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Mike Faher/The Commons and VTDigger

Robert Triest, vice president and economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, speaks at the Southern Vermont Economic Development Summit on May 24 at Stratton Mountain Resort.

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Conference seeks solutions to Southern Vermont's economic struggles

Experts point to global trends and encourage differentiation, regional cooperation

STRATTON—Armed with charts and graphs, two economists brought a message to southern Vermont: You are not alone.

Speaking at the inaugural Southern Vermont Economic Development Summit on May 24, the experts said this region’s struggles — including a decline in the working-age population and the lack of job growth compared to more urbanized areas — are shared by many other rural communities across the nation.

“You’re fighting not a local trend ... you’re fighting a national trend, and in many ways a worldwide trend. Rural areas are struggling,” said Kevin Stapleton, a senior economist with the Vermont Department of Labor.

But that knowledge is small comfort for officials in Windham and Bennington counties, who convened the summit to solidify their economic development partnership and discuss ways to bolster the region’s financial fortunes.

“It is not a revelation, and it in part makes the challenge even more daunting because other places are facing the same challenges,” said Adam Grinold, executive director of Brattleboro Development Credit Corp.

Grinold’s organization and Bennington County Regional Commission organized the summit, held at Stratton Mountain Resort.

One of the keynote speakers was Robert Triest of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston. Triest, a vice president and economist in the bank’s research department, noted some economic bright spots for Vermont.

For instance, the state’s unemployment rate is lower than the nationwide and New England rates.

He also pointed out employment overall has been growing in Vermont, and that the education and health services sector of the state’s economy has remained particularly strong since the 2008 national recession.

That recession, Triest said, didn’t hit southern Vermont as badly as it hit many other parts of New England.

But he also had bad news: During the subsequent economic recovery, “that’s where things don’t look really great in southern Vermont, and not great in many rural areas of New England,” Triest said.

While Vermont employment has grown statewide, “mainly rural counties have suffered employment declines,” Triest said. That was illustrated by a map showing a positive employment change since 2008 in the Burlington area, while many other parts of Vermont have seen negative numbers.

“To the extent that we’re worried about problems of employment growth in southern Vermont, it’s not something that’s limited to southern Vermont,” Triest said. “It’s something that you see in many of the more rural areas of New England.”

Other maps showed related trends in Vermont: Much of the state, including the southern counties, has significantly lower incomes and lower levels of educational attainment than Chittenden County does.

Triest said those two factors show the need for southern Vermont to focus on workforce development. But he admitted it’s “something of a chicken-and-egg problem.”

“It’s something that I hear in pretty much every rural area of New England when I give talks like this,” Triest said. “It’s this problem that employers face: You want to attract workers who are highly trained, but it’s harder to get the workers to move to a place until the jobs are there.”

“That creates a problem in terms of economic development,” Triest added.

Taking the microphone after Triest, Stapleton underscored the economic differences between northwestern Vermont and the rest of the state.

For example, he said Vermont lost about 4 percent of its labor force during the recession.

“Over time, we have gained all of that back and then some,” Stapleton said. “However, all of the gains that have come almost exclusively have been [in the Burlington metropolitan area].”

Additionally, Stapleton echoed Triest in pointing out that Vermont’s workforce-age population growth is slowing dramatically, while the population ages overall. That also is a problem nationwide, but its effects are being felt acutely in Windham and Bennington counties.

“We have this decreasing labor force, especially in southern Vermont,” Stapleton said. “That explains in part why income growth ... is slower in southern Vermont than it is in Vermont as a whole.”

Solutions have been elusive, Stapleton told the crowd.

“There are a lot of best practices out there — strategies to encourage people to move back into rural areas,” he said. “We haven’t seen one yet that has really been effective. You need a basket of ideas that encourage people to come here and stay here.”

Filling that “basket of ideas,” and doing it cooperatively, has been the goal of Windham and Bennington officials for several years. And some of the potential solutions mentioned by Triest and Stapleton — including workforce development, affordable housing and education — have been common themes in southern Vermont.

The May 24 summit was just the latest example of such discussions.

The two counties collectively make up the Southern Vermont Economic Development Zone, which was created by the Legislature in 2015. A report detailing the region’s economic issues and offering possible corrective measures was released later that year.

Windham and Bennington officials have been working since then to adopt a more “integrated approach,” as the report had recommended. And they’ve recently agreed to jointly develop a regional economic development strategy modeled on Windham County’s successful efforts.

Given that many other areas are experiencing the same economic issues, Grinold said the key question is, “how do we differentiate our efforts?”

One answer, he believes, is regional cooperation like the kind that spurred the two-county summit. It’s about “identifying specific strategies that focus our limited resources on what will move that needle on the economy,” Grinold said. “That’s how we can do better here.”

The model, he said, is the creation a decade ago of Southeastern Vermont Economic Development Strategies, also known as SeVEDS.

“SeVEDS, the way it started was a new notion of acting regionally,” Grinold said. “Ten years ago, that meant if you were from Wilmington, you should work with Dover and Whitingham.”

That philosophy subsequently extended to countywide cooperation, and it later led officials to reach beyond Windham County’s borders.

“We’ve now taken that same concept and said, ‘Windham County can’t do this alone. We need Bennington County,’” Grinold said.

Rep. Laura Sibilia, I-Dover, serves a district that straddles both counties. She said regionalization is a long-term effort, especially “in rural areas such as this — in rural areas that are transforming.”

But she assured summit attendees that “this is worth it. I’m excited about the possibility for Windham and Bennington to come together, to find a means of changing our trajectory.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #410 (Wednesday, May 31, 2017).

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