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Not-for-Profit, Award-Winning Community News and Views for Windham County, Vermont • Since 2006
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Remembering ‘Al’ Moulton: The man they called Mr. Vermont

BRATTLEBORO—People called him “Mr. Vermont,” but he preferred that people call him Al.

Elbert George “Al” Moulton Jr., who died at his home in Townshend on May 1 at the age of 85, was arguably one of most important figures in the field of economic development in Vermont in the second half of the 20th century.

Moulton’s ebullience and personal modesty belied his considerable accomplishments, starting with his hand in the creation of the captive insurance industry, which marked its 30th anniversary last year.

Captive insurance is a specialized form of self insurance. Though more than half of the states in the U.S. now have captive insurance laws on their books, Vermont was the first state to pass such laws. It is the premier domicile for captive insurance companies in the United States, and the third largest such domicile in the world.

Among the nearly 600 active captive insurance companies in Vermont are 42 of the Fortune 100, and 18 of the 30 companies that comprise the Dow Jones Industrial Average. The industry is also responsible for more than 1,400 jobs (direct and indirect) for Vermonters, and tens of millions of dollars of tax revenue for the state.

That would be a considerable achievement for any one man, but it doesn’t scratch the surface of Moulton’s accomplishments.

In a 12-year period, Moulton served as the state’s economic development director under four governors: Philip H. Hoff, Deane C. Davis, Richard Snelling, and Madeleine Kunin. He also chaired the Republican Party and ran Davis’ two successful gubernatorial campaigns.

He had a hand in creating many of the state’s regional development corporations and ran the first one in Brattleboro, where he developed not one, but two industrial areas.

At one point in Moulton’s career, he was so successful that you couldn’t drive around the state without encountering a company he had either coaxed into coming to Vermont, helped stay in Vermont, or helped expand.

Besides creating thousands of jobs for Vermonters, he played a major role in helping to keep the state green and beautiful.

In 1968, he helped Ted Riehle Jr. create and implement Vermont’s now-famous ban on billboards. He followed up that remarkable achievement by helping to enact Act 250, Vermont’s comprehensive land-use law, in 1970.

‘Horseshoes around my neck’

In a career that spanned 50 years, Moulton had a lot of fun and made a lot of good friends. But it’s not possible to work at the highest levels of government without butting a few heads, and Moulton butted with the best of them.

He left the Hoff administration over his differences with the governor’s staff. More than one of his projects was controversial; the idea of building industrial parks around the state didn’t sit well with people who wanted to build a wall around Vermont and keep industrialization out.

But for a politician, Moulton was exceptionally honest and open about his mistakes. In a 2006 interview, he freely admitted that luck played a big part in his career.

“They say I have horseshoes around my neck,” he said.

Moulton’s economic development philosophy was simple, direct, and distilled from his intimate knowledge of small-town New England life.

“Try and put the jobs where the people are, in the smaller towns,” Moulton said. “Put them there instead of trying to bring everybody into the city, where we would just be creating other problems. If we create 25 jobs in Townshend, it’s better than 250 jobs in South Burlington.

“That was my overall plan, and that’s why we were continually trying to get the smaller towns to take advantage of state financing to get industrial parks and get themselves ready.

“I wanted to keep Vermont as it was. I didn’t want to have big industrial centers. If people can work in their own towns, they’re better off.”

A Maine native and a Navy veteran of World War II, Moulton worked for the Brattleboro Chamber of Commerce’s first full-time manager in 1956, and he later ran the chambers in Rutland and Lawrence, Mass.

He came back to Vermont in 1963 to serve in the Hoff administration as the state’s first commissioner of development.

“For three months, I was the highest-paid state employee,” Moulton said. “I walked in the tavern in Montpelier, and two women [were] talking, [and] one said, ‘Is that Moulton they’ve just hired?’ The other one said, ‘Good God, they’re paying him by the pound.’”

For Hoff, Moulton focused more on regional planning than economic development.

“He was a little ahead of his time in that, and I admire him for that,” Moulton said. “Essentially, the groundwork for Act 250 was being laid. I didn’t do much hustling for new industries.”

Moulton didn’t help to write Act 250, but he helped the Davis administration become organized to work with the Legislature in getting the bill approved and implemented. He considered Act 250 his crowning achievement.

Looking back in 2006, he said, “I think that effort, achieving Act 250, made the greatest impact on the future of Vermont. Our whole objective was to try and control how the landscape was used, so you weren’t cluttering up the place, the hills and valleys. It was the same philosophy behind the billboard law.”

Moulton returned to Brattleboro in 1980 to become the first executive director of the Brattleboro Development Credit Corporation (BDCC).

There, he developed two industrial areas for the town. The first, on Old Ferry Road, today houses the Windham Solid Waste Management District, a lumber mill, the administrative headquarters of Entergy Nuclear Vermont Yankee, a group of smaller businesses, and a huge C & S Wholesale Grocers warehouse.

Later, Moulton and then-BDCC President Wayne Corbeil bought farmland from retired shoe company owner Joseph Famolare and created the Exit One Industrial Park. Moulton also engineered the sale of the old American Optical building on Putney Road to the Fulflex Corp.

When Famolare created the Vermont Agricultural Business Education Center (VABEC) in a big farmhouse on Old Guilford Road, Moulton again was there to help him get started.

His biggest defeat

Moulton’s last stint in state government was in the Kunin administration as Secretary of Development. It was then that he suffered his biggest defeat, a failed attempt to build a 15,000-seat stadium at Stratton Mountain Resort for the Volvo International Tennis Tournament.

In the late 1980s, the tennis tournament was attracting about 11,000 people to Stratton, and its managers wanted to expand. They came to Moulton with plans to build a stadium, and they wanted Kunin to guarantee the financing.

“At that time, things were beginning to go kind of bad for the state, and Madeleine was put in a bad spot because she couldn’t guarantee it,” Moulton said. “The other big problem was the ego of the guy who ran the show.”

Moulton thought it was important to keep the tournament in Stratton, but the then-editor of the Brattleboro Reformer , Norman Runnion, was dead set against the idea.

“I thought it was good for the state,” Moulton said. “I said it attracts people to the state, they’re going to leave money here, and maybe they’ll make an investment. He said, ‘You’re only doing it for the wealthy ones.’

“Norm didn’t think the state should guarantee it. And Norman was right there. He was more right, maybe, than I was. It got so I was afraid to look at the paper in the mornings and see what Norman had to say.”

Eventually the plan failed, and the tournament moved to New Haven.

Moulton returned to local economic development in the 1990s, finishing his career in Springfield and St. Johnsbury as a consultant to the regional development offices in those towns.

After a lifetime of economic development, Moulton could only shake his head when reacting to the assertion that Vermont is anti-business.

“One of my jobs was to step on that rumor,” Moulton said. “I don’t think Vermont’s anti-business reputation is deserved. You can argue about Act 250, but it was not anti-business. We were trying to encourage business, but within guidelines for the use of the water and trees and the landscape.”

Thanks to Moulton’s work, Vermont remains beautiful and billboard-free. Act 250 never stopped being controversial, especially among developers, and over the years it has undergone many changes.

But it has still helped to prevent much of the thoughtless overdevelopment that infects many regions of the country. And many, many Vermonters got good jobs.

That’s quite a legacy for one man.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #100 (Wednesday, May 11, 2011).

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