Summit: Reinvisioning a post-Vermont Yankee economy

Martin Langeveld, Strolling of the Heifers Marketing Director proposes “Embassy of Vermont” storefront in NYC to help outsiders experience some of the pleasures of Vermont during a visioning session led by Bennington College President Mariko Silver. Photos: Caleb Paasche, BDCC

by Maia Segura Vermont Business Magazine Let’s face it. Most economic development conferences tend to be a bit of a snooze. The same players regurgitate the same content. Everyone goes away a little better networked, but not very inspired. Not so for the 2nd Annual Southern Vermont Economic Development Summit at Mount Snow’s Grand Lodge on May 30, where attendees were surprised by optimism.

“It was a forward-thinking and optimistic convening,” said Sara Coffey, Executive Director of Vermont Performance Lab and Windham-1 candidate for State House of Representatives. “It was very different from similar events that I’ve attended in the last couple of years. You’d never know that we are in a post-Vermont Yankee economy.”

Over 200 attendees from across Bennington and Windham County, including child care providers, nonprofits, arts organizations, small-business owners, and drivers of the creative economy, complemented the usual mix of officials and members of the traditional economy.

“The diverse mix of groups that were present was really excellent,” said Katie Buckley, Vermont Department of Housing and Community Development Commissioner.

The agenda included “something for everyone,” according to Buckley.

A progressive program highlighted innovative projects, celebrated emerging leaders, and emphasized building cross-sector and cross-regional partnerships.

WHY ARE WE HERE? SOUTHERN VERMONT AT A GLANCE Q2 2018

Population: 79,044

  • Declined 2.1 percent from 2012
  • Expected to decline an additional 1.5 percent by 2022

Average Age

  • Windham 46
  • Bennington 38
  • Combined average 42

Expected change of population by 2030:

  • 65-84 71 percent increase
  • 40-64 35 percent decrease
  • 20-39 13 percent decrease

Jobs: 46,634

  • Declined 0.05% 2012-2017
  • Labor force participation decreased 7.1 percent

Unemployment Rate January 2018: 3.13 percent

  • Declined 36 percent since 2013
  • As of May 2018. Brattleboro region 3.1 percent; Bennington region 3.2 percent; State 2.8 percent

Tim Martin of the US Dept of Labor, and Vermont Department of Labor Commissioner Lindsay Kurrle demonstrated alignment of national and state priorities with those of Southern Vermont. Mount Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse addressed the group on leveraging a diverse workforce. Bennington College President Mariko Silver called for attendees to find a vision for Southern Vermont. Six breakout sessions focused on growing partnerships and potential.

Launch of 2018 Southern Vermont CEDS Project

The ultimate goal of the conference was to kick-off of the first ever Southern Vermont Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy (CEDS) process to cover both Bennington and Windham counties. The CEDS process analyzes the regional economy and serves as a guide for establishing regional goals and objectives, developing and implementing a regional plan of action, as well as identifying investment priorities and funding sources.

The current CEDS effort grew from the establishment of the Southern Vermont Economic Development Zone by the Vermont Legislature in 2015. A study was commissioned at the same time calling for the creation of a CEDS covering Bennington and Windham counties plus the Town of Weston. The Windham Region’s federally approved CEDS was completed in 2015 by Southeastern Vermont Economic Development Strategies (SeVEDS). An affiliate of Brattleboro Development Credit Corporation (BDCC), SeVEDS grew from a 2008 grassroots effort to reverse the economic impacts from the closure of the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant.

The current CEDS project will serve as a 5-year update to the Windham plan but expands to include Bennington County and all towns within the Southern Vermont Economic Development Zone.

According to Adam Grinold, Executive Director of BDCC, “As small, rural counties in a small, rural state,Bennington and Windham counties face similar challenges in today’s dynamic economy. Success from past and future partnerships across the two counties has increased our understanding of how important it is to act regionally.”

There are “no neat answers” to what the challenges are likely arise in the two-county approach to the CEDS process.

According to Zirwat Chowdhury, Community Development Director, Town of Bennington, cultural and geographical differences, as well as different infrastructure and access to different resources may all play a role in priorities.

“I am hoping that that the regions don’t come at this as competitors, but instead ask, ‘How can we put our heads together and pool our resources? What can we learn from each other?’”

“The summit was the first stage in regional coordination between Bennington and Windham counties,” she said. At the same time, Bennington County has been working to find its way internally coordinating its Northshire and Southshire regions.

“We need to think rhizomatically,” Chowdhury said.

The next step in the Southern Vermont CEDS process is a series of public meetings seeking input on the assets and priorities for the region.

Meeting schedules can be found here: https://brattleborodevelopment.com/public-input-sought-for-2019-southern-vermont-plan/

“People coming together as they did at this conference, with such a high-level of optimism and partnership, bodes well for a comprehensive CEDS process,” said Coffey.

CEDS Vital Projects

During the event, 12 Windham Region Vital CEDS Projects were formally recognized, and 30 more acknowledged.

This year’s top ranked projects ranged from the Sustainable Valley Group’s Vacuum Technology and Thin-Film Training Center, to New England Youth Theater Art Camps, to the Rich Earth Institute’s efforts to promote human waste as a resource for fertilizer.

Recognized annually, a committee identifies and prioritizes submitted projects and activities that it believes will best meet some of the region’s greatest needs and increase its competitiveness.

Additionally, daylighting of these projects helps to elevate the discussion around them, making them potentially more attractive to Federal funders, and a more significant part of the community conversation.

Other CEDS projects submitted included multimillion-dollar ski area developments, leveraging for last-mile broadband investments, and efforts to create a vision for a “21st century village” in Vernon. The full 2018 list can be found at brattleborodevelopment.com.

“I was bowled over by the innovation and creativity in the projects that were highlighted, said Coffey. “Creative economy and arts projects were in the mix, which you wouldn’t have seen a few years ago.”

Manchester Town Manager John O’Keefe, moderator Wayne Granquist, and Green Mountain Power SVP of Regulatory and Financial Affairs Janette Bombardier look on as Julia Dixon discusses the Bennington County Cultural Plan during Public/Private Partnerships panel.

One focus of the day was developing cross sector partnerships. Several projects were highlighted in the CEDS list as well as in breakout groups. The Putnam Block Revitalization project in Bennington was held up as a particularly successful example.

“The Putnam Block is the single largest rural economic development project in the state of Vermont,” said Katie Buckley. “We (Vermont Department of Housing and Community Development) are thrilled to be a supporter of it and witness its impact on the community.”

The project, led by Robert Crego of M&S Development, seeks to re-purpose a site located in the Designated Downtown district of Bennington. The goal is to create 160,000 square feet of mixed commercial and residential use space and offer affordable housing and community services. It was awarded almost $1MM in Downtown Tax Credits (state), and will utilize Federal Rehabilitation Investment Tax Credits (RITC) which will fund about 20 percent of the construction cost. It will receive $1.25MM from the Vermont Community Development Program. There is alsofunding involved to help clean up the site.

“It is an excellent example of a project that will not only revitalize the community but will transform it. It is exactly what we want to see – a mixed use property with a truly income diverse housing component (publicly funded affordable apartments using the Housing Bond, as well as unrestricted market rate ones too), located in a downtown, reusing a historic building,” said Buckley. “What could be better?”

Industry

The projects highlighted during the summit indicate that Southern Vermont is quickly diversifying its industries beyond the traditional sectors of manufacturing, health care and tourism.

While the tourism and hospitality remain economic drivers in the region, there was little discussion about this sector during the summit. When the subject did arise, some pushback occurred. In one future-visioning work group, a participant said that he would like to see less activity in the tourism and hospitality service sector 20 years from now.

“Tourism is and will continue to be, a major employer in VT and that of Windham County,” said Grinold. “Having grown up in the industry and currently employing 23 people at my restaurant, I would push back hard on anyone calling for the end of tourism in Vermont”

Others focused on the contributions of the creative economy to the region. A month after the Nexus of Art & Economy Conference which showcased the contributions of the creative economy in Bennington and Windham counties, leaders of this sector attending the summit felt they finally had a seat at the table with traditional players.

“Nonprofits and business groups were there together,” said Sara Coffey. “It was great to see nonprofits recognized as a legitimate part of the workforce.”

Matthew Perry, co-founder of Vermont Arts Exchange agreed.

“Having the arts at the same table with Economic Development and business is long overdue. It was great to have this opportunity as an arts organization to be included,” he said.“There is positive momentum building betweenthe creative sector, businesses, and community development where true partnerships are being realized.”

Challenges to the Region

While there was much celebration, there was also opportunity for attendees to discuss some of the challenges that may be holding back progress in the region.

There was a good critical tone to the conversation, and discussion of real challenges,” said Chowdhury.

Of these challenges, an aging population, access to workers, affordable housing, child care and high-speed internet topped the list.

“A lot of young people are moving to Guilford and a lot of babies being born, which is against the narrative,” Coffey. “We are attracting them with a vibrant community with arts, food and culture. But also need housing, high-speed internet and child care to keep them. “

Labor Force and Workforce Development

Vermont’s unemployment rate is one of the lowest in the country at 2.8 percent. In Southern Vermont, this rate is a bit higher at 3.1 percent in the Brattleboro region (May 2018), with Bennington at 3.2 percent. These numbers only account for those actively looking for work and on unemployment insurance in the last four weeks.

The more comprehensive number may be as high as 5 percent, including those “sitting on the sidelines” wanting or seeking work but not accounted through unemployment insurance rolls, said Tim Martin Acting Regional Director of the US Dept of Labor.

In the meantime, there is a perception that there are few jobs in Southern Vermont, or at least no “good jobs.” The reality is that Southern Vermont does not have enough workers to fill positions. A quick look on Indeed.com reveals over 2600 current openings in both counties.

“Given the low unemployment rate, it's hard to find great candidates no matter where you are in America,” said Luke Stafford, CEO of Brattleboro-based Mondo Media. “Sure, we have a small labor pool in Southern Vermont, but if Mondo was in New York we'd have way more competition for great candidates. Even if we were up in Burlington, we'd be up against resource-rich companies like Dealer.com and MyWebGrocer. As with any locale, there are advantages and disadvantages to being in Brattleboro.”

But what about the well-paying, “good” jobs?

“There are certainly well-paying jobs in Southern Vermont, jobs with ample career advancement opportunities. It's just that those jobs take a little more effort to find,” said Stafford. “That's where networking comes into play - you've got to get out and meet people face to face.”

The workforce challenge is estimated to become greater over the following years as the population of Southern Vermont is decreases, and its workforce ages out of the market.

Since 2012, the population here has declined 2.1 percent, with an additional 1.5 percent decline expected by the year 2022. Meanwhile, the average age of those 65-84 is expected to increase by 71 percent by 2030, as 40-64-year-olds decrease by 35 percent, and those 20-39 decrease by 13 percent.

All of this points to a critical need to increase the working age population dramatically, and immediately. To do that, several issues must be addressed.

Housing

A primary topic to haunt the summit is the need for high quality, entry-level, affordable workforce housing. Tackling this question “is a BIG task,” according to BDCC’s Grinold.

“We know from speaking with employers that they continue to struggle to replace or expand their workforce - we have solid data for this. What we currently lack is data to demonstrate the way in which our region's housing impacts our workforce,” he said.

The topic arising at the summit caught no one off-guard. Least of whom was Susan McMahon, Associate Director of Windham Regional Commission.

“We have heard this over and over again anecdotally from employers, communities and nonprofits,” said McMahon. “We are in the process of working on two items in regard to housing. We have begun updating our regional plan and will be discussing housing at our upcoming Community Development meeting.”

According to Grinold, an assessment is in the hopper.

“This assessment, I hope, will help create data around the housing conversation,” said Grinold. “We are eager to have this information and believe the CEDS is a great way to highlight this important topic. child care is the other obvious contributing limiting agent in workforce expansion- we plan to also highlight this in the upcoming CEDS.”

Child care

Indeed, another motif at the summit was access to reliable, affordable child care and its importance to both the existing workforce, and the young families that Southern Vermont hopes to attract. According to a recent report compiled by Let's Grow Kids, in Windham County alone 73 percent of infants likely to need child care do not have access to any regulated programs, and 83 percent of do not have access to high-quality care.

“As a region and statewide, we need to do more to support young professionals and their families. I think the place to start is with child care,” said Stafford who is the father to two young children, and husband to a public school art teacher. “Vermont can stand out from the other 49 states if we dedicate resources to high quality affordable, or even free, child care.”

Stafford would like to see policymakers take a fresh look at this challenge and seek areas of opportunity within it.

“I admit that I rely on our elected officials to come up with creative solutions to funding child care initiatives. But in an aging state like Vermont I see an opportunity to combine elder care and child care,” he said.

Broadband Internet Access

Another area of need to attract and support workforce and businesses is broadband internet access. Fiber coverage is scant in Southern Vermont and serves only a few population centers. Only 7.3 percent in Windham County and 1.2 percent in Bennington County have access to the fastest 1 Gbit speeds, compared to 33 percent in Chittenden County and 30 percent in Windsor County.

Vermont overall is well below the national average for even moderate download speeds with only 20 percent having access to 50+ Mbps compared to 83 percent in the rest of the country.

Rewriting the Narrative

At the end of the day, it is up to Southern Vermont to reimagine itself, rise to the challenges of the future, and compete in a rapidly changing world.

During the event, Mariko Silver challenged attendees to “Build a vision for Southern Vermont.” At this stage, she said, the vision is a strategic plan, not necessarily grounded in reality, and not everyone needs to agree. What is important, she said, is the relentless engagement in the work required to change the conversation.

“Say the same thing over and over again,” she said, “until you change the story and rewrite the rural narrative. Part of relentlessness is optimism, and with that comes resilience.”

This message of optimism and resilience was the most important of the day for many attendees. The takeaway for Susan McMahon was, “Imagine the place you want this area to be and work toward it.”

In response to the challenge, attendees workshopped ways to share the Vermont experience and their vision for the future. Topping the list were equitable, higher paying jobs with no gaps in gender and culture, ample housing and more vibrant communities. People also wanted to move toward a greener and more sustainable economy, and an increase in racial diversity. One idea to export a sense of the culture here was to create an “Embassy of Vermont” storefront in New York City where folks could submerge themselves in the Vermont experience, Apple Store style.

Timothy Martin, Acting Director of Region 1 US Department of Labor – Employment and Training Division connects with Katie Buckley, State of VT Commissioner of Dept. Housing and Community DevelopmentWhile a great deal of the discussion focused on attracting outsiders to the area, some felt that not enough was said about people who are already here and in need.

“There were lots of solutions for outside people. People were not talking about the poverty in our existing population,” said Chowdhury. “How do we make this a real, meaningful part of this conversation?”

Timothy Martin, Acting Director of Region 1 US Department of Labor – Employment and Training Division connects with Katie Buckley, State of VT Commissioner of Dept. Housing and Community Development.

Overall, though, she was inspired by the level of engagement in the event. “I was pleasantly surprised by how much people seized the opportunity to be heard, not apathetically or fatigued,” said Chowdhury. “They came with an attitude of, ‘Here is what we can contribute to what we are talking about.’ I appreciate the energy and willingness to put forward ideas, but now we need to transform these into things that are happening in our communities.”

The first set ofpublicmeetings will be in both Bennington and Windham. Residents and business owners are invited to attend any sessions that are convenient for them.

· June 18 from 10:00 – 12:00 at Bennington Fire House

· June 18 from 2:00 – 4:00 at Manchester Town Hall

· June 19 from 8:00 – 10:00 at SIT Room 101 Lowey Center in Brattleboro

· June 19 from 11:30 – 1:30at Lower Theater in Bellows Falls

· June 19 from 6:00 – 8:00 at Old School Library in Wilmington

These sessions will be interactive and engage participants in discussions around the assets and opportunities in Southern Vermont that make the area attractive and competitive for businesses and residents. Southern Vermont is at a critical point in time, in terms of the ability to change the region’s trajectory and accelerate in a positive direction. Involvement from thepublicis vital to shaping the strategy and vision for the future.

SELECTED GRAPHS

Maia Segura is a freelance writer from Windham County. Graphs courtesy: Emsi Q2 2018 Data Set | www.economicmodeling.com