EcDev: What’s new behind the scenes!

This involves Ice Cream.

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Area Wide Plan Timeline

The Economic Development Committee kicked it old-school on June 1st, marking up the whiteboard in the municipal building conference room.  The subject:  creating a plan for two commercial/industrial “brownfield” properties

A brownfield is an industrial or commercial site “where future use is affected by real or perceived environmental contamination.”   Property owners have to think about these things before they buy, sell or develop land which may — or may not — be contaminated.

At stake is the difference between a property being developed — or not.  Let’s say you want to build office space on a location where, once upon a time, someone buried an oil tank or dumped antifreeze all over the place.  If you want to build, you might have to go through quite a few expensive hurdles.  And if you wanted to sell the property, it may look less attractive for development to a potential buyer.  They would have to go through the same expensive hurdles as you.  The end result:  development is delayed or doesn’t happen at all.

So how can an Economic Development Committee help a developer when a question of potential environmental issues arise?

With an EPA-funded grant of $43,000. 

EPA BF AWP fact sheet.png

If we want to stimulate our local economy by attracting new businesses, we need to help property owners jump through regulatory hurdles in a positive, helpful way.  Creating a plan to help assess and, if necessary, clean up the site is much more helpful than it sounds.  If you’re not a developer, all this stuff may sound boring.  If you are a developer, all this stuff sounds expensive.  This is why the EPA provides Brownfields Area Wide Planning grants to communities.  It’s essentially a revitalization instrument that catalyzes the reuse of property which might otherwise not be cleaned up or developed.

Are you still with me?  Because there’s ice cream coming up!

Here’s the official explanation from the EPA’s brownfield grant funding page:

Brownfields area-wide planning (BF AWP) is a grant program which provides funding to conduct activities that will enable the recipient to develop an area-wide plan (including plan implementation strategies) for assessing, cleaning up and reusing catalyst/high priority brownfield sites. Funding is directed to a specific project area, such as a neighborhood, downtown district, local commercial corridor, old industrial corridor, community waterfront or city block, affected by a single large or multiple brownfield sites.

So what properties in Northfield are we talking about?  On June 1st, the Economic Development Committee  selected two site locations to receive planning support.  Six potential sites were identified a few months ago.

  • Former Bean Chevrolet
  • Former Nantanna Mill
  • Former Comfort Colors Property
  • 108 N. Main Street (next to Dollar General)
  • Mayo-NSB-East Street Block
  • Freightyard properties (former Northfield Wood Products area)

Site selection was based on a list of weighted criteria with a baseline of environmental uncertainty.  The results were pretty straightforward.

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Nate’s Brownfield Selection Notes
  • What is the size of property?
  • Does the potential use of the property align with the Town Plan and V-DAT report?
  • Does the landowner want to participate, and is the landowner interested in developing the property?
  • Will a development on the property encourage additional improvements in the community?
  • What is the potential level of environmental assessment and cleanup?

After assessing these criteria, the Freightyard lot and Mayo-NSB-East Street Block were chosen.  (The outlined areas in the map below are approximate.)
AWP Sites

The next step is “community engagement.”  This is where the ice cream comes in!

On July 19th the Northfield Community Development Network, in partnership with the Planning Commission and Economic Development Committee, will host a fun event including bountiful mounds of ice cream (and perhaps healthier alternatives).

Some good folks from Stone Environmental will be there seeking your input for the Area Wide Plan.  They’ve already starting mapping things out.  Literally.  Here’s a link to a really cool “story map” they put together:

https://cvrpc.maps.arcgis.com/apps/MapJournal/index.html?appid=9828ff061a0b4f399c8fc009b6493063

Go ahead, click the link and scroll down.  You’ll see a bit of history along the way.

You’ll also notice that the story isn’t quite done.  This is because you’re part of the story.  Your thoughts and ideas are relevant to the planning process.  Stone Environmental has been hired to talk with you, listen to your ideas and gather input as they create our Area Wide Plan.  And it’s all happening this summer.  The plan will be complete by September 31st.  When it’s done, then perhaps we’ll see some new developments in town — on the Freightyard and along the Mayo-East Street Block.

So please put July 19th in your calendar.  And remember:  Ice Cream.

Northfield Area Wide Plan

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Darn Tough: A Comfort Colors Future?

Note:  This is Part 3 in a 3-Part series, “Darn Tough Vermont:  Success can be a Double-Edged Sword.”


Success can be a double-edged sword.  Comfort Colors has been acquired by Gildan Activewear Kurt Salmon

Everyone in Northfield should consider what Darn Tough Vermont  might look like ten years from now.Simply put, the same fate of Chouinard’s Comfort Colors may be waiting for Darn Tough Vermont.  As you may recall, Comfort Colors was purchased by the global clothing company Gildan in 2015, resulting in the loss of many jobs in Northfield.

Could the same thing happen to Darn Tough Vermont?  Sure.

If we look at one of Darn Tough’s leading competitors, we can get a glimpse of one possible future for Darn Tough Vermont.  SmartWool, another provider of premier outdoor sports socks, was founded in 1995 by ski instructors Peter and Patty Duke.  The company was purchased by Timberland in 2005, and which was then  acquired by VF Corporation in 2011.   Today, SmartWool is  a brand for a publicly traded company.

Smartwool to VF Brand

When SmartWool was purchased by VF Corporation,  residents in Steamboat Springs were uncertain about their future.   But SmartWool remains in the Colorado ski town and even expanded its headquarters in 2013.  SmartWool shows off remodeled headquarters in Steamboat Steamboat Pilot Today

This didn’t happen by accident.  The City of Steamboat Springs wanted to keep SmartWool around.  When SmartWool needed to build its new headquarters in a former airport terminal, the city loaned the company $450,000 toward the $2 million project.  It was a great economic development initiative.  The city continues to earn 3.5% interest on the loan and SmartWool continues to hire new employees.

The Smartwool story is very common.  The original owners may have a strong commitment to their community, but they also deserve the fruits of their labors when their brand becomes more valuable than their company’s operations.  When a small company creates a high-value brand and demonstrates consistent growth, it’s a cherry ready to be picked by a larger company.

Darn Tough Vermont shows all the signs of growing ripe for the picking, especially if the company achieves its goal of $100 million in annual revenue.  By then,  Ric Cabot may very likely get an offer no one would refuse, no matter how much commitment one might have to Northfield employees.Transaction

This is just a fact of life in a free economy.

So what would happen to local employees if VFC, Gildan or another global clothing company purchases Darn Tough Vermont?  Ordinarily, global companies might close up the local operation and transition to cheap, outsource labor.  But sometimes the “Made in the USA” slogan is worth the price of keeping operations in the US.  The question might be, would a hypothetical buyer keep the overhead of a manufacturing facility and employees, or would the hypothetical buyer contract  manufacturers in North Carolina or Tennessee? 

 

Northfield leaders should keep this story in the back of their minds while we celebrate Darn Tough Vermont’s current success.  Ric Cabot has been and will always be a model employer in Northfield, no matter what happens in the future.  If he gets an offer he can’t refuse — like a $100 million — we should applaud his amazing business turnaround story. Cabot rebuilt his family legacy and will have proven the kind of  darn tough company  resilience worthy of a case study in future business school classrooms.

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There are various future directions for Darn Tough Vermont.  If we take the time to consider a potential Comfort Colors scenario, we can then take positive actions to make other scenarios more attractive.

For example, one of the most effective ways to keep a business local is to have the employees purchase the company.  An Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP) is one way for an owner to retire very lucratively, selling the company to its workers.  An ESOP can even be as enticing as a $100 million carrot that may never come with its huge tax benefits, owner rewards, and worker stability.  Vermont happens to have quite a bit of expertise in forming successful ESOP owner succession plans, and in fact the Vemont Empoloyee Ownership Center is hosting its annual conference on June 2nd.

The bottom line is, there are many different ways to help facilitate a successful transition if we anticipate Darn Tough’s possible future.   On the other hand, if we choose to not think about the future with candor, Northfield may be caught by surprise like it was with the loss of Comfort Colors in 2015.

There are no judgments of good or bad to be made about any business in Northfield. The process we need to think about in economic development is strategic planning.  It’s possible to be very, very proud of Darn Tough Vermont and also imagine things being very, very  different ten years from now.

Thanks for reading this three part series and please feel free to leave a comment or send a note with your thoughts.

DarnToughVermontMountaineeringSocks_hickorees.com_ad

 

Darn Tough: Sophistication and Commitment

Note:  This is Part 2 in a 3-Part series, “Darn Tough Vermont:  Success can be a Double-Edged Sword.”


We Really Know SocksThe high-value Darn Tough brand has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, the New York TimesFortune MagazineEsquire, Industry Week, as well as outdoor specialty media like Bicycle Retailer, Snowshoe Magazine, and GearJunkie.com.  Gearist.com went out of their way, coming to Northfield to create a video of the production process

There are many elements to the Darn Tough Vermont success story.   The down-home Vermont mystique for quality products and Yankee perseverance belies the level of sophistication behind the scenes.  Darn Tough was built on a top-flight branding strategy hatched in 2004.  It employs a  long-term public relations campaign helmed by Momentum Media PR .  It hires expert consultants to improve efficiency, cost-savings and supply chain management.  From Industry Week, March 9, 2015: How an American Sock Manufacturer Battled Its Way Back from Bankruptcy to Growth

“We begin with projections from the territories. We look at pre-season orders, and then set targets by sku of what we want to knit,” Cabot explained. “We can make real-time adjustments based on real-time demand, so the system is pretty robust, and it allows us to modify the schedule. If we think Glacier Socks are going to be a huge hit, we can adjust our orders because we do manufacturing right here.”

Darn Tough Vermont is pretty sophisticated on the business analytics side of things.  You don’t have to be an MBA student to understand the language and machinations of the global economy, but it helps.  Cabot is describing concepts like demand management, strategic sourcing, and responsive planning.  Let’s just say that behind every successful manufacturing enterprise, there’s some darn serious software solution.

Darn Tough’s business sophistication meets social commitment when we talk about Ric Cabot’s regard for family legacy and the livelihood of his employees.  Cabot has a bit of an old school sense of responsibility to the families he supports by way of employment.

“We know our employees are punching the clock for their spouse, their boyfriend, their kids, their elderly parents,” Cabot says in the Boston Globe piece.

darntough_harriets_general ad

This feels almost as warm and fuzzy – in a good way –  as a pair of his Merino wool and nylon socks in the middle of winter.

Darn Tough Vermont: America’s Turnaround Story

Darn Tough The Boston GlobeNote:  This is Part 1 in a 3-Part series, “Darn Tough Vermont:  Success can be a Double-Edged Sword.”

  • Part 1:  America’s Turnaround Story
  • Part 2: Sophistication and Commitment 
  • Part 3:  A Comfort Colors Future?

On April 21st the Boston Globe featured Darn Tough Vermont, reporting on the sock company’s growth and its transition from a private label manufacturer into a high-value outdoor clothing brand.

It’s a story with a proud past, present success — and a future everyone in Northfield should think about.

Ric Cabot’s turnaround story is rare among US manufacturers.   Over the last few decades, the impacts from overseas outsourcing have made many traditional manufacturers look deep inside their hearts and their pockets to decide whether to close up shop or join the race to the bottom in the quest for cheap global labor.  Few companies have taken the huge leap of faith Cabot made to transform their entire business model.

The 1980s and 1990s weren’t kind to the US textile industry.  95% of all looms in the Carolinas and Georgia were shuttered as globalization shook the foundations of America’s manufacturing economy.  Malden Mills in Lowell Massachusetts, a family-owned business as dedicated to its employees as Northfield’s Cabot Hosiery — came back from a devasting fire in 1995, but could not escape bankruptcy in 2001.

darn-tough-anvil2But Ric Cabot is as darn tough as the socks he manufactures.  Cabot Hosiery was on the frontlines of the global economy, but instead of folding or outsourcing, Cabot changed the name and direction of his company.  Cabot Hosiery became Darn Tough Vermont.  Traditional clients like The Gap and Abercrombie & Fitch were no longer the focus.  Darn Tough’s new customers would be people who stand on their feet, who appreciate a sock for its quality instead of its price.  Darn Tough would now make one of the best pair of socks in the premier sports market, and would give a promise no other company dared to reproduce — a lifetime guarantee.

This says quite a lot, particularly when you sign your name to every pair of sock you sell.

“If you can wear these socks out, we’ll replace them.  Free of charge.  No questions asked.  For life.  When you’re really serious about something you make it yourself.”  – Ric Cabot

Unlike many over-wrought artisanal crafted products, Ric Cabot’s guarantee is no joke.  The Darn Tough promise has been put to the test and the warranty is sound.  Liz Thomas, a prominent long distance hiker, wore the same pair every day, testing the limits of this promise.  After much sock-wrecking abuse, she would return her Merino woolies to her local outdoor gear shop.  She would attend outdoor events like Pacific Crest Trail Days, trading in worn socks for new at the Darn Tough tent.  She even popped a pair of Darn Tough socks in an envelope and mailed them back from whence they were made:  364 Whetstone Drive in Northfield.  Every time, Ric Cabot fulfilled his promise.

How to Turn Holey Socks into New Socks aka the Darn Tough Warranty Works   Liz Thomas  Long Distance Adventure Hiking

And this promise makes Liz Thomas a loyal customer and excellent word-of-mouth champion for Darn Tough Vermont.

Whenever a hiker asks we what type of socks to wear on a long distance trail, I always steer them to Vermont Darn Tough socks. First, I believe that the tightly knit weaving keeps out trail grime and leads to a better fit—which helps prevent blisters. Second, I really like that they are made in the US. Lastly (and perhaps the most important for long distance hiker) there is an unconditional LIFETIME GUARANTEE.

Now that’s a guarantee I think about every time one of my el-cheapo Walmart socks busts a hole in the ankle seam after 6 or 8 weeks of regular wear.

Next up,  Part 2: Sophistication and Commitment 

 

People Around Town: Christine Barnes, Sally Davidson

Have you seen someone go the extra mile for our community in one way or another?  Sure you have, probably at least once a week or so.  Maybe you’ve done it yourself.

So how about we take a moment and say, “Hey, good job!”

Take a picture and send a note about the person who should be recognized.  We’ll post it on NatesUpdates under the title, “People Around Town.”  It’s time for the unsung heroes to have their day.

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So, what’s the inspiration for this type of post?  Well, this morning we caught Master Gardener Christine Barnes tending perennials at the crosswalk next to the Common Cafe — and instead of driving by, we thought it would be great to take a picture and sing a praise or two.

“There’s a small group of people who have been trying to get a gardening club together but there hasn’t been much Christine Barnes original.jpginvolvement yet,” Christine said.  “Sally Davidson was down here yesterday.  We just want the Common to look good.”

Sally is an active member of the Recreation Committee and Christine is a member of the Friends of the Winooski and Northfield Conservation Committee.  However, it appears they are taking up the cause of downtown beautification on their own, not as an official duty.  Kudos to Christine and Sally for their work downtown!  Same goes for Vincent O’Neill and Christine Motyka and anyone we may have missed who prepare the beautiful downtown for summer.  Let’s think of them whenever we’re driving by or walking through the Common.  : )

And don’t forget, if you see someone doing a great job, send a picture and a note so we can celebrate People Around Town for everyone to read about and see!

How Am I Doing?

NatesUpates.com has been live for 6 weeks. We’ve attracted 4,250 visitors and almost 6,000 views with only 10 articles under our belt.  Apparently there’s plenty of demand for an alternative source of local information and commentary.

But success doesn’t come without controversy.  Writing about local issues can be tricky business. So I’d like to learn more about your thoughts.  How can I make NatesUpdates better?  To do this, I need two things from you.

First, an up-or-down vote. Thumbs Up or Thumbs Down?  Second, your feedback (optional but important).

Up Or Down Vote

Without your feedback, I’m just one person talking in a vacuum.  To those who have already taken the time to leave a comment or send an email — Thank you very much!

Please give 30 seconds to click Thumbs Up! or Thumbs Down! and a sentence or two to share a little more.

If I get less than 100 responses, I’ll know this survey is a complete failure.  So let me prod you one more time — it’s as simple as a private Thumbs Up or Thumbs Down.

With gratitude for everyone who reads NatesUpdates.com,

Nate Freeman

Northfield’s “Red-Headed” Step-Child?

[Update:  Since posting this article I’ve learned that the phrase “red-headed step-child” is an ethnic slur against Irish immigrants dating from the 1830s.  My apology to anyone offended.]

April 10, 2016

At the first NCDN meeting back in December, someone suggested the need to do more for economic development  beyond Depot Square and the downtown area, wondering aloud if Northfield Falls is being treated like the town’s red-headed step-child.

It’s easy to imagine why Northfield Falls residents and business owners may feel left out. Sure, they receive some of the same basic services as those on Depot Square and the University area.  But it sometimes seems as if a disproportionate amount of infrastructure and development dollars go toward upgrading Depot Square at the expense of other neighborhood locations.

So why is this happening?

Village Center Map
Click pic to Zoom Out

Well, we can chalk it up to good news.  And it’s the kind of good news that gives Northfield potential to increase its work beyond its tiny downtown vale.

Northfield participates in Vermont’s Village Center Designation program, putting Depot Square higher on the State’s priority list for grants, tax credits and a whole lot of state & federal resources.

Northfield’s downtown received Village Center designation in May 2010 and won renewal in 2015.

This is good news, and it was achieved by hard work on the part of former Zoning Administrator Michele Braun, the folks on the Planning Commission & Zoning Board, and of course the Town Managers who served throughout the application, designation, and renewal periods.  Achieving and maintaining Designated status is a huge step toward revitalization.  Everyone who played a role in this effort deserves a long applause.

But you’re probably still wondering, how is this good news for  Northfield Falls?

It’s possible to do the same for the Falls as what’s been done for the downtown.  And more.

Welcome Sign
Draft Design for Go!Northfield Welcome Sign

At a recent NCDN Weekly Workgroup meeting, the core group met with Richard Amore, Planning Coordinator for the Village Centers program at the Department of Housing & Community Development. Amore said not only is it possible for a single town to have multiple Designated Village Centers, several towns have two, some have three and one has four such districts.  In fact, over twenty Vermont towns have more than one Designated Village Center.  (To see the entire list, download the Excel file:  Vermont Designated Village Centers.)

Northfield could apply for Designated Village Center status for the Falls, which would provide the same grant and tax credit opportunities currently available in the downtown.  Additionally, the Town could apply for the Neighborhood Development  Areas program,  which encourages developers to provide new housing within a one-quarter mile radius around each Village Center.  Northfield Falls doesn’t need to be left behind as the narrowly defined Depot Square area Village Center begins to thrive.  Falls residents and business owners who may feel like their end of town is Northfield’s red-headed step-child may consider approaching the Town Manager to inquire about the application process.

Mill St   Google Maps
Mill Street, Northfield Falls

The likely response may be that it will be better to wait until we have a new Zoning Administrator.  It takes a lot of work to put together the paperwork, meet with the appropriate people, etc, etc, etc.  We need a ZA to lead this kind of project.  But it also requires public input and commitment.  This is where members of the NCDN (outside of the Weekly Workgroup) can play a positive role, if and when the decision to apply comes forward.

The Falls is an essential part of our community.  It features the Town’s major non-event 1200px-NorthfieldFallsBridgetourist attraction — four covered bridges — and roughly 1/4 of Northfield households.  It’s the location of two local restaurants, two baseball fields, and four volleyball courts.

NSt Jacobs Russian Orthodox churchorthfield Falls is also the home of the St. Jacob  of Alaska Mission, serving all of Central and Northern Vermont.  This is  one of only two Russian Orthodox churches in Vermont, adding to Northfield’s developing diversity in non-Western religions.  (The Trijang Buddhist Institute in Little Northfield is the North American Seat of His Holiness Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche.)

Defining neighborhood districts also creates new branding opportunities.  For example, a segment of Northfield Falls may be branded as the Bridge District.  It makes more sense than “the Falls” because of the iconic covered bridges along Cox Brook Road.  There may be two sets of waterfalls, but one is dammed and inaccessible, and the other doesn’t have a nearby parking area.  Tourists come for the covered bridges.  It would make sense to brand the district for its primary attraction.

And why limit revitalization opportunities to the Downton and, possibly, the Falls?   We can identify several distinct locations which may be optimal for development or revitalization.  Northfield Districts 3

For examples, the hypothetical Water Street & North Main districts could be prime for  housing revitalization.  The field along the west side of Route 12 South in the hypothetical 12 and 12A district (bottom right, in dark blue) is an excellent location for mixed use development.   And the hypothetical Highland and South Main Districts are areas where we can focus on historic preservation.

(Click here to see these hypothetical districts on a special Google Maps page I put together.)

Obviously, we don’t need twelve Village Centers as outlined in the Google map pictured here.  But the exercise of defining discrete areas helps us identify different opportunities.

The timing is perfect for this kind of forward thinking.  At the March 22nd Selectboard meeting, the board approved the formation of a Development Review Board model of local planning. Without going into details, the bottom line is that the Planning Commission will focus exclusively on planning and policy.  This means the members will have more time to think about Northfield’s long-term future. Who knows, maybe this might include the creation of a Northfield Falls “Bridge District” Village Center.

Some residents and business owners who don’t live or operate in the Falls may wonder, “What’s in it for me?” if we create a second Village Center.  I suppose the first thought that comes to mind is:  “It’s not about me.  It’s about us.”  (Yea, yea, it’s a political soundbite, but the sentiment is appropriate for community development.)   This is about developing new opportunities for Northfield as a whole, encouraging more people to visit and possibly reside in any Northfield neighborhood.

One business has already demonstrated it can increase Northfield’s customer base from beyond our borders.  Here’s one of many Falls General Store reviews from distant lands posted on TripAdvisor.com:Falls General Store  TripAdvisor

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One of the principles of  economic development in a good planning process is to integrate government, businesses, and the community to work together toward the common good.  In Northfield, this means looking beyond the tight boundaries of the downtown Common.  Let’s look to the Falls as an opportunity waiting to happen.  And let’s roll up our sleeves to get this work started.