Economy summit juggles post-pandemic optimism, obstacles

‘Unique and specific challenges’ for Windham and Windsor counties include more workers and more housing for all

WEST DOVER — The in-person return of the annual Southern Vermont Economy Summit advertised a post-pandemic, fast-forward theme of “Cultivate Change.”

But first came a rewind to all-too-familiar COVID-19 precautions.

Before 200 attendees could gather this past week at the Mount Snow resort, they had to take a COVID-19 test, wear a mask, and physically distance themselves in meeting rooms, according to summit health and safety guidelines shared after cases rose nearly 20 percent statewide in the past several weeks.

Yet, as the pandemic remains more present than past, organizers at the Brattleboro Development Credit Corp. aimed to steer the conversation toward a future of welcoming more individuals and institutions to the southernmost counties of Bennington and Windham.

“We've been recognized as a region with unique and specific challenges in regards to its population and economy,” said Adam Grinold, the credit corporation's executive director. “How do we improve access to housing? Broadband? Child care? Water and sewer infrastructure?”

Southern Vermont leaders also want to add more people. While the population of the state's largest city of Burlington and surrounding Chittenden County grew 7.5 percent in the past decade, Windham County increased only 3.1 percent and Bennington County just 0.6 percent, according to the latest census.

In response, leaders of the Brattleboro-based ECDC Multicultural Community Center spoke of their recent efforts to resettle nearly 100 refugees from Afghanistan.

“Housing, transportation, and cultural adjustment is a big challenge,” the center's director, Joe Wiah, said.

The center also is working to connect refugees with education and employment, as well as with locals offering household goods, child care, and English language tutoring.

“Our goal is to build a welcoming community where refugees feel at home, and their contributions to the local economy, culture, and vitality are valued,” the center says on its website.

Housing is an issue not only for newcomers but also for everyone else, a slate of summit presenters confirmed as they spoke of high prices and low availability.

The program also addressed how to tap American Rescue Plan Act money, create more welcoming communities and workplaces, and promote smart development and smooth business transitions at a time when millions of baby boomers are retiring.

The summit is one result of the state Legislature creating the Southern Vermont Economic Development Zone in 2015.

“Urgent action is required,” its introductory report began. “We must reverse current trends and retain and grow the population, lower the average age, raise the average wage, and promote and embrace greater population diversity.”

That, in turn, has brought a set of growth strategies tapped during the pandemic.

“We saw so many new Vermonters relocate from other parts of the country,” Grinold said. “How do we take this opportunity coming out of Covid to cultivate change?”

“For me, it's a doubling down on what is so great about living in this region - the culture, the character of the people,” he said. “And if we can improve things like housing and broadband, more and more will come.”

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