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Planting seeds

After nearly 8 years at BDCC, Lewis reflects on regional economy

BRATTLEBORO—Outgoing Brattleboro Development Credit Corp. Executive Director Jeffrey Lewis says his legacy is what’s happening now: the region’s economy is still growing into what it will become.

“You have to trust other people,” said Lewis, who retires this month from the nonprofit commercial economic development organization after 7½ years and as one of the leaders of the Southeastern Vermont Economic Development Strategy (SeVEDS), a nonprofit that, as its website says, “exists to reverse the Windham Region’s economic decline.”

The organization connects businesses with technical support and resources at the local, state, and national levels. It has turned the sites for former local industrial powerhouses like the Cotton Mill and the Book Press building into business incubator space.

Lewis said that what interest him about economic development “is you plant seeds and see where they grow.”

Maybe the economy will sprout into an arts mecca, or New Chapter’s presence will attract more nutraceutical companies, or GS Precision will help create a precision manufacturing cluster.

Leaving BDCC is proving to be a “very emotional” and “interesting transition,” Lewis said.

“How can you not do this if you’ve got a Laura [Sibilia], a Patrick [Moreland], or a Barb [Sondag]?” asked Lewis, who described them as people who care about economic development on a deep, personal level, he said.

Sibilia is the director of economic development and SeVEDS point person at BDCC. Moreland, as Brattleboro’s interim town manager, took over for Sondag, who held the town manager role for almost 10 years.

Parallels and contrasts

Turning around Windham County’s down economy through the six-year-long SeVEDS process has not been a “theoretical exercise,” Lewis said.

In Lewis’s opinion, SeVEDS, aimed at pinpointing economic goals and developing a countywide economic development plan, has made it possible for residents to have a voice and take action, said Lewis.

According to Lewis, many people and key business leaders approached SeVEDS and economic change feeling “reasonably doubtful.”

Always a SeVEDS cheerleader, Lewis said the first step was getting people talking and interested. People also needed to grasp the urgency of changing the Windham County economy, he said.

According to data gathered through the 6½-year SeVEDS process, Windham County’s economy has been in a recession for 20 years. The county’s wages are lower than those of neighboring counties in New Hampshire and Massachusetts. The number of younger workers living in Windham County has declined, which will cause challenges for employers trying to meet their workforce needs.

People forget that the regional economy can become stronger without damaging the assets, culture, or quality of life that residents hold dear, said Lewis.

Lewis sees two parallel, yet contrasting, issues playing out in Windham County. During his BDCC tenure, Brattleboro has not changed much, said Lewis: The population has remained flat; retailers and most of the larger employers, like Brattleboro Memorial Hospital, are stable.

Two recent business success stories — Commonwealth Dairy, a client of BDCC, and Against the Grain, a BDCC tenant — stick out because they’re rare birds, said Lewis.

Under that plateau is that people have “learned not to expect a lot” of change or improvement, he said, observing that residents have developed a “coping mentality” of low expectations.

People ought to want more, he said — not necessarily more material things, but a higher quality of life, better employment opportunities, and more opportunities for young people.

“SeVEDS is trying to instill” the belief that “you don’t need to settle,” said Lewis.

The state, and the region, are trying to compete on a global economic landscape with a lack of resources and a “confusion of roles,” he said.

People celebrate the state’s agricultural industry, and the state has made a conscientious effort to support and boost its farming enterprises. But Lewis observed that the state has put all of its economic eggs into the agriculture basket at the expense of programs that bolster its industrial heritage.

Many people think that not taking action means that the economy will stay as it is, said Lewis, who warns that the economy will continue to decline if people do nothing.

Lewis’s experience at the head of BDCC has shown him how vulnerable small communities are to events like the Brooks House fire or the flooding from Tropical Storm Irene. Lewis also looks ahead to the closing of Vermont Yankee nuclear plant in Vernon as having a potentially adverse consequence for an economically vulnerable area.

Windham County’s economy is “thin,” he said, so economic upheavals ripple higher compared to more robust economies.

IBM’s laying off employees in Burlington had a negative effect on that regional economy, but within months the area had absorbed the impact, said Lewis.

“It doesn’t have the same bite as it does here,” Lewis continued.

Lewis believes a lack of county government is holding the region back. Without a broader county government, Windham County towns have no tools to act regionally. Vermont tradition dictates that town interests stop at the town line, he said, but all boats rise together.

Lewis also believes that the region has taught itself to not discuss economic issues — an unintended consequence of VY, especially in Brattleboro, he said.

Historically, economic discussions have turned to the topic of energy costs, which quickly lead people down the VY rabbit hole into conflict, said Lewis.

Consequently, after 40 years, people in this region have developed the habit of not speaking about certain issues, “like the crazy aunt in the closet,” he said.

This divisiveness has lead to advocacy politics, said Lewis. Instead of focusing on public discussions, people take strong positions, and this advocacy moved up through the ranks to the Legislature, he said, noting that lawmakers learned that certain issues bring well-funded constituents.

Instead of VY, he said, people should focus on adding to the regional economy high-paying, sustainable jobs that fit within the Vermont quality of life.

“We’re all in this town together,” said Lewis.

Retirement number four

“I don’t retire well,” said Lewis, who has retired from three previous jobs.

Lewis, who served as a senior executive with in Maynard, Mass., moved to the Brattleboro area in 2002 and taught classes at the School for International Training and Marlboro College Graduate Center.

After BDCC — retirement number four — Lewis plans to start two other projects: the first, another business with partners, and the second, a project that will focus on preparing communities that host nuclear power plants for the plants’ eventual closure.

“It’s not about tomorrow, it’s about 10 years from now,” said Lewis about economic development strategies.

Still, Lewis said, he has seen positive shifts in the past seven years.

“I see the horizons turning pink in the morning,” he said.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #234 (Wednesday, December 25, 2013). This story appeared on page A1.

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