by Bruce Edwards, Vermont Business Magazine
Q: How’s the local economy doing?
A: Pretty well, actually. We have a new company relocating to Montpelier, Caledonia Spirits (makers of the Bar Hill brand). That will improve net job creation by 30 or so persons. Enrollment in schools is up this year, we have several housing projects underway and a major hotel coming to downtown. Our pipeline of projects looks positive for the next 24 months or so. We are also hoping to add a new Tax Increment Finance (TIF) district in Montpelier that would be a huge boost to many projects and lift both our local and regional economy in the coming years. That process is already underway.
Q: What feedback are you getting from some of the larger manufacturers, employers as to how their companies are doing?
A: The larger entities are holding their own for the most part. It is the smaller shops that feel the most pressure when weather or construction projects interfere with their normal business cycle.
In general and across the board, the issues I see businesses facing seem to fall into at least one of three categories: 1) a lack of workers 2) a lack of customers or 3) a lack of room to expand. Businesses need investment to grow and that ability to make such investments only comes from sustained periods of high productivity. Economic development must help remove obstacles inhibiting sustained periods of high productivity (e.g. labor shortages, housing supply, etc).
I read a study the other day that showed Vermont is 33rd in the nation at $48,123 and second to last in New England (if) you look at Gross State Product per capita as an indicator of productivity. We have to improve that. Businesses can, and must, become more competitive — which requires investment, innovation and talent. Improving economic conditions requires more than research and policy. We need to shift in attitudes. Economic development can no longer be taken for granted.
Q: How is Montpelier’s downtown? Many vacancies?
A: We actually don’t have that many vacancies downtown. Part of the reason for the few vacancies we do have has more to do with landlords that are unwilling to compromise… i.e. to subdivide larger spaces for tenants or lower the ask price. We have some new apartments going into the French Block — and that alone will have a nice ripple effect downtown (a challenge to that project was dropped in October and work is expected to begin by the end of this year, resulting in 18 apartments). The 1 Taylor Street Bus Terminal and housing project will be another economic trigger to help lease up the remaining vacancies. The downtown market will adjust to those changes pretty quickly.
The 1 Taylor Street project will be breaking ground soon. That project alone will yield more than 30 new housing units, not to mention the multi-modal terminal downtown.
Q: What are your challenges/opportunities?
A: I’m very focused on housing right now. The housing supply issue is critical to attracting and retaining the talented people Montpelier needs for economic growth. A good housing supply is an essential part of my economic growth plan, and we are working to come from behind and correct for several variables… including: an aging housing stock, tight supply and rising prices near some employment centers. Housing shortages force people to make difficult choices about how and where to live if not in Montpelier. We don’t want that.
In terms of our opportunities, we have many, but we have to filter those opportunities as we go to determine:
What actions will pay the highest dividends in terms of available housing inventory?
What is the right mix of commercial and residential development to seek?
Where will development projects help Montpelier the most?
How can we get tax relief for residents and businesses while accomplishing growth?
I have great hope for Montpelier. The people of the city care about each other, their quality of life and the prosperity of the city for future generations. The city seems to be embracing the Montpelier Development Corporation’s economic development mission and what we are working to accomplish for Montpelier.
Bruce Edwards is a freelance writer from Southern Vermont. This article first appeared in the November issue of Vermont Business Magazine.