Telling the state’s business story
Commerce Secretary Michael Schirling.

Telling the state’s business story

State economic development leaders meet with local businesses and community members to discuss the big picture of attracting new businesses and more people to Vermont — and the challenges facing small businesses in Windham County

PUTNEY — On a mid-August morning, amid the bustle of commerce in the Putney General Store, staff helped customers with deli orders, stocked shelves, and prepared items for the lunch hour.

Meanwhile, upstairs, in a sitting area surrounded by empty shelves left from the store's former pharmacy, approximately 20 people met with state lawmakers and leaders with the Agency of Commerce and Community Development (ACCD) to ask nuts-and-bolts questions and share big-picture concerns about doing business in Vermont.

ACCD Secretary Michael Schirling opened the Aug. 14 meeting with a question: “What is Vermont's largest export?”

“Maple syrup” and “cheese” emerged as the two common responses.

No, said Schirling. The answer was microchips.

While most people associate dairy and maple syrup with Vermont, he said, state officials must let people know there is more to the Green Mountain State than those two iconic products if it wants to foster prosperity, attract new people, and ultimately reverse some of the state's population challenges.

So part of economic development in Vermont includes telling the state's business story, he said.

Setting goals for 21st-century commerce

“Growth is not an option, we have to grow,” Schirling said.

He noted that his department has built its priorities around two sets of goals. First come Governor Phil Scott's three areas of focus: economic development, making Vermont more affordable, and protecting the most vulnerable.

For the next set, the department analyzed 143 reports it had inherited from previous administrations. ACCD distilled the information in a process that created five goals:

• Creating or attracting 21st-century jobs,

• business growth and workforce recruitment,

• housing for all Vermonters,

• supporting vibrant regional economies and ecosystems,

• developing marketing that tells Vermont's story, especially its story of innovation.

Those five goals are “not going to knock your socks off,” Schirling said. “They're pretty common sense.”

He explained that his department has identified regional economies - including Bennington, Brattleboro, Burlington, Hartford, Middlebury, St. Albans, and St. Johnsbury - that tend to circle the state's bigger population centers.

Schirling said that when the department calculated the distance of a 30-to-40-minute commute around many of these population centers, the total area covered eventually encompasses all 251 Vermont cities and towns.

Those regional economies all have their respective assets and strengths. They can thrive based on their individual identities, he said.

One challenge with marketing, Schirling continued, is finding stories that resonate with young people. Another is finding ways to balance what Vermont is known for (such as maple trees and cows) with its innovation (such as microchips).

Another challenge is the nature and quantity of outreach. The state's digital effort can't spam people, he said. Instead it needs to “identify people who've got a drop of Vermont in them” and communicate with those potential Vermonters.

Recruiting individuals for 'an acquired taste'

Commissioner of ACCD's department of Economic Development, Joan Goldstein said, “a major departure” the department made last year was switching its primary focus from recruiting businesses to recruiting individuals.

“Vermont's an acquired taste in a way,” she said.

Last year, Scott launched the Vermont Remote Worker Grant Program. The program pays up to $10,000 in relocation costs for workers who move to the state and bring their job with them.

While the program received a lot of negative responses inside the state, it also made big news in the national media.

“More than we could hope for,” Goldstein said.

People moved to the state as a result, she added. Not as many as the state needs to reverse its aging workforce, and other labor and demographic issues, but it is a start, she said.

Schirling added that the program effectively pays for itself quickly. The state will receive more in taxes from grant recipients in their first year of living in Vermont than those new residents got from the grant.

As a result of additional legislation this session, Goldstein continued, starting in January the state will pay people up to $5,000 if they move here to take a job and can prove residency. If they take a job outside Chittenden County, that award could be as high as $7,500, she added.

Goldstein said that even before switching its focus to recruiting individuals, the department spent little time recruiting businesses to move to Vermont. The state can't compete with larger states for luring the big 2,000-employee anchor businesses, she said.

Consequently, most of her efforts involve supporting existing Vermont businesses. She also works with Canadian companies that want to establish a foothold in the United States.

State Rep. Nader Hashim, D-Dummerston, said that he tried to recruit his friends from college to move to Vermont. He said the state is unique and has attractive qualities, such as its agricultural community and schools.

His friends haven't done so because of three common barriers: affordable housing, the lack of a commercialized cannabis market, and jobs.

“Yes, there are a lot of jobs,” Hashim said. “But the question is jobs versus careers” - the existence of long-term employment potential and opportunities.

Telling the story

Schirling said that one role the state can play in marketing is that of an aggregator, pulling together other efforts to attract businesses and employees into an effort whose whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

The state and its communities need to find an easy, cohesive digital connection with potential Vermonters.

This type of collaboration is important, he continued, noting that towns could piggyback on a marketing effort that he described as the cornerstone of the state's recruiting campaign, ThinkVT, an ultraconfident and positive argument for living and working here, complete with huge photos of young people snowboarding and meeting in board rooms.

Another part of the state's relocation marketing includes an interactive atlas at the Vermont Interactive Community Atlas. If ThinkVT combines emotional resonance with images of people enjoying microbrews and sweeping vistas of mountain foliage, the atlas is a series of interactive graphs and charts of business sectors, town populations, and demographics designed to appeal to the hardest-core fan of public policy and data analysis.

The intent behind the atlas is to map the state's assets and businesses and help people decide if they want to relocate to Vermont and where, Schirling said. “It has not taken off yet.”

Goldstein said the atlas depends on user-generated content.

Schirling and Goldstein reminded the audience that their office has approximately $80,000 in money approved in the recent legislative session to redistribute as grants to fund regional marketing programs.

Schirling added that the Legislature allocates approximately $3 million a year for tourism marketing. The state's tourism industry generates approximately $2.8 billion in revenue for the state annually, he said.

Nuts and bolts

The business owners discussed marketing strategies - and shared ground-level frustrations about interacting with the state.

Several concerns were raised about the state Board of Liquor and Lottery and its Department of Liquor Control. For example, restaurant owners can't purchase spirits wholesale, but instead must go to a liquor store and buy retail. This differs from purchasing beer and wine, which goes through distributors.

That results in extra time and costs, multiple owners said.

Jeanne McCliment of J.D. McCliment's Gastropub in Putney said of the state's fees and taxes around alcohol, “It's $50 here, $100 there, and it's a lot of money.”

The restaurant owners nodded when Charles Dodge of Putney Mountain Winery and Spirits described one interaction with the department of Liquor and Lottery, summarizing the experience as “a lot of blood pressure that was pretty unnecessary.”

Schirling responded that modernizing and making state government more efficient is another priority of the Scott administration.

State Rep. Mike Mrowicki, D-Putney, asked if the ACCD could make changes to improve some of its systems around liquor.

The simple answer? No.

Changes must happen through legislation, the state officials said.

In response, Mrowicki said he would bring the restaurant owners' concerns to his fellow lawmakers.

Billy Straus, the interim executive director of Next Stage Arts Project in Putney, said that his organization strives to serve its local community while reaching out of town.

The organization holds community events like meals, he said. But it also tries to host artists with regional appeal to draw new people to town.

And that's where the lack of cell reception and broadband starts to interfere.

The stories of receiving irate calls from patrons when their GPS sent them into the backroads of Westminster are less funny than people think, said Straus, who has answered such calls.

And broadband can be dicey even at Next Stage, in the center of town.

Mrowicki reminded the audience about the broadband bill approved during the recent legislative session. One of the provisions in Act 79, he said is to help communities build municipal broadband systems.

“It's clear that the companies that could serve us are not,” he said.

Signage regulations, according to audience members, are more archaic than the state's liquor laws.

Schirling agreed, saying that the Legislature needs to modernize signage laws, too.

But when lawmakers have tried in the past to do just that, “historically, they run into buzzsaws,” he said.

Goldstein collected a signage “wish list” from the audience in hopes of making some changes. On top of the list: making it easier for communities to post wayfinding signs.

Goldstein noted that during the winter months, 80 percent of the meals and rooms taxes the state received, came from its four southern counties.

Near the end of the meeting, the audience briefly discussed ways they could collaborate with one another.

“We don't need to keep reinventing the wheel,” McCliment said.

Schirling added that, in his opinion, Vermont had a 240-year history of innovation and reinventing itself. It can do so again, he said - it doesn't need to go the way of rural decline like other regions in the country that have lost their respective manufacturing bases.

“There are a variety of ways to craft strategy to draw people here,” Schirling said. “There is a place for all of our communities to be vibrant and succeed.”

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