Economic leader reviews city growth prospects
MONTPELIER — A six-month report card on the current and future prospects for economic growth in the Capital City will be presented to the City Council at its meeting Dec. 19.
The report will be presented by Laura Gebhart, executive director of the Montpelier Development Corporation, who started work in May. She replaced Joe Evans, the MDC’s first leader, who stepped down unexpectedly in January after only nine months on the job, reportedly for family reasons.
Gebhart was previously the economic development manager for her native Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, and previously was the county’s economic development coordinator from November 2015 to December 2017.
The MDC was established last year to coordinate the comprehensive Economic Strategic Development Plan approved by the city in 2016 to boost job growth, attract new business, encourage new housing development and increase enrollment in city schools. The plan calls for potential annual returns of $5.6 million in new economic activity and $550,000 in new taxes for the city. The City Council allocated $100,000 a year to fund the work of the MDC and the executive director’s position.
Projects supported by the MDC include the Taylor Street transit center and housing complex, the Caledonia Spirits distillery on Barre Street, the French Block affordable housing project on Main Street, the new Timber Frame Homes headquarters on Elm Street and the proposed Hampton Inn & Suites hotel and garage complex off State Street.
“Since coming onboard, one of the biggest things was reestablishing the MDC, since it is still a fairly new organization,” Gebhart said. “So, a good part of my time has been getting out, meeting people and establishing relationships, which is pretty essential part of any sort of economic development.
“Since May, it’s been over 200 meetings with partners, businesses and various stakeholders and really establishing those relationships, and getting an understanding of what’s going on in Montpelier, what’s going in the region and what’s going on in Vermont. In addition to that, it’s been a matter of understanding what are the major projects and activities and where can the MDC add value,” she added.
Gebhart arrived during the start of a proposal by the Bashara family to build an 81-room Hampton Inn & Suites hotel and garage complex behind the Capitol Plaza Hotel. The Basharas asked the city to partner on the garage. The city agreed, but increased the size of the garage from 230 to 348 spaces. The Development Review Board is expected to issue a written decision on a permit for the garage within the next few days. The Basharas already have a permit to build the hotel. As soon as the permit for the garage is issued, work on both projects is expected to begin immediately.
“The parking garage was one project that we jumped in on and really worked to communicate with stakeholders and provide information for the public when it came up for a vote (in the November election, when residents approved a $10.5 million bond for the project),” Gebhart said.
Gebhart also noted that when she arrived, the city was in the process of applying to establish a Tax Increment Financing District in the downtown to help pay for infrastructure costs of new developments.
“That was all underway when I came on board, and I’ve been providing information, assistance and information to make a more robust application to the state,” Gebhart said.
Gebhart said she’s also been working with regional and state partners on a variety of economic initiatives.
“Anything we do locally should really be in tandem with what’s happening at the state and regional level,” she said. “So, there’s the Agency of Commerce and Community Development and they have their comprehensive economic development strategy.
“I’ve been familiarizing myself and Montpelier with that and how to structure some of our goals, again, working in tandem with that. At the regional level, we have our Central Vermont Economic Development Corporation. Again, they’re partners and so we want to work in tandem with their goals,” she added.