Middlebury, Vt.

Life in the middle of Vermont.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Climate Change: Solutions from 19th & 21st Centuries

NASA climate expert James Hansen recently told The Observer that the Obama administration offers the world a last chance to stop global climate change. If it fails, the London newspaper said, global disaster — melted sea caps, flooded cities, species extinctions and spreading deserts — awaits mankind.

“We cannot now afford to put off change any longer,” Hansen said. “We have to get on a new path within this new administration. We have only four years left for Obama to set an example to the rest of the world.”

Let’s assume Hansen, who is one of the world authorities on climate change, is only half-right. Or rather, let’s assume the timetable is twice as long.

In that case we’ve got eight years to change our lives and pull the planet back from the brink of disaster.

If you’re like me, these kinds of scenarios are just too abstract. They engender a certain sense of befuddlement.

It’s like trying to imagine how many a trillion is. How Native Americans survived in this climate before the advent of wool. How the Cubs are ever going to win a World Series.

So let’s break it down a little bit. Figure out what we can do closer to home.

And let’s also let ourselves off the hook for a moment. Assume that, like me, you’re not going to trade in your gas guzzler for a Honda hybrid. And we’re not going to begin running our cars on french-fry grease and become one of those people with a bumper sticker that says, “Car and driver powered by vegetables.”

Instead, let’s talk about what we can do as a community.

While I might not like every move made by Middlebury College, let’s be honest — it is on balance an enormous asset to Addison County.

Without the internationally recognized excellence that the college brings us – not to mention a huge influx of dollars at $50,000 per student – without that, Middlebury is some version of an outlet-mall shopping town like Manchester, or an undistinguished college town like Poultney.

So what does this have to do with being on the Eve of Destruction?

With its new biomass plant producing heat and electricity, the college has cut its carbon footprint by a massive 40 percent. Few other institutions, anywhere, can make that claim.

The college community is also teaching us -- and Step It Up and 350.org are teaching the world -- that climate change will take down our civilization if we don’t meet the challenge.

Closer to home, there’s a role for the college in helping our county be a demonstration project in how to adapt, survive and even prosper in this potentially cataclysmic age.

But of course the college can’t do this alone.

And maybe the stars are lining up so that several other elements of our community are positioned to be essential parts of this not-so-little demonstration project.

Who are these elements?

Roughly speaking, they shake out like this:

* Middlebury and the county’s business community, especially the Addison County Chamber of Commerce, the Economic Development Corporation, and the Better Middlebury Partnership (formerly the business association).

* Town governments.

* The increasingly maturing coalition of those aligned with the land. By which I mean farmers looking for a livelihood not tied to the price of milk; localvores; vendors at farmers markets; and those of us willing to pay a fair price directly to local producers.

Whatever the past grudges among town government, business people and the college, this is a county full of very smart, community-oriented people. We know these times require us to do more than just make a living and raise our kids right.

We’re at a turning point. And it’s up to the adults in town to do the right thing.

So what’s the right thing?

I say we need to declare ourselves a Green County, and every one of our towns a Green Town. Then we need to follow through with actions that make these declarations a reality.

The obvious: Any steps we take need to be both environmentally and economically sustainable.

It’s not enough to say we need better jobs for high school grads and faculty spouses. Nor is it enough to say we need to turn off our idling engines and buy local vegetables and dairy products.

In my perfect world I see a compact of town (government), gown (college), business organizations and localvore environmentalists that focuses on a few local solutions. These solutions should look back to the 19th century, and ahead to the 21st. All of them are achievable within five years.

Energy production: We need hydro from Otter Creek, majestic wind turbines on our hilltops and farms, solar, geothermal, good insulation, and a workable funding mechanism to make these a reality. A good place to start could be to fund “alternative” energy through property taxes, just like we pay for town water and sewer. They’re doing it Palm Desert, Calif, which is as conservative a town as you can find. We can do it here.

Food: Vermont used to grow its own food and sell the surplus to the cities. Today, farmers markets are becoming profitable enough to be an income supplement for a growing number of county residents.

But to succeed here and stop relying on 747’s to ship us winter fruits and vegetables from Chile, we need to create the capacity to process our food. We need canneries and slaughterhouses, organic or at least more sustainable dairy operations, mills and milk processing and more – everything possible to turn our potential bounty into a functioning, more broadly based, local agricultural economy built on necessity and our love of local food.

Because when the price of gas hits $10 – and you can bet the farm it’ll happen in the next decade – local food may be the only sustainable solution we’ll have.

Broad band: The time for manufacturing in Addison County is passing. We need knowledge workers who can live anywhere but choose to live here. We need companies that rely on high-speed Internet infrastructure and the low-impact businesses that will employ local workers and enrich our cultural life.

But none of this will happen if we don’t do it together.

Without the town, the college, the land-aligned and the business community working together, the clock wil just keep on ticking for four more years and a planet that much closer to disaster.

That’s my list for local solutions.

What’s on yours?

Gregory Dennis’s column appears here every other Thursday. Email him at gregdennisvt@yahoo.com

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Thursday, March 05, 2009

The College’s Foray into Downtown Business

We’re in the midst of a recession that has made life tougher for virtually every downtown Middlebury business. Now Middlebury College has decided to double-down on its bet that it can turn 51 Main Street, a pivotal downtown business space, into a magical confluence of town and gown.

An anonymous donor gave the college a grant that reportedly requires the money to be used in the form of a space designed for intermingling of students and townies. That space was established last year in the form of nice bar and sort-of restaurant at 51 Main.

Now there’s growing resentment from downtown eateries. And 51 Main is proving to be a money pit for an institution that has already lost 20 percent of the value of its endowment. That loss has already led the college to close or plan to curtail hours at Rehearsals Café and the stylish, recently completed Atwood dining hall. Yet the downtown adventure continues.

With a PR disaster brewing over 51 Main, I’ve got to think that the college may be wishing the donor had instead required the college to go bury the money in a pile of manure, where at least it would have been usable compost.

The latest chapter in this year-long saga has the college announcing that it’s high time 51 Main generated a little cash flow. To that end, the creekside location in the west end of the Battell Building will expand its hours and offerings to offer hot drinks, pastries and other food during the daytime.

That puts it in direct competition with several existing businesses.

Since it opened in the first half of last year, 51 Main has been a late-afternoon and evening spot that offers drinks, bistro-type food, and the occasional jazz group. Little that competed directly with privately run downtown businesses, in other words.

But the college’s new plan for profitability means it will be vying for customers by offering the kinds of food and hot drinks that are already offered at least three nearby cafes: Sama’s, Otter Creek Bakery and Carol’s Hungry Mind.

It’s worth noting that all three of these places, and others, have already been doing a good job of providing a place where students and community can hang out together.

51 Main’s new offerings and hours exhibit a certain tone deafness on the part of the college, toward the town and its businesses. It suggests a kind of “We know better than you” attitude that the college generally does an admirable job of avoiding.

John Melanson, the intrepid owner of the distinctive Carol’s Hungry Mind Café, has managed to provide one of the gathering spots that the college desires and downtown Middlebury needs. But it hasn’t been easy to keep the doors open – it’s a tough business – and now Melanson is one of those facing direct competition from 51 Main. Here’s how he put it to the college paper:

“"Business downtown is so difficult, and to see somebody (the college) come in with deep pockets and set up this beautiful place, spend all this lavish amount of money and not open for months, hurts. I'm working 12-hour days, struggling to get by, not getting a paycheck and now I find out that they are going to take a part of my clientele."

Who knows, maybe soon we’ll be seeing this kind of news report:

[NOTE TO EDS: You may want to put the rest of this in itals rather than the lead quotation marks I’ve used at the top of each graf.]

“Middlebury College announced today that in its ongoing efforts to provide a place for those affiliated with the college to mix with the larger community, the college will be immediately annexing all of downtown Middlebury.

“We are now able to take dominion over the heart of Addison County,’ college administrators said in a statement. ‘Downtown Middlebury has placed a long and historic role in this region. But all things must end at some time, and we believe the time for downtown is now.”

“Old Chapel said that it has, thanks to an anonymous donor, purchased all of downtown Middlebury. ‘We figured we were already paying for a new bridge, got the police station moved to the other side of town, and were footing part of the bill for the town’s ongoing operations,” one college dean stated. ‘With all that investment, it was time to start getting our money’s worth.’

“The college announced immediate plans to replace all local cafes, restaurants and bars with Grille Annexes, in 14 locations ranging from Sama’s to Rosie’s and Fire & Ice. Greg’s Market will henceforth be called Ron’s Market, with the Shaw’s and Hannaford supermarkets being renamed Starr and Hadley.

“The college book store will now occupy the old Vermont Book Shop, with the Alpine Shop being renamed the Alpine Ski Team Shop. Middlebury Mountaineer will become new headquarters for the college’s Mountain Club, while the Marquis movie theater will regain its old moniker as The Campus.

“Financing for the purchase of downtown will be provided by the National Bank of Middlebury College.

“Administrators added that while the falls of Otter Creek initially formed the basis for the town itself, they are taking a close look at the role and location of the creek and falls.

“ ‘We are examining the feasibility of replacing Otter Creek with a more student-friendly waterway,’ one dean said. ‘Some students and their extremely rich parents have complained that the current creek and falls are too unruly for the near-perfection that is Club Midd.”

“To examine its options, the college has signed a $1 million contract with consultants from Disney World. They will begin work immediately on designing a less imposing waterfall under the Battell Bridge.

“As part of its new role, the college will move to close several businesses deemed to be undesirable. First on the list is Wild Mountain Thyme, where the smell of patchoulie and sandlewood incense emanating onto Main Street has been a sore point to the sensitive nostrils of college administers for years.”


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