A semi-rural economy has unique needs

We do not have, nor can we have, an industrial economy

NEWFANE — In thinking about business in southeastern Vermont, we have to take into account the simple fact that most small towns, like mine, are semi-rural.

We do not have, nor can we have, anything that resembles significant industry. Farms make sense here. So it's pointless to think of economic “solutions” that might work in an urban or even semi-urban setting.

Of course, there's Internet-based business. There is an obvious need to have broadband fully extended to our communities. No one denies this need, but it's taking a long time to materialize, that's for sure.

And we need broadband not just for its business use. We speak of an “Internet divide” between wealthy nations and the quarter of the world that doesn't have reliable energy, let alone Internet.

Well, we're somewhere in the middle here: some people have Internet access, and others do not.

Sure, some people would just as soon not be sitting at a computer half their lives, and that's fine. But if you're looking to expand the desirability to visiting or living in our area, access to the Internet is simply a necessity of life in the 2010s. The option needs to be there.

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We want to get Internet and cell-phone service, but in a way that respects our environment, that respects why people have chosen to live here in the first place.

We shouldn't be dictated to by a mega-corporation that can say, “If you want Internet access, we'll tell you exactly where we're going to put our 150-foot steel tower, which we'll 'hide' with fake tree branches if you insist.”

And you can be sure their choice will be where their corporation will “optimize their investment” in the “interest of their shareholders,” not necessarily where local democracy holds any sway.

And it's still up to the telecommunications company whether they actually are going to build this tower now that they went to the trouble of getting a permit from the state. (I'm forced to wonder.)

We need help expanding access, for business and personal use, to the Internet, while preserving our environment as a wonderful place.

And that condition is important, because the vast majority of the businesses of southern Vermont not only need the Internet, but also depend on people coming here to live and to visit.

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Sometimes people make a distinction between tourism and real estate. In southern Vermont, this is a mistake.

Real estate is far more, in terms of business activity, than the literal buying and selling of property. My wife and I spent three years looking for a place to live here. We'd drive up weekend after weekend, staying over, eating out, going to events.

There is enormous opportunity here, but it is being missed.

As a simple example, New York City is an easy drive away from southern Vermont. How many thousands of New Yorkers have had it with living there and might want to get some of the cash from their overpriced and undersized apartment, and fulfill their dream of living in an unbelievably beautiful part of the world?

This scenario is just one example of our problem: communicating what's possible here to audiences that would respond favorably to our economy.

Little semi-rural communities cannot do this communication outreach ourselves. After Tropical Storm Irene came a brief period of renewed focus on our needs. But I was surprised to find that, even after a flood had devastated large swaths of our area, most of the help came in the form of advice about what more we could possibly do, in addition to our trying to fix our roads and rebuild our bridges (something that we're still struggling with, two years later), not in the form of either money or concrete efforts to spread the word of what we have to offer.

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The other big thing that keeps getting omitted when talking about business in southern Vermont is our amazingly rich culture. I can't keep up with it, there's so much here. Whether you want to sit in the audience or participate, it's all there for you within a few miles' easy drive.

The intensity of artistic creativity in this section of the planet makes it a phenomenal place to visit or to live. Jazz, theater, brilliant classical music, photography, fine art, craft of all kinds, dance - all these art forms are there at one's fingertips.

These opportunities are amazingly inexpensive. Yet they are also enterprises, attempts to earn part, at least, of one's living. They are what makes our area particularly vibrant and alive, a core of the liveliness that gives our area enormous allure.

Getting the word out about our cultural offerings has to come at the state level. Our towns, our regional associations, do not have the resources, either economically or people-wise, to pull it off on the scale that's needed.

But our need is pretty desperate. We need to feel as if we are growing, not slowly deteriorating. It's scary when houses sit on the market forever, or a long-popular inn or restaurant closes its doors.

We need help to turn our economy around, not reports about how and why things are miserable economically.

We know the problem. We even know a lot about the solution.

We deeply appreciate the tremendous support from state and federal agencies through the crisis of Irene, but most semi-rural towns and counties in southern Vermont need much more long-term direct, concrete help for us to make progress economically.

We cannot do it on our own.

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