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A vision for a unified southern Vermont

Economic development specialists take input for a new regional plan for Bennington and Windham counties

WILMINGTON—A small audience gathered in the library of Wilmington’s Old School Community Center on June 19 to share their visions for a thriving Southern Vermont.

The Brattleboro Development Credit Corporation and its counterparts in Bennington County held the fifth of five meetings across Bennington and Windham counties last week.

The economic development organizations are creating the first multi-county Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy (CEDS). The plan will link the two counties’ local economic visions and efforts into a single Southern Vermont regional economy.

According to BDCC spokespeople, this CEDS is the first of its kind in Vermont.

The site for the Wilmington meeting, the former Wilmington/Twin Valley High School, was a fitting space for a meeting about transforming the economy in Southern Vermont.

Above the audience’s heads, tiles showed water damage. Dormant ceiling lights marked where bookshelves once stood. Rows of chairs arranged before a projection screen sat in place of study tables and book racks.

Since 2014, the Old High School building has slowly transitioned from a school into a community center. Members of the Old School Enrichment Council have helped lead the work. Their goal is for the center to focus on a space that houses a multitude of community activities and businesses — from entrepreneurs, to sports activities, to community gatherings, to lessons such as yoga or music.

Assets and opportunities

Rachel Selsky led the public discussion. Selsky is a project manager with Camoin Associates, the consulting firm charged with gathering information for the CEDS. The meeting’s focus: to identify the region’s assets and opportunities.

Selsky explained that a CEDS plan is “locally-based, regionally driven, and federally regulated” by the Economic Development Administration. The plan’s goal is to grow the economy and increase opportunity.

A CEDS will list goals and action steps unique to the region if covers. It does this through data gathering, local conversations, and identifying an area’s assets, challenges, and goals. The completed plan will also contain projects identified by the planners as helpful to the region’s goals.

Identified projects have the added bonus of ticking additional boxes or moving higher on the qualification lists in grant applications, Selsky said.

Selsky said the main outcome of the CEDS will be an “action plan matrix.” This matrix will contain the region’s objectives, tasks, partnering organizations, and measures for success.

CEDS are updated at least every five years to qualify for EDA approval.

Selsky expects the CEDS process to conclude in December. Additional public input sessions are scheduled throughout the rest of 2018, with the next in September.

The top goal of this CEDS is to “overall improve the quality of life for people in Southern Vermont,” Selsky said.

Lots of questions

To that end, Selsky asked the 12 audience members a series of questions. These questions were also asked to groups in Bennington, Manchester, Brattleboro, and Bellows Falls.

First they were asked “What do you love about Southern Vermont?”

Audience members quickly responded with answers that included: outdoor recreation such as hiking, fishing, kayaking, whitewater rafting, and swimming. Winter sports. Food. Beer, hard cider, and spirits. Good libraries. A strategic location with access to Boston, Montreal, and New York City. The arts. Caring about preserving history and restoring key buildings like The Latchis or the Bellows Falls Opera House. Authentic downtowns with unique identities. A lot of different newspapers with devoted readers. Volunteerism (even if it’s only a few people doing a lot). Resiliency.

“There’s a resiliency in Southern Vermont that you don’t find other places,” said the BDCC’s Laura Sibilia. “Maybe because they haven’t had to be resilient.”

How do others view Southern Vermont?

Audience members laughed when one person called out, “We’re not Vermont. We’re part of Massachusetts.”

It was a trope most in the audience had heard or felt. Conversation turned to Montpelier and how the southernmost counties felt ignored compared to the state’s capital and Burlington, Vermont’s largest city and a thriving economic and artistic hub.

A couple of audience members noted that their border location helped feed this “Vermont-a-chussets” persona. One reason — the way the national rating agencies divide media markets.

Brattleboro is considered part of the Boston media market, while Bennington gets lumped into the Albany-Troy-Schenectady, N.Y., market. The Burlington television stations rarely cover stories in southern Vermont, and the Boston and Albany TV stations usually ignore the region completely.

What is the greatest challenge facing business owners? How about facing residents?

Curtiss Reed Jr. of the Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity said the region — and Vermont in general — is “risk averse to jumping into the multicultural marketplace.”

Reed continued, saying that in the long term, the region must invest in attracting people of color to visit, stay, and establish businesses. Right now, however, Vermont isn’t a place that people of color see themselves fitting in.

Jennifer Stromsten of the BDCC noted that the community talks about needing to attract and retain young people, and then, in the same breath, list all the reasons young people move away — such as wages, lack of a social life, and the high cost of housing.

“It’s like we’re letting ourselves off the hook,” Stromsten said.

Readsboro Selectboard member David Marchegiani said it’s hard for him as a business owner to find employees who “want to work.”

Other challenges mentioned included a lack of a recruitment strategy to attract and retain workers; high education taxes; an aging business community that lacks succession plans; the state’s abundant rules and regulations; a season-dependent economy and job market; a shallow job market; inadequate cell and broadband service; a small pool of kids, making it harder to offer diverse social and community activities for families.

At one time Wilmington had three baseball teams, said resident and former Selectboard member Meg Streeter. Now, it takes three towns to make one baseball team.

Solutions?

Then came the toughest question: This plan will be a success if it addresses which key issue?

If it solves the “chicken and egg” problem of housing costs, good paying jobs, and attracting people to the region, said Wilmington’s economic development consultant, Gretchen Havreluk.

Reed said it should include a strategy to market Vermont’s assets, for example, its great food and beer businesses, to people of color.

Marchegiani said creating incentives that are “a hand up and not a hand out.” For example, encouraging people to renovate their homes — or purchase homes needing repair — by lowering their tax rate. Raising property taxes each time someone makes an improvement, in Marchegiani’s mind, serves as a disincentive to improving the region’s housing stock.

Adam Grinold of the BDCC said the CEDS needs to acknowledge how much the economy and region will change between the time the CEDS is written and the time it’s implemented.

“We need to write for that future reality,” Grinold said.

“Broadband, broadband, broadband,” said Sibilia.

Audience members said that they’d know the CEDS plan was a success if wages increased, the average age of residents decreased, the industry base increase and diversified, and the population numbers and its diversity increased.

These markers of success mirrored those from previous CEDS.

Next, the audience was asked to imagine that money was no object: If that were the case, what is the one big project the region should complete, and what are some of the smaller “quick wins” projects?

Marchegiani suggested gutting and rehabilitating old houses — such as the mill housing in Readsboro — then reselling them at low prices to young people and families.

He also noted how difficult it is for people in the trades to hire extra help, or each other, for projects. He pointed to the state’s regulations, such as workers’ comp, as barriers to sole proprietors when looking to expand.

Marchegiani suggested creating a “cooperative” in which the larger co-op would manage things like insurance, while members could hire each other for jobs or spot work.

Sibilia and Grinold’s ears perked up at the idea of such a co-op.

Reed revisited his marketing strategy, saying it served as a quick win.

The state has an opportunity to attract and exceed the expectations of “hundreds of thousands” of families, entrepreneurs, and visitors of color to the state, Reed said.

For example, he said, marketing the state’s localvore options. Or the African American Heritage Trail, which commemorates African Americans in Vermont and pertinent historic sites from Guilford to the Northeast Kingdom.

“We should be marketing the daylights out of those sites,” said Reed. “But it takes intentional marketing ... it means going big with a strategy.”

Grinold suggested creating “a successful workforce engagement system” — a cradle-to-grave environment where people, regardless of age, regardless of experience, can access the education and jobs they need at that point in their lives.

For example, the education system and local employers could work together to ensure that students are learning the skills employers need. Or, if a worker in mid-career either lost a job or wanted to change careers, that worker could access the education or apprentice programs to enable a career shift.

Other audience members wondered what would happen if towns set up quality-of-life pilot programs: Would people come to the area? Others brought up initiatives such as funding 50 childcare slots in every town in Windham County, offering housing at reduced costs, and creating a matching program with local employers where workers received a financial bonus.

Making things just a little easier

“You move to Vermont. You take a vow of poverty,” Reed said

“Is it worth it?” Selsky asked.

Audience members said yes.

What followed, however, was a theme that rose to the surface throughout the meeting — a mix of pride and frustration around living in Vermont.

Yes, audience members said, they loved the quality of life, their participation in the democratic process. Some even gave the impression that working three or four jobs demonstrated a special blessing of grit and fortitude.

But audience members also expressed a weariness with needing to work so hard, of needing to bridge a gap between housing costs and insufficient wages — wages that are often based on seasonal work.

A couple of audience members expressed frustration at people who “didn’t want to work.” Or seemed to lack a work ethic.

Marchegiani said with pride that his family “raised a workaholic,” and that he doesn’t see that quality in some of the young people he worked with now. Other audience members agreed and a discussion around the state’s labor laws and how hard they make doing business ensued.

This conversation also raised questions about what it means to be a worker in Vermont.

If it’s hard to be a business owner because requirements like health insurance or workers’ comp are too expensive, what are workers getting by with? Are they receiving the benefits required by law, even if working multiple jobs? If someone “doesn’t want to work,” is it because they’re not a workaholic? Or is because they’re tired of working three to four jobs and still struggling to pay rent?

Is everyone in Southern Vermont just plain exhausted?

“People who want to be here will be willing to do what’s needed to survive,” Reed said.

Selsky asked, “Do we want to just survive?”

Jennifer Stromsten of the BDCC said that everyone needed to focus on making it just a little easier to live in Vermont. Over the years, she has witnessed everything from running a business to renting an apartment, to finding a job become incrementally harder.

We need to focus on “making it a little less hard,” she said.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #465 (Wednesday, June 27, 2018). This story appeared on page A5.

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