A different perspective on economic planning for Brattleboro

BRATTLEBORO — It is de rigueur for planners in the modern age to plan for growth. Rarely do such planners explain what they mean by “growth.” Is it growth in size, numbers, quality, diversity? Is it something else or some combination?

I submit that the intent of planning today must be to achieve sustainability, while directing and managing decline to maintain viability along the way. I use the word “decline” here to refer to the rate and amount of consumption.

There is agreement that a $14.1 million bond is manageable. But is it the right expense for this community?

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We have an aging population. Barring unexpected (though not unimaginable) turns, the population will continue to age. However, in 15 years, the huge Baby Boom generation will peak and, in the 15 years following, the population will be dramatically reduced.

I project that any change in this direction will be toward even more rapid decline in the higher age bracket as the cost of health care becomes too much of a drag on the essential and undeniable goals of sustainability and survival.

The populations of the surrounding region will see a decreasing rate of growth and ultimately an actual decline proportionate to the increasing cost of energy and transportation.

Brattleboro is within a rural county. With few exceptions, every rural county in the country is experiencing economic decline as young people migrate toward the cities. This has been the pattern, at higher or lower rates, since industrialization cranked up in this country in the mid-19th century.

There are no expectations that this will change. Whatever weak or scant reasons exist that might reverse this trend are diminishing because of the essential imperatives for efficiency and regaining environmental and ecological health.

So Brattleboro's population should remain steady as the migration from rural to urban offsets the accelerating deceasing of the Boomer generation. The aging factor in Brattleboro will swell further as the most elderly sector of the rural population migrate inward.

As the rural population depletes to a sustainable number and migration to town tails off, the urban (Brattleboro) population will then begin shrinking.

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Every natural resource, excluding only such things as solar and wind energy, is steadily and in most cases rapidly moving from scarcity to outright depletion. This includes everything from fish to forests, minerals and metals to fossil fuels, arable land, clean water, and clean air.

For this reason alone we cannot maintain our current standard of living as it is now defined.

Technology and automation, along with globalization and general efficiencies, have enabled ever-higher levels of productivity yet with diminishing need of labor. The economic laws of the marketplace do not long tolerate inefficiency.

Thus, without more regulation than we have now, particularly in consumption and distribution of wealth, we will be unable to keep unemployment and underemployment at acceptable levels.

As the current insufficient regulation of business continues to allow and encourage the continual flight of manufacturing and production out of our country, the non-ownership class in the United States (those with few or no net assets and encompassing the vast majority of Americans) will itself steadily decline and increasingly reflect the Third World economy and their attendant social conditions.

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We do not know the ideal (sustainable) population for Brattleboro. One baseline is an acre of tillable land per person. This mark can be satisfied incorporating regional land resources.

For this reason alone - though there are many more, such as conserving and allocating resources and preventing cataclysmic decay of the environment - regional planning should be elevated well above the local with commensurate levels of funding.

One planning strategy asserts that a local workforce properly trained or retrained in certain fields would then undoubtedly attract jobs. Presumably, this means compelling companies to locate or relocate here.

There is no convincing evidence that there are enough companies scouting around for a home or that any, let alone enough, would come here. But we are ahead of ourselves.

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What part of our workforce is seeking retraining and what do they want, or what would they be willing, to be trained in?

Professional planners place a heavy emphasis on high-tech business. One characteristic of high-tech business is a low employee-to-revenue ratio. The automotive industry, even at its historically high level of automation, still employs four to five times the number of people per dollar in sales than does the electronics industry.

There are also claims that more and more jobs are available to do at home through the Internet. I have not seen evidence that the numbers are significant or that, whatever number it is, the jobs provide decent livings (middle class wages with benefits in a 40-hour work week).

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Instead of spending $14 million on the police/fire station, that's the kind of money that could create a municipally owned fiber-optic system. Or municipally owned energy sources. Or a local currency system. Or - well, a host of conceivable economic benefits that we never get from the endless drips of $20,000, $50,000, or $100,000 grants.

Given this long-term outlook for sustainability, I strongly believe that the town could benefit far more by scaling down the police/fire project to $10 million and earmarking the other $4 million to an economic development fund.

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