Major work continues on the Middlbury rail project. C.B. Hall photo.
by Bruce Edwards, Vermont Business Magazine Middlebury has dedicated four-and-a-half years planning for every contingency related to an $80 million bridge and rail project smack in the middle of the downtown.
Every contingency, that is, except one – a pandemic.
And as disruptive as COVID-19 is, Jim Gish said better to deal with it now and not later.
“In an odd way it kind of benefits the work that we’re doing right now because so much of Middlebury is either shutdown or operating at a low capacity right now,” said Jim Gish, the project community liaison.
The state Agency of Transportation is undertaking the project to replace two 100-year-old bridges that cross the rail corridor along Main Street and Merchants Row and replace them with a tunnel along with rebuilding 3,500 feet of rail bed.
Once completed, the rail line through the downtown will be able to accommodate double-decker freight cars.
The project also paves the way for future Amtrak service from Rutland to Burlington with stops in Middlebury and Vergennes.
Photo: Downtown Middlebury will be shutdown for 10 weeks for construction of a rail tunnel that replaces two bridges over Merchants Row and Main Street. Jim Gish photo.
Gish said the project was delayed for several weeks during the statewide pandemic shutdown imposed in March but started back up in May with construction now underway 24/7.
“Main Street and downtown Middlebury is closed to thru traffic for a 10-week period,” he said. “During that 10-week period that’s when the major construction will take place.”
Gish said the two temporary bridges which were put in place three years ago on Main Street and Merchants Row were removed allowing for excavation work to begin on the 350-foot tunnel using precast concrete.
In the interim, rail freight is being rerouted along the eastern side of the state from Rutland to Bellows Falls and up to Burlington and south to Middlebury, Gish said.
Once completed, he said the tunnel “will restore the town green to its original dimensions before the railroad arrived in the 1840s.”
Photo: Excavation work began in July on a rail tunnel in downtown Middlebury. Around the clock construction on the $80 million project will shut down the central business district for 10 weeks. Work is expected to be completed in late September. Jim Gish photo.
The main construction work is scheduled for completion on September 21.
“Main Street and Merchants Row roadways will be reopened,” Gish said. “Much of the parking downtown that has been taken by construction will be restored. A good chunk of the downtown sidewalks will be reconstructed as well.”
Kubricky Construction is the general contractor.
Next year, work will finish up with the creation of two new parks – Triangle Park on the town green and Lazarus Park in Printer’s Alley, named after the old Lazarus department store.
Adam Lougee of the Addison County Regional Planning Commission said while the 10-week shutdown is a hard economic pill to swallow, the end result will be an enhanced downtown.
“It will put a lot more usable public space right in the middle of downtown,” he said. “So I imagine it will be a really good community space once it’s done.”
He said the expanded public space will be ideal for farmers markets and other events.
To mitigate the economic fallout from the project, the town was awarded a state marketing grant of $228,000.
With the project on the horizon several years ago, Better Middlebury Partnership and Neighbors Together brainstormed to come up with a plan in place to help mitigate the economic damage.
Initial plans included recurring events with dining and shopping specials and entertainment, said Karen Duguay, Middlebury Partnership executive director.
But with the pandemic entering the picture, Duguay said those plans “just flew out the window.”
“We had to really pivot away from this concept of holding events that brought people together and try to think, OK, how can we still support businesses and the community through this time in a different way,” she said.
The plan now is to hold a series of in-person or online promotions through construction.
It kicked off in June with a gift card challenge.
“I think we had 55 businesses participate,” Duguay said. “At the end of the week we had just about $24,000 in gift cards sold.”
At the end of the weeklong promotion, 10 people who purchased gift cards were selected at random with each receiving $100 in Middlebury Money, she said.
That was followed by a #lovemiddlebury photo promotion.
Duguay said people were encouraged to take photos of what they loved about the town and post them to social media or email them to the Partnership.
The 10 winners each received $25 in Middlebury Money.
The Great Middlebury Pig Out enticed people to dine outside, do takeout or curbside pickup. Diners emailed their receipt for a chance to win $500 in Middlebury Money
“So we’re really just trying to use the local currency as prize incentives to get people spending money in these businesses,” she said. “In normal times there are much more fun ways to do this and more effective ways to do this but when we have all of these challenges it made it just really difficult,” Duguay said.
There are other promotions planned through September including a gift basket giveaway – 10 baskets valued at $250, each filled with local merchandise, she said.
There’s also a heavy presence on social media promoting Middlebury and its businesses.
“It’s really a mixed bag of trying to reach people where they are,” Duguay said. “Trying to build the community in this really weird time that we’re in.”
Duguay said as far as the downtown economy goes the infrastructure project coupled with COVID-19 “was really a one-two punch.”
She said there are five businesses in the downtown “that have chosen not to reopen to in-person shopping until after the construction project is done which frankly makes a lot of sense.”
Fred Kenney of the Addison County Economic Development Corp. said he’s been impressed by the business community coming together.
“When the restaurants started to open we had several cooperative situations where one restaurant is only open for breakfast and lunch so they let a nearby restaurant who had dinner use their outdoor space for dinner,” said Kenney, ACEDC executive director. “So there’s a lot of good community cooperation going on.”
Duguay said once the town gets back to normal a priority will be to fill several empty storefronts.
“I think Middlebury has so much to offer a local business between our geographic location, the tourist and visitor draw that we have certainly with the college.”
Duguay added that the college is being very responsible with its approach to the pandemic and has the “community’s best interest at heart.”
Bruce Edwards is a freelance writer from Southern Vermont.