Job Creation, Vermont-Style
When the residents of Middlebury gather next Monday night for their annual Town Meeting, most of them will not notice the slim, dark-haired college student watching from the bleachers.
That’s because some townspeople will be busy chatting with neighbors they haven’t seen since last year. Others will be studying the town budget trying to figure out how much money the town saved on road salt this winter. While the rest will be waiting patiently for the moderator, Jim Douglas ’72, the former four-term governor of Vermont, to gavel the proceedings to begin.
Town Meeting Day in Vermont is more than a state holiday; it’s a New England institution. And for Ryan Kim ’14 in the bleacher seats, it will be another chapter in his Middlebury College education. And not just because the California native will witness the centuries-old democratic process for the first time, but because Kim had a direct hand in shaping two of the articles up for consideration in 2012.
This year Middlebury town officials, in conjunction with the College and the business community, are looking to create a Business Development Fund and hire a full-time director of business development to attract new businesses to Middlebury, expand the tax base, and create jobs.
If passed by the voters at Town Meeting, Article 5 will establish the Middlebury Business Development Fund, and Article 6 will empower the town to add one cent to the municipal tax rate for the next five years to support the fund. The fund is envisioned to generate $180,000 per year with 40 percent ($72,000) from the town, 40 percent ($72,000) from the College, and 20 percent ($36,000) from the business community, grants, and/or private investors. The director of business development’s compensation would be in the $70,000-per-year range (plus benefits), with the remaining expenses going toward travel, research, and costs related to business recruitment.
“If the Middlebury Business Development Fund (MBDF) helps attract a single company like the Vermont Hard Cider Company that builds a new facility in town, the position will pay for itself and reduce Middlebury’s tax rate,” said Ben Wilson, a local attorney and vice president of the downtown business organization known as the Better Middlebury Partnership. “The MBDF is not a bridge to nowhere—it is a sound, fiscally sensible investment in our community and in ourselves.”
Before the Town Meeting articles were drawn up, before there was a concrete plan on the table, and before there was a spate of op-ed pieces in the local newspaper, there was an idea. A simple idea. That the College and its alumni network should be able to work with the town to attract new resources from outside the region to create high-quality jobs in Middlebury.
To advance their idea, officials of the town, the College, and the business community needed data to support their assertion, and that’s when Ryan Kim entered the picture.
Last summer the town retained Kim to do a feasibility study for the proposed business development fund and its director position. Kim interviewed 27 people in the Middlebury area, such as the president of the local bank and owner of the Middlebury Inn. He talked to town officials and college administrators. He walked up and down Main Street frequenting businesses, speaking to residents and visitors, and observing commerce. He catalogued Middlebury’s chief assets for future business development, and the top three were Middlebury College, Porter Medical Center, and the capacity of the town’s existing water and sewer system.
As part of the research, Kim also conducted brief case studies on 10 communities in the Northeast that have adopted a business-development model, including Hanover, New Hampshire; Killington, Vermont; Adams, Massachusetts; and Oneonta, New York. Kim concluded that the key ways to enhance economic development in Middlebury are to a) leverage all existing assets, b) coordinate the activities of existing organizations (chamber of commerce, the regional economic development corporation, etc.), and c) hire a point person with experience in business recruitment.
The sophomore from Newport Beach is the second of four children. “Birth order is very important to me,” Kim says. “I am all about making my own way and being independent.” While his older sister stayed in Orange County for high school and later matriculated at Harvard, Ryan went to the Putney School in Vermont and made Middlebury his first choice of college, even though its rural location had certain disadvantages for him.
“I knew coming in that I was giving up a lot by not being in an urban area. I was giving up opportunities for networking with big corporations or doing corporate work while I was in school. But the closest thing to a corporation here is the president’s office, so that’s where I decided to work—in the president’s office.” And so he did.
As a first-semester freshman Kim worked on economic development projects under the direction of Dave Donahue ’91, special assistant to the president. “When Ryan came into Old Chapel and said he wanted to work in the president’s office, we didn’t take him too seriously at first. But when he came back a few weeks later, and then returned a third time, we all realized he was serious about learning about college administration and organizational behavior, and so we put him to work on some projects.”
Donahue later recommended Kim for the summer research position with the town and asked him to participate on a panel with trustees and alumni during a daylong leadership summit directed at cultivating the next generation of leaders for the College.
Now three-plus semesters into his Middlebury education, Kim is still interested in the corporate world. He is a candidate for an internship this summer with the Walt Disney Company in Burbank because, he says, “Corporations are in the best position to benefit society and effect positive change. I wish the world were more like Vermont with its small businesses and small communities, but it’s not like that.”
Meanwhile he’s doing everything he can to gain corporate experience, Vermont-style, from majoring in economics to serving on the finance committee of student government. He is also vice chair of the student investment committee that controls a portion of the College’s endowment, and is both treasurer and marketing director for Middlebury Quidditch. And on Monday at Town Meeting, he will have more than a passing interest in the future of business development in his college town.
Update on March 5: The Middlebury Town Meeting debated about the creation of the Business Development Fund and the new director position for nearly two hours before accepting the proposal on a vote of 125 to 64. Ryan Kim not only watched the proceedings; he spoke convincingly in favor of the issue.