Windsor County & Upper Valley Report: Building a Renaissance

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Windsor County & Upper Valley Report: Building a Renaissance

Fri, 08/16/2019 - 12:17pm -- tim

Photo: Downtown Springfield, VT. Courtesy photo.

Community members in Windsor County prove that ‘the facts we live with’ don’t have to be the reality they create

by Olga Peters, Vermont Business Magazine The fact is this: Windsor County struggles with many of the same issues as other counties in Vermont. The population is aging. According to the US Census Bureau, the county’s median age is 47.4. Employers have trouble finding workers. The County experienced an overall decline of 1.05 percent in the number of workers between 2016 and 2017, said the US Census Bureau.

The industries communities once relied upon for good wages and a strong tax base — such as Springfield’s machine tool industry — have disappeared.

The county’s more rural areas lack the broadband and cell service to keep up with the 21st Century.

These smaller communities have become bedroom communities to their larger neighbors. This means that more people commute out of town for work leaving traditionally volunteer-run organizations — fire department, town offices, library trustees — scrambling for help.

Yet, the census data also shows a few bright spots.

Between 2016 and 2017, the median household income increased 3.77 percent. The median housing sales price has also increased compared to this time last year by 15.4 percent, according to the May 2019 Market Data Report from the Vermont Association of Realtors.

Several people interviewed for this article pointed to the Renaissance of White River Junction. Springfield is in the early stages of creating a technology and innovation campus. Meanwhile, three regional commissions located in two states are launching a multi-year housing study aimed at reinventing their towns’ housing stock and former factories.

According to Kevin Geiger of the Two Rivers-Ottauquechee Regional Commission, the ingredients for these community reinventions have always existed in Windsor County. The difference is, the bakers have rolled up their sleeves and fired up the ovens, he said.

People make the difference, he said. People willing to show up and do the work because they knew, no one was coming to save them.

“Economic development,” according to Geiger, “boils down to the one question: What is it that you want?”

It's not only about highways, he added. It's not only about business. It's not only about federal funding. It's about creating the community that the community wants to live in.

Turning 180 degrees and back again

The Springfield Regional Development Corp serves 10 towns. Executive Director Bob Flint has served at the SRDC for 14 years.

“This is an interesting moment in time,” he said of Springfield.

It is perhaps the first time, in many decades, that several projects are starting to coalesce and push the town into a new direction, he said.

According to Flint, one of the challenges Springfield faces is navigating a “180-degree transition” from the prosperous community of the machine tool industry’s heyday, to the “community of tremendous need” it is today, and back again to prosperity.

According to Flint, Springfield's Grand List dropped by 15 percent this year, which means its tax rate has also increased.

Springfield might have a bad reputation, but the challenges it faces are the same challenges many Vermont towns face, he said. Flint ticked off the list: demographic changes, the opioid epidemic, population decreases, workforce issues.

Property values in this part of the state can prove a challenge to attracting new businesses or developers because investors’ potential low return on investment, he added.

“There's no magic answer and it's not all in our control,” he said. ”You play the hand you're dealt.”

Yet, Flint said Springfield is experiencing some exciting changes.

For example, Flint highlighted the Woolson Block renovation project, a multi-use housing project spearheaded by the Springfield Housing Authority and Housing Vermont. Construction on the $8 million project starts soon.

According to Flint, the Woolson Block is an iconic downtown building that fell on hard times. As a result, it developed a negative reputation.

Under the co-management of the Springfield Housing Authority and Housing Vermont, however, the building will become  home to 15 affordable apartments, four service-supported housing units for at-risk of becoming homeless youth, and a commercial storefront.

Flint said that the SRDC has signed a master lease to have offices on the first floor.

The Springfield Food Co-op is in agreement to buy a downtown building as well as part of an expansion project, said Flint.

According to the Food Co-op’s website, in February, the board announced plans to purchase 6 Main Street. The Food Co-op will share the building with the Springfield branch of People’s United Bank.

And then there is BRIC.

BRIC stands for the Black River Innovation Campus. The multi-million project is the brainchild of Flint and long-time friend Matt Dunne.

Courtesy renderings of the Black River Innovation Campus exterior and interior. For more information, go to www.bricvt.org/learn-to-code

Dunne is the founder and executive director of the Center on Rural Innovation in Hartland. He is also a former gubernatorial candidate and spent many years as director of AmeriCorps*VISTA and with Google. Flint said Dunne was instrumental in bringing 10 gig internet to rural communities. VTel was also successful in bringing fiber to the home, Flint said.

As a result, Springfield has strong Internet, an asset in its, and BRIC’s, favor.   

Flint describes BRIC as being part of an ecosystem designed to attract and retain a new group of tech workers and entrepreneurs to the area.

In June, Flint and Dunne announced a new partnership with the Flatiron School.

Flatiron School offers an income share agreement program that defers tuition payments until after a graduate earns an income of at least $40,000. This means eligible Springfield residents and residents in the surrounding towns can learn technology skills such as software engineering, without paying tuition money upfront.

Flint explained that the first phase of BRIC focused on training the area’s future tech workers. The project did this by partnering with the local middle and high schools and the regional tech center to create a computer science curriculum.

Eventually coding will become a high school graduation requirement, he said. The project also supports a special events and camps such as Girls Make Games.

The next phase is supporting the current workforce. This includes developing a co-working space for remote workers. This space would allow people to stay or relocate to Springfield and sill have access to the tools and community that these remote workers need to do their jobs. This is where the partnership with Flatiron comes in.

The final phase is creating an entrepreneurship center. This center would serve as a business incubator. Potential entrepreneurs would go through a competitive process to pitch their businesses. If chosen, they would receive seed money, mentorship, and potentially housing for one to two years.

BRIC recently hired their executive director, Trevor Barlow who ran an as an independent candidate for governor in 2018.

Flint said BRIC will serve as an anchor tenant at the Park Street School. He anticipates the redeveloped property will hold 10,000 square feet of co-working space. The building’s former classrooms will become 21 small but “really cool” apartments.

So far the project has received approximately $724,000 from the federal Economic Development Administration as well as funds from organizations such as the Vermont Community Foundation. According to its website, the project has raised $1.4 million in total.

One happy development is the Springfield expat community that has contacted Flint and Dunne offering to help with the project.

Even though these people have left Springfield, they still love the town and want to see it thrive, Flint said.

Flint said he and Dunne have lamented for ages that Springfield could be an amazing place if only…

In 2016 the men said, okay, they had to stop waiting for “if only” and do something.

“And now three years later, here we are,” Flint said.

From Housing Study to Housing Campaign

Keys to the Valley is the housing study being undertaken by the Southern Windsor County Regional Planning Commission in Ascutney, Two Rivers-Ottauquechee Regional Commission in Woodstock, and Upper Valley Lake Sunapee Regional Planning Commission in Lebanon, NH.

The study will cover 67 towns and at least parts of six different counties. The organizers say they're still in the fundraising stage.

The commissions have acquired some private and municipal funds as well as funding from the regional commissions themselves. They expect the housing campaign to take two years to complete.

Steve Schneider, executive director of the Upper Valley Lake Sunapee Regional Planning Commission, said that the state of New Hampshire requires a housing study every five years.

The regional planning commissions (RPC) have gathered plenty of preliminary data, he said. This study will dig deeper.

“Housing is such a critical issue for the region because it's expensive and scarce,” he said. The housing shortage hinders workers and employers on both sides of the Connecticut River.

Schneider said the planning commissions will work with as many cohorts as possible in order to understand how the housing shortage effects people and what household needs new housing must meet.

For example, if a person drives 45 minutes to work, that takes time away from their family and their community life which has an overall impact on their life, he said. Also the study will look at housing for different age groups because “this is not a young region,” said Schneider.

Schneider characterizes the Upper Valley as having an entwined economy covering several communities rather than independent town economies.

Dartmouth College and Dartmouth-Hitchcock medical system might be the big employers, Schneider said, but hundreds of businesses and workers in both states support those institutions.

Overall, Schneider sees the Upper Valley regional economy as strong and growing.

Yet employers struggle to find qualified help especially in the trades and hospitality, he said, but everyone from grocery stores to tech companies are struggling.

The June not-seasonally-adjusted unemployment rate in the White River Junction labor market area was a microscopic 1.8 percent (lowest in Vermont), in Springfield it was 2.5 percent and in Woodstock 2.8 percent. Meanwhile Vermont had the lowest overall rate in the nation at 2.2 percent (2.1 percent seasonally adjusted; New Hampshire was fourth lowest at 2.5 percent).

A fully employed economy is good but without new people, companies can’t expand, eventually the economy “starts to tread water,” Schneider said.

Schneider said the Upper Valley also benefits from an atmosphere of innovation.

“The Upper Valley is not afraid to embrace innovation,” he said. “They consider it an accepted path for change.”

Jason Rasmussen, director of planning with the Southern Windsor County Regional Planning Commission said that several of the towns in his planning region struggle to find volunteers.

While workers who live near the Connecticut River tend to commute to the Upper Valley (which includes parts of northern Windsor County, southeast Orange County and the contiguous section across the river in New Hampshire), people who live in the Green Mountain towns have a much varied commuting pattern, he said. These workers commute to places like Rutland, Londonderry, and Woodstock.

For the smaller towns in the  planning region, lack of Internet is a deterrent to new residents and new businesses, Rasmussen said.

He also noted that when it comes to redeveloping buildings and land in Windsor County, planners must always ask if the site is contaminated.

Because of the area’s industrial history, many sites are brownfields, he said. Cleaning up a site can feel overwhelming to developers, he added. The planning commissions, however, have expertise and some funds to help with brownfield clean up.

“The economy is picking up,” said Geiger, a Senior Planner at Two Rivers-Ottauquechee (TRORC).

In Geiger’s opinion, people are at the center of the increased economic activity, more so than one event or business.

When it comes to economic development, he said, many pieces must come together such as wastewater systems, a  beautiful community, a high quality of life, and low unemployment.

Most of the communities TRORC serves have those pieces, Geiger continued.

“But they were missing one key component — they were missing people.” The people willing to show up to community meetings, invest with either their money or their elbow grease, and follow through on projects, Geiger said.

With change, however, also comes the human tendency to want to keep their world the same.

Geiger attributes this tension to the human desire to seek the novel while simultaneously striving to keep everything that they love exactly the same.

In the more rural communities served my TRORC, according to Geiger, there are still challenges around broadband and cell service. In the core communities like White River, however, the challenge is housing.

Employers report that the lack of housing across all income levels — especially housing in walkable downtowns — impedes the companies’ ability to hire new people, Geiger said.

“Our big goal is not to do another housing study,” said Geiger. The three planning organizations know that they need roughly 4,000 new units of affordable housing.

According to Geiger, the region that this housing study covers already has many big houses and old factories that developers or municipalities could repurpose into new housing.

The study will also explore: What the rental market is like right now. What opportunities, challenges, and conditions effect property owners? Does the area need more apartments or does it need more single family homes? How many bedrooms do these dwellings need?

In general, he said, studies are pointing to households being smaller than in previous generations. This means the housing units can also be smaller.

According to Geiger, studies also indicate that for the Millennials entering the workforce, living in a clean, safe, modern apartment or house tops their list more than a big fixer upper.

Geiger is calling Keys to the Valley a housing campaign. He believes that along with gathering data and rooting out barriers — such as permitting or funding models — he believes that a community shift must also happen.

One shift might be changing the state and local permitting or zoning processes, Geiger said. For example does an apartment need two parking spaces? Recently 17 new units of housing opened in downtown White River Junction and none had parking spaces.

The idea being that the developer expected the downtown location to appeal to mostly seniors who wanted to walk or take some form of public transportation, he said.

The biggest shift that will need to happen, Geiger said, is the image people form in their heads when they hear “affordable housing.”

In his mind “affordable housing” and “homes for the people you want in your community” means exactly the same thing. Yet, the picture many people form in their minds is of a 12-story, crumbling high rise in a dilapidated city.

“Affordable housing” means that the community has an affordable and safe roof over its head so that workers can go to work, and kids can go to school, and businesses can thrive, he said.

“This is not about PR, this is the truth,” he continued. Communities exist of teachers, and firefighters, and cops, and business owners, and students, and doctors, and engineers and right now all of them are having trouble finding housing in the region.

So he expects part of this campaign will include a lot of pictures and videos depicting how these repurposed and new buildings would look and how they would fit into a community.

The Renaissance of White River Junction

David Briggs believes White River Junction’s challenges and successes mirror what the entire state is experiencing.

Briggs is the general partner and innkeeper of the Hotel Coolidge in downtown White River Junction.

He bought the business in 1985.

“My family is entrepreneurial and that’s the route I wanted to take rather than being a cubicle engineer,” he said.

The Hotel Coolidge is located next to the Gates-Briggs Company which houses the Briggs Opera House. His father rented space in the building for 20 years before purchasing it in 1972.

Briggs ticks off his reasons for purchasing the hotel: His lifelong passion is the hospitality industry. He wanted his kids to have the opportunity to work with him and understand how their father’s livelihood supported the family. Finally, White River Junction is Briggs’ hometown.

Briggs said the town has had to fight against its label as a town on the skids.

That said, Briggs admitted he did not realize how far down White River Junction would have to descend and how long it would have to stay down before it could rise from the ashes of its railroad and industry past.

He attributes the town’s vibrant Renaissance to the efforts of a lot of community leaders, business owners, and volunteers.

“It was a function of critical mass,” he said. “It took a lot of people doing a lot of things and for a lot of people to finally acknowledge ‘Hey White River is cool’.”

Briggs believes White River Junction’s doldrums started in 1968 when the interstate arrived and the railroads and the commerce they supported began to fade.

In his opinion, everyone attributes the town’s rebirth to when they noticed good things were happening.

“Most people feel the Renaissance began the day they got here,” he laughs.

In Briggs’ case, he marks the beginning of White River Junction’s resurrection as 1972, when his dad purchased the Gates-Briggs building.

The ascent has been slow, and it’s not over, he said.

A workforce shortage is the town’s biggest challenge right now, said Briggs. He believes it’s reached the point of stifling some companies’ ability to expand.

The town’s creative economy excites Briggs.

It’s everywhere people look from The Center for Cartoon Studies, to the types of jobs people work, to the types of products people sell in their stores.

“In essence people are coming here to recreate themselves,” he said.

People from all walks of life call White River Junction home, he continued.

“Some people in this town are living well and some are struggling with life on earth,” Briggs said. “We walk down the same street together — we are not partitioning ourselves.”

“That's what makes it so thrilling right now,” Briggs said. “There's a big mix of everybody.”

If someone wants to disagree with him, they can contact him through his Facebook page. He’s serious.

Briggs said that some of the challenges to retail such as online shopping, and the demographic challenges the town faces has forced retailers and other business owners to get creative.

“So the story is cool enough even when it's true,” he said.

Geiger attributes the Renaissance to its connection with the larger regional economy in Lebanon and Hanover, NH, homes to Dartmouth College and Dartmouth-Hitchcock.

He also attributes it to a combination of some savvy developers, and early adopters who believed that White River was amazing and could be even better.

Turning Around an Economy: Lessons Learned

“In Vermont we know this story about our aging demographics and the challenges to business and the challenges to entrepreneurs,” said Paul Costello, executive director of the Vermont Council on Rural Development.

“These are the facts we live with,” he said. But towns can create their own “self-fulfilling prophecies” of success through building a shared vision and celebrating its strengths.

The renewal of economy is connected to the community and its local democracy, he said.

Before they can move forward towns deeply challenged by the “economic doldrums” need to build a collective vision, he added. They must also engage the community and utilize their assets in a productive way.

“Celebrate what exists,” he said. Acting from a place of loving what the town does well, makes it easier to tackle any hard changes.

It’s also important to stop worrying about what’s not working — like empty storefronts — and find the opportunity in that challenge. Empty buildings can also mean lower property costs or new investment.

Costello points to White River Junction as an example.

Many entrepreneurs had little parts of the economic and community puzzle, he said. But together, they created an atmosphere of excitement.

That energy became infectious and more people joined in to collaborate, Costello said. That’s what makes White River Junction successful right now.

“It took 20 years for White River Junction to reach the Renaissance it's experiencing now,” he said. “In a way, this process will never be done.”

Communities need to forge their own paths, Costello said.

“No one in Washington, DC, will save Springfield, Vermont,” he continued. “No one in Montpelier, for that matter, can create the vision that works for Burke.”

Local leaders and community members working toward a common vision will save the Vermont economy, he said.

“Economic development and community are all about optimism,” Costello said. “Build the story and then make it true.”

Geiger said, “When the United States decided to go to the moon, it didn't know how it was going to get to the moon.”

“But it decided on the goal,” he continued. “Communities need to know their goal first, and not worry about the details.”

The details will work themselves out as the community works towards its goal, he continued.

The other thing communities need to understand, in his opinion, is that they will have to spend money.

Geiger said communities need to stop “buffalo hunting.” In this old school version of economic development, he explained, communities try to find the next big company such as IBM or Apple.

Instead, Geiger said towns would have better luck focusing on their strengths and local assets.

If the town isn’t near an interstate, then don’t stress about not being near an interstate, he said.

Focus on the fact that most people would pay to drive the scenic route that you and your neighbors drive from work to home every day, he said.

“Communities need to celebrate themselves more,” said Geiger.

As an example, he pointed to the town of Fairlee. In recent years the restaurant, Samurai Soul Food has become a draw for the town.

“The town didn't sit there and say, ‘oh let's put in a new restaurant so people will drive here.’ People stop because of the restaurant,” he said.

“Build the place, and the businesses will follow because businesses are built by people and people like to live in beautiful places,” he said.

Olga Peters is a freelance writer from Southern Vermont and contributor to The Commons, a weekly newspaper based in Brattleboro (commonsnews.org).