burgeoning student interest in entrepreneurship, a passion fueled by academic programs that have grown over the last decade. It’s also aimed at convincing a growing class of telecommuters—who, in theory, can live anywhere—to consider relocating to Middlebury. Although the various initiatives, some of them funded by the College, are not yet a clear-cut success, most observers are encouraged by early results. The effort seems likely to be one piece of what people in Middlebury will recall about Liebowitz’s decade-long presidency when he steps down in 2015. “This is one of Ron’s legacies,” says Jon Isham, an economics professor who’s been a central part of the efforts. “It wouldn’t have happened without him, and the reason it happened is that he brought us all together, then let us all run with it.”
Indeed, the efforts underway today are only part of a broader strategy that emerged a decade ago. Though Middlebury is sometimes referred to as the “Town’s College,” the relationship between the two hasn’t always been so symbiotic. For generations, while many students moved back and forth between the College and the town without a thought, there was little cooperation at an official level. It was almost as if the two existed in different worlds.
Middlebury President Ronald D. Liebowitz
Soon after Liebowitz took office, Bruce Hiland, a former McKinsey consultant and publishing executive who had moved to Addison County in 1987, approached the College’s new president and proposed a meeting with a group of local business leaders. Even today, Liebowitz recalls that he was skeptical given the often-stated “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” reality when it came to greater College engagement in the town. But Hiland was persistent and challenged the group to come up with some “big ideas” for the town. Once they started talking, progress came quickly, though the project first identified was not feasible and came to naught. Within three years, though, the College had pledged $1 million to support the $5 million renovation of Town Hall Theater and then $9 million to help fund construction of an in-town bridge over Otter Creek, an idea that had been a seemingly unachievable dream for 50 years. The bridge opened in 2010.
But even with the investment in infrastructure and amenities, the need to bring more jobs to the area remained. In 2006, the College hired Spencer Cox ’08 as a summer intern to work closely with Dave Donahue ’91, special assistant to the president of the College, and Hiland to study the issue. “Although the town of Middlebury is not in a state of crisis, long-empty storefronts [and] a slowing economy have sparked concerns that Middlebury is falling behind,” Cox wrote in a report that examined how other institutions—including Dartmouth, Marlboro, and Colgate—were partnering with their towns.
Within months of Cox’s report, concern over the lagging local economy spiked. In January of 2007, two of Middlebury’s largest employers, Standard Register and Specialty Filament, announced plans to close their local facilities, resulting in a combined loss of 287 jobs. (The College, with approximately 1,200 full-time employees, remains the largest employer in both the town and in Addison County.) Middlebury has just 6,588 residents and 1,996 households (according to the 2010 Census), so that scale of job loss had a giant impact. The fallout from the plant closings served as a reminder of something Liebowitz had been saying for years: that beneath the “veneer of prosperity” created by its rural beauty and picturesque campus, the town of Middlebury isn’t as affluent as it might appear. According to census data, 17.5 percent of town residents live below the poverty line, and its median household income of $47,849 falls below the state average by more than 10 percent.