Rutland County Economic Report: Better than most expected, residents feel ready to leave COVID behind

by Olga Peters, Vermont Business Magazine After a year of upheaval, uncertainty, and staying home, Rutland County is ready to get back to business.

The influx of federal funding and the loosening of pandemic-related restrictions on how people gather has helped to fuel this sense of possibility.

“I think what we're entering right now is kind of a new economic era, the post-pandemic which we really haven't experienced,” said Lyle Jepson, executive director of the Chamber and Economic Development of the Rutland Region (CEDRR).

“So it is a bit of an unknown for all of us. But I think with that comes a feeling of hope and excitement right now, with a healthy dose of caution,” he said.

Mixed with the desire to rebuild is the understanding that key issues that the county faced before the COVID-19 pandemic persist, like a shortage of workers and a need for better housing.

Population estimates from the US Census Bureau back up concerns about population decline.

According to the Census Bureau, the estimated population for Rutland County on July 1, 2019, was 58,191. Compared to data from the last census in 2010, the population has declined 5.6 percent.

Also in 2019, the Census Bureau reported median household income as $56,139. The poverty rate for the county was 10.8 percent.

Population concerns aside, those interviewed by VBM said they fared better than expected during the pandemic thanks to federal and state assistance and caring communities.

Marketing A Quality Of Life

The region’s entrepreneurial spirit found ways to succeed in the pandemic, said Lyle Jepson.

Many residents want to start new businesses, the Rutland Regional Airport is receiving extra attention from operators, and Jepson fields regular calls from people seeking commercial space.

CEDRR is part business chamber, part regional economic development corporation, the organization serves all sectors of the economy.

The hybrid quality of the organization shouldn’t be a surprise. CEDRR is the result of the 2020 merger of the Rutland Region Chamber of Commerce and Rutland Development Credit Corp.

An indicator of the “pent up demand” for Jepson is what he describes as an increase in the number of budding entrepreneurs he has referred to the local office of the Small Business Administration (SBA) [see sidebar].

Despite the pandemic’s upheaval, people are starting new businesses

As people sheltered at home early in the pandemic, the regional economy did feel the pain, he said.

The region’s hospitality industry was hit the hardest, he said. For example, revenue from the meals tax collected in the city of Rutland was down approximately 20 percent compared to 2019.

“But I think, due to their entrepreneurial spirit, many of the restaurateurs in our region found ways to be successful,” he said.

Jepson feels good about Rutland’s trajectory.

For example, typically one or occasionally two airlines will bid to offer short flights from the state-owned Rutland Southern Vermont Regional Airport to Boston, he said. This year, three airlines submitted bids.

“Which to us indicates that maybe Rutland is on the map, and maybe we're on the map more than we think because others are looking at us,” Jepson said.

“And I think one of the reasons others are looking at us is about that safety piece during the pandemic, that Vermont is getting some pretty high ratings and people feel that this is a safe place to be,” he said.

CEDRR recently signed a memorandum of understanding with the Center on Rural Innovation (CORI) based in Hartland.

The partnership aims to grow the digital economy in rural communities, Jepson said.

CORI will help CEDRR build a strategy to attract digital businesses or remote workers, he said. Twenty communities from Oregon to Maine have joined CORI’s initiative.

Along with his optimism, Jepson recognizes that Rutland County also has its struggles.

Vermont has no herd immunity when it comes to population and housing challenges.

Rutland County needs at least 1,000 more workers, Jepson estimated.

Connecting job seekers with local employers is part of CEDRR’s goal with their websites and which hosts a career hub. The hub lists open jobs from across the county.

Many of these jobs come with livable wages and benefits, Jepson said. As of May, the site had approximately 150 listings at places such as Rutland Regional Medical Center [see article on page 27], GE Aviation, and The Vermont Country Store.

“Not all these are $100,000 jobs, but the spectrum is there,” he said.

To reverse the county’s dwindling population trend CEDRR launched a regional marketing initiative.

Over four years, approximately $500,000 has been spent on the initiative including building the website

This website walks people through the relocation process. A feature of the initiative is its concierge service.

People interested in relocating to Rutland County are directed to a volunteer trained in helping people navigate the move, he said.

This spring, approximately 40 to 60 people have accessed the service and were speaking with volunteers, Jepson said.

Rutland County has a true quality of life to offer new residents, he said.

Jepson acknowledged that not all of the county’s previous attempts to welcome new residents were successful.

In 2016 an effort to relocate approximately 100 refugees from Syria drew controversy.

“I think Rutland is a very welcoming community,” Jepson said. “But it unintentionally gave itself a black eye. We're out of that now. We're beyond that.”

In May, the Board of Aldermen for the city of Rutland unanimously approved a Declaration of Inclusion, he said. Leadership is eager to ensure the city is a welcoming place for all residents.

For its part, CEDRR’s board of directors has signed a resolution of diversity, equity, and inclusion. The organization has also hired a consultant to train board members and staff on creating a diverse and inclusive organization.

“We actively are against racism and anything that it stands for and we want people to come here and join us as neighbors,” he said.

Good Economic Bones

Ed Bove, executive director of the Rutland Regional Planning Commission described the county’s economy as “stable.”

“I think it's stable but on the edge in a good way,” he said. “Meaning it's just about to pop.”

A municipality like Rutland has “the bones of a strong economic space,” Bove said.

The town possesses the features of good urban design. For example, it is compact and walkable, he said. These are features many people want in their home communities, he said.

“It’s got a traditional development pattern, which is really easy to build economic development on,” he said. “It's not a lot of retrofitting suburbia, which is a lot harder.”

Bove said in the coming months, the regional planning commissions will receive funding from the state Legislature to provide technical assistance to municipalities. RRPC’s assistance will help towns plan how to use their portion of relief funding from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), he said.

RRMC on solid financial footing with a careful eye on the future

Hopefully, this influx of resources will spawn new initiatives, said Bove who expects some of the money to fund infrastructure and construction projects as well.

Like Jepson, Bove recognizes that Rutland County wrestles with a shortage of workers and a lack of updated housing.

According to Bove, the region’s larger employers say their demand for workers has increased.

In an attempt to reverse this trend, the RRPC oversees a Workforce Investment Board composed of leaders from the business, education, and community service sectors.

The board’s goal is to foster a workforce environment that meets the needs of employers for skilled workers and workers' needs for career, economic, and educational advancement.

Created in 1996 through state legislation, funding from the board came from the state Department of Labor. Today, according to the RRPC’s website, funding comes from regional employers, grants, and individual donors.

Bove described the region’s housing stock as “a weird housing mismatch.”

In his experience, the region has a lot of supply, but it's not modern or energy-efficient enough to meet most people’s demands.

“We still have a lot of supply of the chopped up old Victorians, and that's not what the market wants,” Bove said.

In his opinion, this housing mismatch impacts the hiring process because potential hires can’t find housing.

“So I think that is actually pulling back on our local economy more than it should be,” he said.

Most of the county’s economic development potential rests in the larger, comparatively urban, areas of the county such as the city of Rutland, said Bove. The smaller, more rural communities are poised to flip the other direction and require additional support.

“I think they need more help. And I think they're on the brink in the other way,” he said.

Bove hopes ongoing projects such as the Vermont Farmers Food Center can support a regional economy along with area farmers who tend to live in the county’s smaller towns.

Bove urged towns to contact the RRPC if they need help.

“Everything is economic development,” he said. “When we're helping a town write a grant application, that's economic development. When we're doing Emergency Management stuff to save them money, that's economic development. When we write land-use plans and bylaws and things like that — that some of the Chamber's come in on top of — that's all economic development.”

Pent Up Demand

“I really feel like a dam is about to break,” Bernie Carr said.

Carr owns Carr’s Gifts, a small boutique with three employees, and is the executive director of the Brandon Area Chamber of Commerce, according to the organization’s website.

He said he feels that most people have a bad case of cabin fever after almost a year of staying home.

For the town of Brandon, business as usual is long overdue.

Carr has watched his beloved town weather the upheaval of a four-year, $30 million streetscape construction project for approximately 5 years.

The downtown looks good now, Carr said, but the years of construction were “just so painful.”

Carr said that during construction, sales for his business, and many others, dropped 30 to 50 percent.

2020 was supposed to be Brandon’s year to reopen, he said.

But 2020 had different plans, and rather than open their doors, Brandon’s businesses shut them to the pandemic.

The shutdown “hammered” local bars and restaurants, he said. Those that could, shifted to offering curbside pickup and delivery.

When the statewide Everyone Eats! Program launched, it helped, he said. The program paid restaurants to prepare heat-and-eat meals for Vermonters affected by the pandemic.

Carr worried the economic shutdown would hurt his gift shop.

Business picked up in the summer, however, once the state provided businesses with COVID guidance and allowed them to reopen.

“It felt like we were doing really well,” he said.

Carr feels Vermont’s leaders did a good job with their pandemic response. The state made sure even small businesses like his received emergency funding.

Unfortunately, many of Brandon’s businesses didn’t receive as much funding as they needed.

According to Carr, the formulas that determined the amount of relief funding a business received required showing at least a 50 percent drop in commerce compared to the previous year.

Most businesses, however, had not experienced an average year for some time. Instead, their sales were already cut in half due to the downtown construction project, Carr explained.

“We just couldn’t make it work,” he said.

Chambers Witness Community Momentum

Vicki Baraiolo, president of the Killington Pico Area Association said in an email that COVID-19 affected Killington “heavily” like it did most of the country. Yet, Baraiolo also witnessed community members at their best.

“Many businesses closed for a period of time and reopened with reduced schedules and stringent requirements,” Baraiolo wrote in an email.

“However, the Killington community banded together to make the best of the situation, finding alternate ways to do business,” she added. “Individuals along with the resort and the town organized food giveaways, benefit concerts for restaurant workers, and other ways to alleviate the hardship on our fellow residents and businesses.”

“We are looking forward to July when restrictions may lessen and we can once again celebrate summer in the beautiful Vermont mountains,” she wrote.

Judy Leech said, “It feels like Poultney is reviving.”

Leech is president of the Poultney Area Chamber of Commerce.

Photo: Photo of groundbreaking for new park in Poultney. Left to right: Krista Rupe, handles projects for the Slate Valley Museum; expert on history of slate in the region; Marcia Angermann, prime mover on the committee; Denise Letendre, Pultney Public Library; Barbara Scott, a prime mover on the committee; Steven Taran, Taran Brothers Slate; Shawn Camara, Camara Slate; Richard Rupe, Rupe Slate Co. and Larry Sullivan, prime mover on the Committee, and prime spokesman at the groundbreaking. Courtesy photo.

Like Brandon, the pandemic added a left hook to the 2019 closure of Green Mountain College that had meant the loss of 100 jobs, according to Leech.

When the pandemic started Leech said she felt “shellshocked.”

The chamber focused a lot of its efforts on events, she said.

But the public health response to the COVID-19 virus meant limiting large gatherings and public events.

So the chamber, like so many organizations, pivoted. It received state funding so businesses could offer customers “Poultney Bucks.” Customers presented the bucks at local businesses for a $10 discount. The chamber also ran a buy local campaign.

In the fall, the chamber ran a winter clothing drive for local children called “Stuff a Shanty.” Organizations and families filled an ice fishing shanty with clothing, she said.

This year carries a sense of motion for Leech, who proceeded to tick off a list of new local business ventures starting with the sale of the college campus to Raj Peter Bhakta.

Bhakta purchased the campus last September for $4.55 million. Bhakta and his wife Danhee are operating Bhakta Spirits at the campus according to one of the company’s job postings.

Leech said it seems the rate of business openings has accelerated this year. In her opinion, more young people have moved to the area as well.

The morning she spoke with VBM, Leech attended a groundbreaking for the Slate Quarry Park which will honor the town’s history of slate mining.

This year the area is moving forward with more outdoor recreation businesses and projects, Leech added.

In 2019, Poultney was one of 10 towns in the US to receive funding through the federal Recreation Economy for Rural Communities assistance program.

The program aims to revitalize small communities through businesses and projects related to outdoor recreation. According to the program’s press release, a planning team appointed by the federal Environmental Protection Agency will partner with the communities to develop an action plan designed to expand the sector.

“There’s only one Poultney. Just Google it.” Leech said. “It’s a pretty special place.”

Five Percent Growth Anticipated Compared To 2020

Production is up compared to last year at GE Aviation’s facility in Rutland, according to plant leader Kyle Griffiths.

“While improving, the aviation industry continues to face significant challenges due to the impacts of the pandemic. Overall production at our Rutland facility in 2021 is up compared to last year, due to the fact we’re supporting both military and commercial jet engine programs,” Griffiths wrote in an email.

“GE Aviation’s military business remains strong, with consistent growth and production, and a bright future due to a range of new technology engines we are developing,” he added.

Compared to 2020, Griffiths wrote that the company anticipates a five percent growth in production at the Rutland facility this year.

“We are currently recruiting for between 30 – 50 hourly positions which we expect to fill in the second half of 2021, as well as about 20 salaried positions, primarily engineering and front line supervisors,” he wrote.

This is optimistic news for the company that builds engines and other systems for the aviation industry. Last year, the sudden drop in air travel due to the pandemic led GE Aviation to announce it would lay off 25 percent of its global workforce.

According to Griffiths, globally, air travel “remains significantly depressed.” He estimates that it will take several years for the industry to recover.

The company is hoping that air travel will pick up later this year as more people become vaccinated.

“I am very appreciative of the outstanding support we have received from our employees, the community, and our suppliers throughout the COVID pandemic,” said Griffiths. “We are pleased to return to growth, and we have some great opportunities ahead of us. Our team remains focused on protecting our employees and keeping our factory operating to deliver world-class aviation components to our military and commercial customers around the globe.”

Real Estate Market Remains Strong

The real estate market in Rutland County remains a seller's market, said Nathan Mastroeni, regional manager at Greater Vermont, Four Seasons Sotheby’s International Realty.

As of the middle of May, Mastroeni had 149 active residential property listings with 197 other residential properties under contract.

Mastroeni noted despite having more homes under contract than on the market, he doesn’t interpret that as low inventory.

“We have inventory, but it goes away quickly,” he said.

Houses at the upper price range — $1.5 million or above — sell slower than homes priced in the $300,000 — $500,000 range, he said.

According to his 2021 first-quarter market report, more homes sold this quarter than compared to the same time last year. Listings are also spending fewer days on the market.

It should be noted that the first quarter of 2020 was also when the state had its heaviest limitations on house tours and interstate travel.

Mastroeni said it’s difficult pinpointing exactly why someone wants to buy a new home.

Speaking in very general terms, he said, the Greater Vermont Four Seasons Sotheby’s agents tend to meet with two very different groups of buyers in Rutland County.

The first group is moving from one house to another, often within the county. For example, families moving to a new school district or older Vermonters looking to downsize. The second group tends to be people seeking a second home. Some of these buyers have decided to shelter in Vermont during the pandemic, but not all, he said.

According to data from the Vermont Center for Geographic Information (VCGI), sales of homes to out-of-state buyers last year increased 38 percent compared to 2019. In Rutland County, Killington had 158 sales to out-of-state buyers, the most in the county.

Mastroeni noted that some second-home buyers decided to purchase property because it feels safer than other investments in light of the economic turmoil caused by the pandemic.

Almost everyone who purchases a second home also asks if they can use it for short-term vacation rentals, Mastroeni said.

Generating income through short-term rentals is why Mastroeni doubts people who have sheltered in Vermont for a year will sell after the pandemic.

What this will all mean for the county’s real estate market post-pandemic is anyone’s guess.

“I feel that my crystal ball broke sometime in March last year,” he said.

Mastroeni urges anyone considering selling, to first talk with their bank.

People should be pre-approved for a mortgage before they put their current house on the market, he said.

Even if your home sells for more than asking, it also means the home you want to buy will likely sell for more than asking, he said.

“Talk to your bank,” he said. “Make sure you can afford your next home because prices are up.”

Fundamentally Still The Same

“Oh my gosh what a year,” said James Lambert, associate dean of advancement for Castleton University days after the school hosted an online graduation for the class of 2021.

Lambert believes this academic year operated with fewer hiccups than 2020.

Teachers were able to spend the summer planning and students had adapted to online instruction, he said.

Photo: President's remarks during Castleton University's graduation. Photos courtesy Castleton Univerisity.

Last year, the university sent students home in March. Teachers had a week to move their courses online for the rest of the semester, Lambert said.

“If you've never taught a course, you might think, ‘well, big deal, you just throw all your stuff online,’ but they're really very different animals,” he said. “It takes a lot of work and especially when a lot of them didn't have that experience of teaching online.”

Photo: Castelton University graduates sing the National Anthem socially distanced. Photos courtesy Castleton Univerisity.

For the 2020-21 academic year, Castleton offered classes either in-person, synchronous online, or asynchronous online, Lambert explained. Instructors chose their teaching modalities, he added. There was approximately a one-third split between the three styles.

Synchronous online instruction happens in real-time. Students interact with their teacher during a scheduled class. This modality is the most similar to in-person classes. Asynchronous learning does not use real-time interactions or classes. In general, assignments are posted online for students to access on their schedules.

The pandemic had little effect on enrollment, Lambert said. In 2019, the university’s enrollment hit “an all-time high” of more than 2,000. In 2020, the number of students dropped but it has since rebounded, he said.

Castleton was fortunate, Lambert said. The school community did an amazing job following the COVID protocols and avoided any severe outbreaks.

Throughout the pandemic, Castleton has continued to prepare students for a career after college and to be good citizens, he said.

“Maybe the modalities change. Maybe we're delivering things online more,” he said. “But fundamentally, we're the same. We have the same mission. We do the same things. We teach the same things. We have the same expectations.”

What Castleton has not avoided are the pressures that similar liberal arts colleges have endured over the past decade as enrollments declined.

In the past few years, small Vermont colleges such as Southern Vermont College in Bennington, Marlboro College in Marlboro, or Green Mountain College in Poultney have closed.

The schools in the Vermont State College system including Castleton have started a merger process of their own. According to the Vermont State Colleges Board of Trustees, Castleton, Northern Vermont University, and Vermont Technical College will merge into one accredited institution by July 1, 2023.

Work has already begun on the merger, Lambert said.

Lambert expects more information on how the graduating class of 2020 did in the job market soon. In the meantime, he expects one of the challenges recent graduates face is that they’re entering “an unusual job market.”

Most graduates did not prepare for Zoom interviews. They’re also missing site visits, he said.

Still, students adapted quickly to their virtual classrooms, so the class of 2021 may be better off than expected, he said.

Strong Financial Footing And Still Here To Help

SVP Consumer Lending and Development Carrie L. Allen said in May the Heritage Family Credit Union (HFCU) held its first in-person event in a year.

HFCU invited members to bring boxes of personal papers to a socially distant shred event.

Allen said it felt good to see so many familiar faces.

It’s unusual for the credit union to go almost a year without some sort of event or membership appreciation celebration, she said.

Photo: Hertiage Family Credit Union's Shred Event. Photos courtesy HFCU.

“In general, we are seeing our members in a strong financial position,” Allen said.

Deposits are strong and members have paid down credit card debt, she continued. The mortgage market remains “incredibly hot.”

So far, members’ delinquency rate on debt repayments is low, she said.

“This is better than we expected when the pandemic started,” Allen added.

HFCU operates 10 branches. Allen explained one branch in Rutland was closed within the last year. It was in a leased space and the organization decided not to renew the lease, she said.

As of April, HFCU employed 164 full-time workers. The organization currently has several open positions. Interested applicants can apply through the credit union’s website.

HFCU tried to respond quickly to the community’s financial needs when the pandemic hit, she said. In 2020 it handled 340 applications for the federal Paycheck Protection Program. During the program’s 2021 round, the credit union submitted another 261 applications.

During the height of the pandemic last year, the credit union offered several relief options to its members. For example, skipping loan payments and tacking them onto the backend of the loan, she said. By the fall of 2020, the credit union stopped many of these programs because the number of requests dropped.

Approximately 3,000 of its more than 50,000 members sought help with commercial loans and mortgages, she added.

Allen stresses she understands that the pandemic has not spared everyone. Any individuals experiencing financial hardship or having trouble making payments should reach out to the credit union. Staff will help as much as they can, she said.

Members quickly adopted the credit union’s new mobile banking services that it launched last year.

“We expected we’d get some interest but the adoption rate has been incredible,” she said.

In January, the credit union added a new video teller service that members can access through the union’s website and mobile app.

The service allows members to speak with an agent using video. Almost any task members can complete at a branch in person, they can complete using the video service except for signing documents, she said.

Allen assured members that the new mobile tools won’t replace the company’s branches.

The branches will always exist, she said. The mobile services will allow people to access their accounts after hours or from home.

“It’s an exciting future we’re all going to be a part of,” she said.

Allen said she feels proud to be a part of the Rutland County community.

“We’re one organization within an incredible community that pulled together,” she said.

Helping families thrive is part of HFCU’s mission, she said. Yet during the pandemic, she witnessed community members stepping up to help each other.

“We’re part of a really amazing community,” she said.

Olga Peters is a freelance writer from Southern Vermont and a reporter for The Commons weekly newspaper in Brattleboro.