The Welcome Wagon lives!

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The Welcome Wagon lives!

Wed, 12/26/2018 - 4:53am -- tim

by C.B. Hall, Vermont Business Magazine Does anyone here remember welcome wagons? The organization, which once upon a time sent "hostesses" around to new neighbors' houses with helpful information, gifts, and coupons from local businesses, has evolved - some might say degenerated – into a Florida-based marketing company that, in its website's words, offers businesses a "multiple touchpoint strategy spanning direct mail and digital channels" – junk mail and cyber-promotions, in other words.

Then there's the Vermont Welcome Wagon Project – Chittenden County. Its model – let's not call it a business model - captures the spirit, at least, of the original welcome wagons. Run by four volunteers, the enterprise seeks "to complement the efforts in the state to close the Talent Gap in Vermont by helping retain new, newly returning, and existing Vermonters in the state by assisting them to get connected (or more deeply connected) to community," according to the VWWP website. The goal is "to accelerate the time it takes to 'figure out' VT and get connected to our community in meaningful ways."

The volunteers include two native Vermonters, one defector from New York, and one former Vermonter based in Chicago, who, the website tells us, "left a big piece of her heart in Vermont."

Discussing VWWP's origins, one of the volunteers, Tim Monty of Richmond, told VBM that "we recognized that ... more and more people are moving to the state, that the demographic is comprised less and less of quote-enquote native Vermonters, and we wanted to try to promote the healthiest transition for new Vermonters to settle in."

Monty, Krysta Sadowski of South Burlington, and Whytnee Bush – the Chicagoan – launched the initiative in June. Melissa Reyes of South Burlington subsequently joined the informal leadership group as "kind of our marketing and social media director," in Monty's words.

And while the model is as personal as those two-legged ambassadors of community who knocked on doors for the welcome wagons of another era, VWWP operates largely through the internet. New Vermonters can register as "participants" online, while prospective "hosts" fill out an online form that asks how, and how often, they wish to connect people to Vermont.

Then, Monty said, "We send out a biweekly newsletter to our host network ... about the new Vermonters and let them know a little bit about this individual or Vermonter, to find any commonalities that they might share."

A recent edition of the newsletter notified hosts of inquiries from seven participants - new and returning Vermonters "looking for your warm welcome," in the posting's words. The seven included a teacher, a stay-at-home mother, a pharmacist, a physicist, a solar sales consultant, and two others who did not mention any occupation.

The newsletter identifies the participants by first name only, supplies their towns of residence, and adds a brief description of their interests or needs, which range from information on bus routes to the location of the nearest swimming hole, Monty said.

Typically the initial host-participant contact is a hike, a snowshoe outing, or a get-together over coffee or a craft beer.

Monty conceded that the term host is somewhat problematical and serves for lack of a better word. Hosts are not expected to provide housing, or to pay for meals when they and participants meet, for example.

"There's very little obligation on the part of the host," he said.

"It's on the casual side. I send an email, l introduce myself, I list out a couple of activities, maybe something local going on – a farmer's market, a concert in the park, maybe a coffee," said Kristen Baggs, a Colchester digital sales executive who has joined the initiative as a host.

While the process itself is social, the website statement's reference to the talent gap suggests that there's more afoot.

Chris Fraser, who lives in Williston and works as chief revenue officer for a Burlington software company, said his experience as a VWWP participant gave him a handle on "the business ecosystem" of which he is now a part. Raised in Williston, he moved back to Vermont last spring after about 13 years in Massachusetts.

He emphasized the social aspect of the business world. Compared to Boston, he noted, Chittenden County represents "a smaller business-social ecosystem. It's not as developed here, so [VWWP] seems like a great way ... to help business professionals get connected.

"For some people, it's, What are the restaurants? What are the hot spots?" he continued, but his own focus was on, "Who does it make sense to be connected to ... in the business landscape? ... What companies exist in the area, who is doing what, who some of the players are in the state, how to become involved, whether it's socially, politically, whatever."

It's a common sentiment among workforce developers, Monty said, "that it takes nine-plus months to become settled in Vermont."

VWWP is seeking "to help minimize the time [newcomers] need to get settled, so that we can retain the talent that does come here – people with the skills to help the economy grow and prosper."

The project, which he describes as "a citizens' initiative," nests well with official efforts aimed at encouraging people to move to a state whose population has scarcely budged in the last ten years, even as the national population has swelled by about 8 percent.

Governor Phil Scott's official website states that expanding and strengthening Vermont's workforce "should be the top priority of all elected officials."

On May 30 he signed a bill creating a grant program for new residents who work remotely from home for out-of-state businesses. An Associated Press story on the program, which allows each recipient up to $10,000 for relocation and start-up expenses, showed up in media across the country.

But the state's efforts to attract new workers have a ways to go. The aging of Vermont's population, in tandem with already-low unemployment, means that the people to fill new jobs simply aren't there.

The upshot is that Vermont's job growth is the slowest in the nation, according to a November 16 report from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. In fact, the report found Vermont to be the only state to witness a decline in nonfarm employment in the study period, between October 2017 and October 2018.

Commenting on the situation on November 21, Scott termed it critical that he and the incoming legislature find a way to attract more workers to the state, according to an NBC5 report.

In a November 20 interview with VBM, Rebecca Kelley, Scott's director of communications, underscored the governor's position on the stagnation in employment, and applauded the Welcome Wagon initiative as part of the solution.

"We need more people here in Vermont, we need more people in our workforce, and part of that is recruiting new people to the state – but you can't just recruit them. You have to integrate them into their communities. So I think this initiative falls right into line with that piece of the puzzle. We all need to pull in the same direction with this."

Joan Goldstein, Commissioner of Commerce and Community Development told VBM that she had consulted with VWWP during its launch phase and chimed in with the opinion coming from the governor's office.

"We really support this and we'd like to see it in more regions," she said.

So what about the rest of the state?

The suffix attached to VWWP's name – Chittenden County – begs the question. Is the project going to set up shop out there beyond Chittenden's prospering confines, in what Seven Days columnist Paul Heintz once called "the real Vermont," where declining population and shuttered businesses generate less magnetism for those who might be pondering a move to our state?

Monty said that VWWP is engaged in "preliminary conversations" with interested parties in Caledonia, Addison, Washington and Rutland counties "to roll out more presence." He described a statewide network as among his group's original goals.

While neither he nor Goldstein knew of any similar initiatives in other states, the prospects for casting a wider net across the Green Mountain State look "overwhelmingly positive," he continued.

"The host network has grown very organically, without much push. We've had a very simple time generating enthusiasm."

Goldstein termed the sort of service VWWP offers "crucially important."

With many businesses across various sectors recruiting people from outside the state, she said, a potential worker from elsewhere "needs to know what the opportunities in the area are, what the cultural opportunities are. Who is a good real estate broker? Who's a good attorney? Where do I send my kids to school? And the friendliness factor, too – 'I hear that you're interviewing for a job.'"

She added that VWWP "could dovetail very nicely" with a Department of Tourism program known as Stay to Stay, which, according to the department's website, arranges "exploratory vacations designed for people who are interested in moving to Vermont. The 3-day lodging and networking packages connect guests to employers, community leaders, entrepreneurs, and potential neighbors."

"The Welcome Wagon could come out to meet the people who are here" on Stay to Stay excursions, Goldstein suggested.

"We have not attended one of their events to date, but it is something to look into for the future," VWWP's Sadowski responded to Goldstein's comment. "Our goal is to help welcome all new and returning Vermonters back to our great state, and folks coming to Vermont through this program certainly qualify."

CB Hall is a freelance writer from Southern Vermont.