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Times Argus - Council gets economic development update

Article featured in Times Argus.

Stephen Mills

MONTPELIER — The new economic development director for the Capital City presented a six-month report card at a meeting of the City Council on Wednesday on progress to date since his appointment.

Joe Evans, executive director of the Montpelier Development Corporation, has been working on several fronts to promote private and commercial development since he started work April 3.

He discussed the corporation’s website, which declares the city is “open for business,” reviewed current projects that include the Taylor Street Transit Center and Caledonia Spirits distillery, and the hope of establishing Tax Increment Financing (TIF) districts to encourage housing and commercial development. Councilors, in turn, asked for more detailed data on progress made, and stressed the importance of retention of existing businesses.

Evans provided a report with broad overviews of the major areas of economic policy goals that have been identified as priorities by the City Council.

Councilor Jean Olsen complimented Evans on the report, the makeup of the MDC board and the long-term outlook being planned by the development corporation.

On new development, Evans said the MDC was conducting an inventory of existing housing and commercial development and trying to get the “right mix” of both while encouraging new development to “provide tax relief and a growth model that makes sense.”

He acknowledged both the “limited space” for new development and “the need to grow.”

He also noted there were “some downtown parcels that are underperforming.” Evans said some of those parcels include surface parking lots used by the state, adding that he was in talks with state officials about the lots to discuss future prospects for development in the city.

“Those are high-value parcels of land that deserve more than just to have cars parked there,” Evans said.

But he said it could take some time to discuss the city’s hopes for future development on state parking lots.

“I don’t know how long it will be for the state Legislature to even decide on any of those things,” he said.

On housing development, he noted that the proposed Taylor Street Transit Center included a housing component with a mix of affordable and market-rate apartments that would be a welcome addition to housing in the city.

He also presented a population study of Washington County done in August. It showed that of a population of 58,736, about 36,000 people were over the age of over 50, and 10,000 were over 65. The demographic, he said, supported increasing calls for apartments for older people who want to downsize from houses.

“When you think about those numbers, that’s going to put a push on some of those downsizing needs,” Evans said.

Asked by Mayor John Hollar to define the top priorities for the city and future development, Evans said they included: Building the MDC website to connect with developers; promoting economic development in the city; increasing employment opportunities; building a business outreach program, both locally and out-of-state; aggressively pursuing Tax Increment Finance status to attract developers; and promoting new housing development.

Upcoming commercial development prospects he identified included the Taylor Street Transit Center, due to break ground later this year, and the Caledonia Spirits project to build a new 30,000 square foot distillery on Barre Street, due to start this fall and be completed next spring.

Councilor Anne Watson asked for more visual data in graphs that plotted percentage increases in growth and development.

“I’m interested in those graphs, not just to say how is the MDC doing but how Montpelier is doing,” Watson said.

Evans agreed to do so, adding: “I think transparency around where we’re struggling and where we’re making progress is very important. This is a numbers game for me.”

While anxious to meet the City Council’s goals and priorities for grown and development, Evans said there was much work to be done.

“I wish I could show you positive results as fast as possible,” Evans said. “The reality is that (the process) is simply a grind.”

One example, he said, was discussions with a business associated with Caledonia Spirits that failed to reach agreement on a project in the city, choosing another town instead to locate, although he still remains hopeful they might reconsider.

“That’s what I’m trying to do. … We want to engage them, we want work with developers and see growth, and show we’re making changes to make it easier to do business,” Evans said.

A copy of the report can be found here.

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