Go ahead. Blame the current credit crunch for the lack of jobs paying a livable wage and businesses exiting the region.
But economic crunches are nothing new to Windham County. In fact, some say that the area has been in a recession for the last 20 years.
The Southeastern Vermont Economic Development Strategy (SeVEDS), a group consisting of community and business leaders, has the recession in its crosshairs.
SeVEDS participants met Nov. 16 in Bellows Falls for its second meeting, with its members hoping to rehabilitate the region’s economy by increasing wages, population and the regional gross domestic product within five years.
Wilmington hosted the inaugural meeting in early autumn, other meetings have been held, or are planned, in Dover and Brattleboro.
Jeffrey Lewis, executive director of the Brattleboro Development Credit Corp., and Brattleboro Town Manager Barbara Sondag estimated 50 people attended the Nov. 16 meeting.
Sondag said seven core committee members worked for three years before bringing the development process to a wider audience of community, industry, and economic leaders. FairPoint Communications is partially supporting the project.
Lewis said the energy and tone at the Bellows Falls meeting felt lighter than at the first meeting and the participants were excited about the process.
“We lit a fuse in Wilmington and the explosion happened in Bellows Falls,” said Lewis.
The state laws that define regional planning commissions define the Windham Region as the 23 towns in Windham County, plus Weston, Searsburg, Readsboro, and Winhall.
Lewis said that towns can no longer navigate the economic prosperity river alone.
With the help of representatives from Vital Economy, a consulting firm focused on improving underperforming and remote economies, participants worked through an exercise called asset mapping to pinpoint the region’s unique resources that could attract businesses and people.
Participants first identified Interstate 91 as an asset, but Sondag pointed out that White River Junction has Interstate 91, too.
Participants identified increased passenger rail service as an asset unique to the region, but Sondag said many states are also attempting to increase rail service as well.
When the group pointed out that Brattleboro has the second highest level of rail usage in the country, its members had identified a unique aspect of passenger rail in southern Vermont, said Sondag.
“It challenges you to think, ‘what really are assets?’” she said.
A reality check
Doing a fiscal reality check and instilling a sense of urgency in participants is a large part of the SeVEDS process.
“Our current [economic] state is a little bit scary,” said Sondag.
According to Sondag and Lewis, the Windham Region is caught in a downward spiral.
As businesses have left the area over the past 10 years, the workforce supporting them has also left. Eventually, real estate prices — the litmus test for a community’s economic health — have dropped.
Windham County’s population has shrunk by 3.64 percent since 2000, while the rest of New England has gained in population.
To thrive, communities need library trustees, volunteers for Project Feed the Thousands, Selectboard members, and other community volunteers and officials.
Sondag said losing population erodes the “backbone of the community.”
According to SeVEDS, the average annual Windham region wage is $36,291. This ranks $2,035 below Vermont’s average wage, $3,557 below the average for Northern New England, and $16,224 below the average for New England overall.
Only Maine ranks lower in wages than the Windham region.
“And Maine is in pretty rough shape,” said Lewis.
Sondag said that viewing the region’s economic health in black and white sunk a hole in the pit of her stomach.
Lewis describes data as providing a point of view by continuously putting “the numbers” in front of people.
Another eye-opener is the unbalanced ratio of unearned income (investments, Social Security, and trust funds) to earned income (wages). Residents living on unearned income outnumber wage earners.
The type on income on which residents live influences what they require from their communities, said Lewis and Sondag.
Wage earners’ prosperity is tied directly to the economic health of their communities. Residents receiving funds from unearned income have their prosperity linked to sources outside their communities.
Over five years, SeVEDS wants to stop the decline in the region’s population, match the Northern New England average wage, and increase the value of goods and services produced annually by 2 percent a year.
According to representatives from Vital Economy, all three goals are connected to people and jobs.
If the Windham region wants to raise the average wage, it also must increase area employment by approximately 5 percent. The increase in employment translates into creating 669 jobs paying above the desired average, 446 jobs paying at the desired average, and increasing the wages of 20 percent of jobs by $5,000.
Realizing that not all jobs are created equal is a paradigm shift for this area, said Sondag.
Lewis points to Malone, N.Y., as an example of economic development derailed. After many of its longtime industries failed, Malone reinvented itself economically as the “prison capital of New York.”
Lewis said the plan worked great for a time. Prisons brought good-paying, steady work — until the prison population dropped.
Malone had built its economy on a single industry dependent on state taxes and subject to public policy. Many of its prisons closed, and the town ended in the same economic place it started.
The SeVEDS group plans to encourage a diverse economy founded on multiple types and sizes of businesses. It also looks to develop businesses independent of uncontrollable factors, such as Vermont’s haphazard weather.
It’s easy to look at the numbers and say, “what we need is…” and start tossing around suggestions, said Lewis, but he says the area needs to match assets with businesses.
Creating jobs without having the skilled employees to fill them — or the population in general — thwarts economic sustainability.
Sondag said the question to ask is, “What can we do now to leverage and create linkages between assets?”
“We don’t want a report collecting dust,” Lewis said. “We want action.”
Lewis said he hopes the participants have identified a collection of assets, strengths, and priorities. But, he warns, not every asset will equal an investment and survive the final cut.
“The strategy has to be thoughtful,” he said.
Actions not words
Lewis and Sondag said the SeVEDS group wasn’t designed as a traditional public process. The committee wants to attract members who are excited, committed, and in a position to create change through actions like hiring more employees or expanding their businesses.
Sondag said the region needs to shift its thinking and take control of its economic destiny instead of waiting for Montpelier or that one big employer to bail us out.
SeVEDS is a multi-year project, warned Lewis and Sondag, who both pointed out that it took the region 50 years to reach this economic cliff — and that it will take more than a year to navigate safely away.