BRATTLEBORO—Patricia Moulton Powden chats about the Dec. 27 snow storm. Snow often makes headlines in Vermont, but the white stuff equals big news for those, like Powden, in economic development and a tourist-heavy economy.
After a phone call with her brother, who works at the Mount Snow Ski resort in West Dover, Powden said the ski area received 15 snowy inches.
If the snow continues, she said, “that’s icing on the cake.”
Powden has served at the state level in economic development for nearly 10 years. She loves economic development and looks forward to continuing doing the work she loves closer to her home base of Londonderry.
This winter, Powden will transition to the regional level with a short stint as Work Force Development Director with the Southeastern Vermont Economic Development Strategy (SeVEDS).
Powden chaired the Environmental Board under former Gov. Jim Douglas, then served as the commissioner of labor, and was tapped by Gov. Peter Shumlin in 2011 to serve as deputy secretary and economic development director in the Agency of Commerce and Community Development.
After her stint as workforce development director, Powden will step in to lead the Brattleboro Development Credit Corp. Powden will take the wheel from long-serving Executive Director Jeffrey Lewis.
Powden said she believes Lewis and the BDCC board have “done great things.” She wants to continue their initiatives while bringing her statewide economic development experience, knowledge of programs, and networks to the equation.
She added she wants to provide “a continuity of the commitment to turning the Windham County economy around.”
Powden said she always wanted to return to regional economic development work when she felt complete with state-level work.
According to Powden, she often joked with Lewis to let her know when he planned to retire. She looks forward to ending the 10-year “crazy commute” from Londonderry to Montpelier.
“It’s time to find a little better balance,” Powden said.
Starting Feb. 18, Powden will spend almost a year investigating workforce needs in Windham County. As workforce development director, Powden plans to have in-depth conversations with local employers to assess workforce needs, barriers to expansion, and whether wages are competitive.
“I’ll spend a lot of time listening,” she said.
Out of these conversations, Powden hopes to develop solutions to the county’s employment challenges through actions like opening access to training opportunities.
Employers in the manufacturing and hospitality industries have expressed frustration over the lack of skilled workers, said Powden.
Lacking a workforce with the the right skills can limit a company’s ability to expand, she said.
Wages offered by Windham County employers may also come into the conversation, said Powden. Wages “can be a double-edged sword.”
An employee with higher skills can demand greater wages, said Powden. But if an employer doesn’t offer competitive wages, attracting higher-skilled workers proves difficult.
Some solutions to Windham County’s workforce issues will require short-term actions, other solutions will take longer, she said, like changing math and science curriculums in the state’s schools from Kindergarten to college.
Powden hopes solutions can come through partnerships with existing organizations.
As an ex-officio to the SeVEDS process, Powden said she has witnessed the five-year regional development strategy group take strong steps in a good direction for the area. She aims to continue the group’s work.
“It’s a good opportunity [for the region],” she said.
The group has helped to bring the county together, she said. The smaller communities have recognized that the county has one economy with potential to do more united than as disparate local economies.
While Brattleboro may be the county’s economic hub, Powden said that other exciting opportunities exist in the rest of the county, such as tapping into the skills and resources of second homeowner populations around Mount Snow and Haystack.
SeVEDS has stated eight goals to complete within five years. According to its website, the group’s goals include ending the county’s population decline, obtaining a regional gross domestic product of $2.8 billion, and increasing the median annual incomes for residents by at least $5,000 to $6,000.
A successful economy
In Powden’s opinion, a successful economy is diverse in terms of types of businesses and business size.
Many communities try to hook “the big fish” company that employs 200 people. Powden, however, said that economies built with smaller chunks, 10 companies employing 20 people, often weather the economic tides more successfully than their larger counterparts.
Windham County has a fairly diverse economy with more traditional businesses in Bellows Falls and Brattleboro, tourism in the Deerfield River Valley, and the educational institutions like Marlboro College and World Learning, said Powden.
The county also has a few strong sectors that “import capital” from outside the state in the form of tourism, manufacturing, and health care through the Brattleboro Retreat, which serves as an industry leader.
To top things off, she said, the county is well positioned to other large population sectors like Boston.
Having an “entrepreneurial ecosystem is really important,” said Powden.
She wants to see entrepreneurs grow in the county, but realizes new business owners need access to resources like capital, research and development expertise, and mentors.
But to attract the new entrepreneurs and “ex-pats,” Vermonters who have left the area, the community itself must be vibrant in the form of restaurants, arts, culture, music, and recreation.
Powden hopes that, going forward, more organizations will partner with each other to weave together vibrant business and community environments.
“It’s all part of that whole mix,” said Powden, who added that finding a vibrant balance served as a challenge, but also a fun challenge.
Powden acknowledged that Vermonters often joke about paying a “lifestyle tax” to live in the state. People choose to live in Vermont because they love it, yet they know wages will be lower and the cost of living higher than other places.
Combating the “lifestyle tax” also entails a mix of stronger wages, diversity of employment opportunities, affordable housing, a diverse tax base, and a commitment to “hold the line on taxes,” she said.
Powden clarified that affordable housing didn’t pertain only to low-income households but also affordable for middle-income earners.
None of the above represent short-term goals, said Powden. Yet, she remains confident Windham County can move in a better direction. Vermont, she said, was the only state to experience household income growth in 2011.
An internship and a mentor
Powden said she did not start out intending to specialize in economic development.
Despite having economic development chief extraordinaire Elbert “Al” Moulton as her father, Powden said economic development didn’t catch her eye until college.
“I can’t say I fell into it [economic development] because of my dad, but it wasn’t a plan I had until my early 20s,” said Powden.
After graduating from the University of Vermont, Powden said she took a paid internship in economic development. During the internship, Powden said she “took a liking” to economic development.
She said her dad was the greatest mentor.
Moulton, who died in 2011, started as the head of the Brattleboro Chamber of Commerce in the mid-1950s and also served as the BDCC’s executive director in the 1980s. In between, he served as state economic development chief under four governors. His accomplishments on the state level include the statewide ban on billboards and helping launch Act 250, the state’s landmark planning and development law.
During his stint as BDCC’s first paid executive director, Moulton developed the Exit One Industrial Park and oversaw the conversion of the Cotton Mill into a small business incubator,
“It’s a little bit of a small world,” joked Powden about her and her father both serving in the Springfield Regional Development office in the 1990s, and soon, taking his old job at the BDCC.
Economic development is hard work without an immediate return, said Powden. But knowing that her work impacts people’s lives in a positive way, gets Powden out of bed in the morning.
When she helps create jobs, the jobs don’t go to strangers, Powden said. The employers hire friends, neighbors, and the community.
Helping to advance individuals’ careers and opportunities, “that’s what turns me on,” said Powden.