VERNON—Vermont Lt. Gov. Phil Scott told a gathering of business and social-agency leaders gathered in the Vernon Elementary School cafeteria that the afternoon ahead would look like a “cross between speed dating and Shark Tank.”
Scott visited the town for the Southern Vermont Economic Development Pitch Night, similar to many the lieutenant governor has held across the state.
His goal: to gather on-the-ground ideas from movers and shakers on how the state can improve the economy.
Sixteen local business owners and organizations each had five minutes to pitch ideas on March 9, when Brattleboro Development Credit Corp. and Southeastern Vermont Economic Development Strategies (SeVEDS) hosted the two-hour event.
Ideas from the night ranged from policy changes, to developing new programs, to marketing, and developing new funding mechanisms.
Some of the ideas from previous pitch nights in Franklin and Rutland counties have made their way into legislation, said Scott.
The lieutenant governor told the audience that as elected official and business owner he has seen both sides of the economic development policy debate.
He has owned a construction company for 30 years and starts every workday by meeting with employees at 6:30 a.m.
“I stay connected to my business,” he said.
Scott noted that he sees at times a disconnect between businesses and the Legislature.
A person who learns by doing, Scott was inspired to start his Vermont Everyday Jobs Tour, where he spends a day shadowing workers in a variety of settings around the state.
“I get to work a day in somebody else’s shoes,” Scott said.
He has taught second grade, has made violins, and has worked in an emergency room.
A common theme that Scott says he has noticed during his tour is concerns about the high cost of living in the state.
“There’s a crisis of affordability we’re facing in Vermont,” he said, adding that some people work three or four different jobs to cover their bills.
In Scott’s opinion, the issue of affordability costs the state many of its young people who leave their hometowns for higher paychecks across state lines.
The economic pitch fests were the brainchild of Paul Ralston of Middlebury-based Vermont Coffee Company and Rep. Heidi E. Scheuermann, R-Stowe.
Scott said he wants proactive solutions to stimulating the slow economy in the state. With a smile, he reminded the audience that he viewed the evening as the “Vermont economy pitch, with a ‘p’ not a ‘b.’”
Suggestions from those doing the work
Presenters from Bennington, Windham, and Windsor counties represented a variety of industries, including software development, education, business chambers, planning commissions, the arts, green-building companies, and human services.
Suggestions ranged from making sure the state gives Vermont companies preference when considering state contracts, to investing in infrastructure for the state technical colleges, to encouraging research and development centers, to creating more affordable housing.
Presenters often highlighted the need to make investments in workforce development, like Vermont Technical College’s apprenticeship program.
According to Jeff Higgins of VTC, 98 percent of Vermont’s manufacturing companies are too small to “go it alone” with training their workforces. Leaving the state, or recruiting from other states, often proves easier than in-house training programs.
Eli Gould, owner of Ironwood Brand, a home design and building company, called for establishing a research and development center to attract businesses looking to develop their own products.
Ed Metcalfe, owner of Vermont Distillers, echoed comments by other presenters about needing access to different forms of capital like low-interest loans or equity financing.
According to Metcalfe, his Marlboro-based distillery produces 60 to 140 gallon batches of liquor with two part-time employees (his sons). With capital to expand, however, the distillery could produce 500 to 5,000 gallon batches with five to seven full-time employees within two years.
Joann Erenhouse, executive director of the Bennington Area Chamber of Commerce, suggested the state establish its 10 state airports as one foreign trade zone and offer leases to warehouses for businesses to store goods or perform light manufacturing at the sites.
This measure would encourage import and export of goods with few to no duty fees, she said. The airports could also provide space for light manufacturing without needing to develop land.
Eshagh Shaoul, a Westminster West-based financial consultant and president of Shaoul International Consultancy, spoke passionately about his love for Vermont.
Many other companies would thrive here, said Shaoul, pointing to colleagues in Japan who once considered moving their business to the state.
However, Shaoul cautioned, the state must review its policies and ensure that its regulations make it effortless to set up a new business or expand an existing one.
Julie Davenson, executive director of Youth Services in Brattleboro, asked Scott to support a pilot program for a new bonding initiative, Pay for Success, in southern Vermont. This funding program invests in human services agencies with successful track records.
The pilot program Davenson envisions focuses on reducing youth unemployment. She cited a statistic from U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., that if a young person does not have a job within three years of graduating high school or college, then that person will likely remain unemployed indefinitely.
“Let’s give youth already living in Windham County an opportunity for success,” she said.
More marketing needed
Marketing the region, connecting artists, and encouraging more visitors to the state’s museums topped the suggestion list for other presenters.
Natalie Blake, of West River Artists and co-owner of Fulcrum Arts, asked Scott to help revitalize marketing for the region including a re-energizing of the website southernvermont.com.
The website at one time received funding through the state Department of Tourism and Marketing. That funding has dried up, said Blake.
Chester-based artist Barre Pinske asked that the state consider a licensing program for artists that could include benefits like a revised tax structure and group health insurance.
Richard Foley, a professor of sustainable product design and architecture at Keene State College and member of the Sustainable Energy Outreach Network, suggested the state consider ramping up building affordable housing through adopting a national program called Housing First.
According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, Housing First addresses homelessness by focusing quickly on housing people in permanent homes, then connecting them with services as needed.
Foley said the program would connect three business clusters in the Windham County/Cheshire County, N.H. region: affordable housing, green building, and health care.
Foley said one option would be to create a manufacturing company that built tiny-home kits. He estimated that manufacturing creates seven to 17 additional jobs in the larger economy.
Chris Campany, executive director of the Windham Regional Commission, put in a plug for an investigation the commission is conducting: to determine the extent to which small villages lack the ability to expand wastewater and sewer infrastructure.
The topic might not be sexy, he said, but it is necessary for the economic survival of the state’s small towns.
Villages can’t attract new business or expand current businesses without expanding these systems, Campany said, and without the economic development, these villages will slowly wither and die.
Campany said that Windham County must take an inventory of its existing infrastructure. The county also needs to know how these systems do — or likely don’t — meet modern regulations, he proposed.
“It really is a public policy issue,” Campany said. “It’s much more difficult to bring these places back from the dead than to keep them alive in the first place.”
Scott thanked the presenters and remarked on each pitch.
“Creating a more affordable Vermont is probably on our to-do list,” he said.
Scott also devoted time to the issue of young people leaving the state. Young people require job opportunities and affordable communities, he said.
“It’s essential we teach our kids how to take care of themselves in many different ways,” said Scott.
Scott will bring the pitch ideas to the Legislature, saying that of the estimated 500 bills introduced in the Legislature this session, approximately 10 were inspired by ideas from previous pitch fests.
Creating new policies should also include a unified vision, said Scott — “if we can all get on the same page to build a more thriving economy.”
When one audience member expressed fear that manufacturing would pave over the green of the Green Mountains, Scott answered that he loves his home state, too, but the economy needs balance.
“We all need to find ways to prosper while protecting” the environment and what makes Vermont Vermont, he said.