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Monday, Dec 11, 2023

Karen Duguay, executive director of Experience Middlebury, wins county chamber of commerce award

Karen Duguay, recipient of the Buster Brush Citizen of the Year Award. She was recognized for her work with BMP and ran Neighbors Together, a project to mitigate the effects of the Bridge and Rail Project.
Karen Duguay, recipient of the Buster Brush Citizen of the Year Award. She was recognized for her work with BMP and ran Neighbors Together, a project to mitigate the effects of the Bridge and Rail Project.

Karen Duguay, executive director of Experience Middlebury, was honored with the Buster Brush Citizen of the Year Award at the annual Addison County Chamber of Commerce awards ceremony on Oct. 28 for her essential contributions to Neighbors, Together (NT), a community action group that supported local Middlebury businesses while the key stages of the Bridge & Rail Project inhibited the flow of traffic through downtown last year. Duguay was also recognized for her work as an administrator through the Better Middlebury Partnership (BMP).

Because of Duguay’s work — along with thousands of hours invested by over 1,500 volunteers, feedback from town members and collaboration with the Vermont Agency of Transportation (VTrans), which is responsible for the new train line — NT was able to give substantial support to the town of Middlebury through the construction. The group was successful despite the challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic and in their success, created something of a blueprint for other towns throughout the country facing similar challenges. 

Describing her role, Duguay explained that she has a background in non-profit work and that she has worked for BMP for almost nine years. After a group started by St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church to mitigate the effects of the Bridge & Rail project received funding from VTrans, Duguay was hired by the town of Middlebury as the sole staff member to oversee the volunteer group. In this role, Duguay was responsible for many logistical tasks, such as handling money and execution of plans, and she worked closely with the group’s co-chairs, Nancy Malcolm and Linda Horn, to ensure the community’s values were upheld. 

“I have always been interested in trying to find positions that benefit the community I live in, and [NT] checks a lot of those boxes,” Duguay said. “I have probably the best job in that I am able to work to make my own community better, which is really fulfilling work.”

When asked about her favorite achievement from the project, Duguay spoke about collaboration.

“One of the most valuable things we were able to do is to show what’s able to be done when people work together, leaving all ego at the door,” she said. “This group of people — stakeholders, businesses, organizations, individuals — really had one interest in mind: to help Middlebury.”

Duguay added that the partnerships built during this process will lead to long-lasting relationships. She also felt NT was able to shift community members’ perspectives on the Bridge & Rail Project and was a strong example of what community action groups can accomplish. 

That statement was echoed by Jim Gish, community liaison for the Bridge & Rail Project. Gish served as a representative from the local community and communicates with VTrans, the government agency funding the B&R project, on behalf of the town. Gish worked closely with Duguay, as well as Malcolm and Horn. Gish described this work as an “opportunity to be creative and come up with practices that could work in Middlebury and around the country,” emphasizing that NT has been “indispensable.”

His favorite project NT led was Bundle, a pop-up event space in downtown. Gish explained Bundle was funded through a VTrans grant. Bundle temporarily turned an empty storefront into a pop-up shop where artisans and craftspeople displayed their work for sale and where different workshops and seminars were held.

“It was a really interesting take on how downtown might host a shifting set of events to bring people downtown,” Gish said.

Malcolm described her volunteer work as “one of the most satisfying and fun experiences,” recalling that she and others called their group “The Dream Team.” She said one of the group’s biggest accomplishments was “turning around the [town’s] negative attitude about the project and replacing it with a genuine work-together community effort.” 

Malcolm mentioned more key accomplishments, as referenced in NT’s final report. 

“We can directly account for a very conservative $615,000 return on the $303,000 state grant investment,” Malcolm said. “This return does not include any of the money that went toward regional marketing and website building, advancing the use of our local currency ‘Middlebury Money,’ filling some empty storefronts, etc.” 

Duguay also said that NT put on 110 different events and set up flowers and fence art to make the downtown area look nicer during construction, alongside posting helpful redirection signage as the routes through town changed. 

Duguay said the project actually brought in approximately two or three times as much money as that. 

Still, the pandemic brought previously unthinkable challenges to NT. “We were dealing with things we had never seen before and were forced to adapt on the fly,” Duguay said. “It was challenging, and at times really frustrating, but I’m really proud of the fact that we didn’t stop … I’m especially proud of our ability to adapt to the circumstances.”

NT, as a group, had a clear beginning and end, with its operations coinciding with the thick of the Bridge & Rail Project construction. As the group’s work has now concluded, NT put together a report of their accomplishments that can be used as something of a blueprint for other towns facing similar circumstances. 

In the future, Dugay will continue to work for BMP on such things like community events, block parties and more. After working so intensely for seven years, Malcolm plans to “take a breather.” Because of NT’s immense success, however, the positive effects of this group will be felt for years to come. 

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Julia Pepper

Julia Pepper '24 (she/her) is the Senior Local Editor. 

She previously served as a Local Editor. She is a Psychology major and French minor. This past spring she studied in Paris. She spent the summer interning at home in New York City, putting her journalistic cold calling skills to use at her internship doing outreach with senior citizens. In her free time she enjoys reading and petting cats.