After losing three directors in three years for reasons that can only be described as bad luck, the Montpelier Development Corp. is altering its organizational course.
The private, nonprofit organization was created in 2016 to support the city’s goals for economic growth, to promote the city to prospective developers and employers, and to offer guidance and assistance to potential projects in areas such as finding land, navigating the permit process, and other logistical needs. The City Council in 2015 approved an eight-member board of directors and agreed to allocate $100,000 a year for five years to fund the organization.
The MDC adopted an executive director model typical of nonprofits and first hired Joe Evans, who was diagnosed with a serious illness and resigned after about nine months. The board then hired Laura Gebhart, who served for one year before accepting a job as head field hockey coach at Bryant University in Rhode Island in April 2019. Lisa Maxwell was hired next and began working in November, but a family emergency forced her to resign over the Christmas break and return to Florida after two months on the job.
Suddenly facing the lengthy prospect of searching for another national candidate, the group announced in January that it will scrap the single executive director model and rely on the institutional knowledge of its board and retain local experts to serve as project managers based on the type of project being considered.
Despite the revolving office chair, Board Chair Bill Kaplan said MDC has accomplished much in its first three years, pointing to its role in the development of new housing projects such as the French Block and Transit Center, and luring new businesses such as Caledonia Spirits and Rabble-Rouser. He said the new model will allow more flexibility and not tie the bulk of MDC’s funding to a single salary and benefits.
“This way we can hire individuals in the community to address individual tasks,” Kaplan said. “One project manager who hires other specialists as opposed to having one person in an office who would need to be a jack of all trades. This allows us to be more efficient and allows us to work with multiple experts in the community.”
Kaplan said the organization was on track to meet most of the five-year benchmark goals set out in its “Report to the City” issued in December. Those economic growth metrics include adding 300 private sector jobs, adding 20 new establishments, adding 300 residents, adding 150 housing units, and increasing meals and rooms tax receipts.
Kaplan said the construction of a new downtown hotel was included in those benchmarks. That project, approved by voters in November 2018, is stalled by a legal challenge. Kaplan said there are projects in the pipeline, including the possible development of Sabin’s pasture.
Council Asks for Transparency
The departure of the latest director and the fact that she had served only two months of the current fiscal year caught the attention of City Councilors as they were setting the budget for next year. They asked Kaplan at a recent meeting for a financial report showing how much money the MDC had on hand and what had been spent given the lack of a salaried employee for much of FY20.
He was unable to immediately provide the numbers but promised to deliver an accounting statement to the Council soon. That was unsettling to some councilors who had to vote that evening on approving another $100,000 for MDC for FY21.
“I felt a little disconcerted appropriating the entire $100,000 without knowing how much was in the bank, especially without them having an ED in the fiscal year,” District 2 Councilor Conor Casey said, adding that he wasn’t happy inheriting a five-year commitment set by another set of councilors.
Casey proposed moving $25,000 of the MDC funding to the Capital Improvement Fund, which pays for city infrastructure projects. His motion failed on a 4-2 vote, and a discussion of whether to withhold MDC funding for a year ended without a motion. The Council eventually voted to approve the funding and added a condition that MDC disclose its financials going forward. Kaplan said that MDC would comply.
“Any organization that is getting the bulk of its money from public funds should be held to the same sort of transparency as city government itself,” Casey said. He also praised the work of the MDC board and applauded the new organizational structure.
Mayor Anne Watson credited MDC with helping to bring certain projects to life and also agreed with the leadership change. She said she was willing to stick with the Council’s earlier five-year commitment to fund MDC
“I was glad to hear that they have this new approach,” she said. “I think it makes a lot of sense for us in our community and with the people they have on the board.”
She said the 2021 benchmarks were not the only measure of MDC’s effectiveness and said there were several potential projects in the works in which it could be beneficial.
“Five years is a short time to see a turnaround in any of those benchmarks,” Watson said. “The results are one factor but another is they are providing a service for the city, and if we can point at the services they are providing to us then that is valuable and useful.”
Members of the MDC board are Kaplan, a commercial developer; Sarah Jarvis of Union Mutual; Steve Ribolini of SR Services; Cheryl LaFrance of Northfield Savings Bank; Elinor Bacon of E.R. Bacon Development; Mike Nobles of Union Mutual; Tim Heney of Heney Realtors; and Harrison Kahn of Caledonia Spirits.