Bennington County: Pandemic uncertainty lingers, workforce & housing shortages remain, but a sense of optimism prevails

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Bennington County: Pandemic uncertainty lingers, workforce & housing shortages remain, but a sense of optimism prevails

Sun, 10/17/2021 - 3:54pm -- tim

 

Photo: Garlic Town USA success. Courtesy photo.

by Olga Peters, Vermont Business Magazine The unpredictability of the COVID pandemic makes Bill Colvin cautious when assessing the county’s economy.

“I think it's still a little uncertain,” said the executive director of the Bennington County Regional Commission (BCRC).

Many acknowledged similar reservations, but overall, optimism outweighs concern in Bennington County.

For Matt Harrington, the county looks better than it has in 25 years.

“What we would have thought about as COVID putting a flat tire in the economic development that's happening in Bennington hasn’t really happened,” said Harrington, the executive director of the Southwestern Vermont Chamber of Commerce.

Assessor and Economic Development Coordinator for Manchester, Gordon P Black, JD, said, “There is new building happening, there are new businesses coming into town. So I'm optimistic. I think that the economy is really going to do well this year.”

Accompanying the optimism is a determination to tackle two economic stressors challenging many Vermont communities: workforce and housing shortages.

Harrington and others pointed to a lack of employees and affordable housing as hampering an economy that otherwise appears strong.

“This is a chicken and egg,” he said.

The county needs to attract more young professionals so businesses can thrive, but workers need housing they can afford, he said.

Visitors Return To Manchester

Visitors have returned to Manchester where the economy revolves around tourism and retail.

All of which is good for the town’s local sales tax revenues.

According to Black, the second quarter of 2021 showed the highest receipts on record for the local meals and rooms, alcoholic beverages, and one percent local option sales tax.

Early numbers also point to a population increase for Manchester as people moved to the area during the pandemic.

According to Black, Manchester’s population historically hovers around 4,500 people. In conversations with attorneys who follow real estate sales, preliminary estimates show the population above 5,000.

“The big problem for Manchester is we have way more jobs than we have people,” Black said. “That is a major issue for restaurants and for hotels, and so the big push for Manchester is building workforce housing.”

A Revitalization For Bennington

Bennington's Community Development Director, Shannon Barsotti, sees excitement in the business community despite the pandemic.

“We're still in this holding pattern right now because of COVID, but I think that we're going to come out ahead,” she said.

Barsotti said a feeling of renewed activity permeates Bennington’s downtown.

“There's just this feeling of momentum that's happening,” she said.

Barsotti said that side-by-side with the positive tales sit the stories of how hard COVID hit the business community. Multiple business owners announced retirement plans during the pandemic, she said.

“Part of it is just due to our aging population in general,” she said. “So I think the challenge is attracting younger people to get into business.”

The economic development activity happening in downtown Bennington ranges from feasibility studies to new breweries.

Photo: Garlic Town USA success. Courtesy photo.

At the behest of the Southwestern Vermont Health Care, Bennington County Regional Commission (BCRC) recently completed a study of the former Southern Vermont College campus. The study will serve as a master plan to redevelop the 371-acre campus. Southwestern Vermont Health Care acquired the former campus at auction in U.S. Bankruptcy Court last year.

In early autumn, BCRC also completed a reuse plan for the almost 300,000-square-foot Energizer facility in downtown Bennington.

The reuse plan is part of a broader effort by the city to conduct a town-wide housing study, he said. According to reports, Energizer is closing its Bennington plant and consolidating operations in Wisconsin.

A developer purchased the former Bennington High School this year and is rehabilitating the building. According to Colvin and Barsotti, the current plan includes housing and a community center.

The first phase of the regeneration of the Putnam Block, known as Putnam I, is a few storefronts away from completion. Colvin said the businesses located in the building include a bookstore and a coffee shop. A restaurant is expected to open later this year.

This first phase totaled $32 million and added more than 30 apartments to the downtown, Colvin said.

Nearby, Farm Road Brewing opened earlier this year at 400 Main Street. Approximately 100 feet up the road, a new restaurant, 421 Craft Bar and Kitchen, opened this summer. Village Garage Distillery creates rye whisky, bourbon, and vodka in the former municipal highway garage at 107 Depot Street, which the company purchased last year.

Photo: Garlic Town USA success. Courtesy photo.

The W. Collective is a boutique and cafe that offers artisan-made clothing, decor, and other products that opened this summer.

Colvin and Harrington trace many of the new businesses in downtown Bennington to discussions in 2016 around improving the economy.

The conversations quickly centered on the Putnam Block, which carried the advantages of being centrally located, an iconic Bennington building, and had only one owner, Colvin recalls.

“Right from the jump with those early discussions, we wanted a project that would encourage others to make similar investments in the community if we were successful,” he continued. “And I do think that has been the theme of Putnam all along.”

Colvin said that Putnam is not the sole savior of downtown Bennington.

“But I have no doubt that Putnam being successful, getting through the hurdles that it got through, and getting open and up and running has encouraged other people that they can make similar investments,” he said.

Addressing Workforce Through Support, Partnerships, And Training

For Colvin, the pandemic has exacerbated the county’s workforce shortages.

“It’s even greater because of issues around schools and childcare not being open, and people having been displaced from the workforce and trying to figure a way back in,” he said.

In its August unemployment report, the Vermont Department of Labor said that the state’s unemployment rate was 3.0 percent. The Bennington labor market, however, had a rate of 4.3 percent. Manchester’s rate was 3.4 percent.

Harrington said many of the chamber’s members are nervous about maintaining staffing levels. Many have reduced their hours of operations.

Black said, some Manchester businesses, such as restaurants, have cut their hours because they can’t find workers.

According to VDOL’s 2021 Economic & Demographic Profile Series report, Bennington County had the eighth largest labor force in the state. Since 2010, that labor force has decreased by 15.9 percent.

To address this issue, the BCRC is expanding its workforce development efforts, Colvin said.

The regional commission operates a workforce and education committee. Its members include educators, service providers, employers, and not-for-profit staff. A subcommittee focuses on education and training needs, Colvin said.

Prior to COVID, the commission held career events for high school sophomores and juniors. One such event, the Sophomore Summit, introduced students to local businesses.

A Reality Fair aimed at juniors helped students understand the connection between their career choices and finances. At the fair, students chose a career. They then received an amount of play money equivalent to their selected job’s average salary.

As students walked through the fair, they would pay rent, utilities, groceries, and other expenses. Midway through the event, the students could invest some of their money or take additional training and see how it affected their finances.

In late summer, the regional commission launched an entrepreneurial support committee to help people start, operate, and expand their small businesses.

Colvin said. “It seems to be a lot of interest in entrepreneurship. So, we're looking for ways to continue to support that.”

The commission is working with Representative Kathleen James (D-Manchester Center) to create a workforce event and career fair in early November.

Colvin hopes the event will include local business owners and staff from the state Department of Labor who will provide a snapshot of the county’s labor market.

Finally, the regional commission is working on a partnership with Lever. Based in North Adams, MA, the economic development organization focuses on building innovation-driven and people-centered businesses. It offers several programs, including internships and supports for entrepreneurs.

According to Colvin, Lever operates an entrepreneurship and start-up program tied to Williams College and the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts.

“We've identified some target folks for them [Lever],” he said. “They're looking to do an intrapreneurship challenge where businesses look for the opportunity for new products or services that they could launch within their business to grow top-line revenue, and hopefully, job growth.”

Interest in training programs offered at Southwest Tech has returned after enrollment slowed during 2020 spring and fall semesters.

Rob Bahny said, “I was really beating the bushes and shaking the trees last year.”

This school year, most of the training classes are full, said Bahny, the workforce and adult technical education coordinator.

“I'm seeing a positive trend, at least thus far, with people reaching out and looking to get trained for a job,” he said. “Some of them are unemployed, but I think it's more people who are looking to upgrade their employment.”

Officially known as Southwest Vermont Regional Technical School District, the school offers a variety of trainings. For example, students can study for a commercial driver's license (CDL) or to become a licensed nursing assistant (LNA).

If all goes well, the school will launch a dental assisting program in 2022, Bahny said.

Southwest Tech will collaborate with employers to develop training programs when there is a need, Bahny explained. Dentists reached out to Southwest Tech, asking the school to create a program, he said. It’s likely other technical centers in the state will adopt the program, he added.

Bahny said that the state offers many opportunities and short-term training programs at little to no cost for people to improve their skills, obtain a job, or upgrade their employment.

He said that people looking for training could reach out to their local Community College of Vermont campus or technical center to learn more.

“I have almost no one who's paying out of pocket right now for any of these classes that they're in, or if they're paying out of pocket, it's not very much,” he said.

Increasing Housing To Increase Workforce

How does the housing crisis show up in Bennington County?

“We know, at least anecdotally, it's an issue throughout the region, and in many ways, and even more dire an issue in the northern part of the region, given what's happened to those markets over the last 18 months,” Colvin said.

According to the US Census Bureau, Bennington County residents' median household income of $56,183 is lower than the statewide median of $61,973. The county’s poverty rate of 10 percent is slightly lower than the state’s (only Chittenden County’s income is above the median at $73,647).

Pre-COVID numbers from the Vermont Housing Finance Agency’s website HousingData.org, show that approximately 12 percent of Bennington County residents are severely cost-burdened when it comes to paying for housing. For these residents, this means more than half of their income goes to housing.

Drill down to the town level, and the percentage of severely cost-burdened residents increases to 14 percent for Bennington. Manchester appears to do a little better at 11 percent of residents.

Yet, it is worth noting that 38 percent of the people who work in Manchester commute into it from other communities, according to the VHFA.

In Colvin’s experience, one of the county’s greatest needs is for what’s commonly called workforce housing.

According to the non-profit real estate and land use organization, Urban Land Institute, workforce housing serves people earning between 60 - 120 percent of area median income. In general, the households that fall into this income range are considered middle-income and may not qualify for housing subsidies.

The ripple effect of a lack of workforce housing is that as people move out of town to seek affordable shelter, the community loses its human capital.

For those seeking accommodations, the move can mean longer commute times which can translate into less time for family, friends, or community, according to the University of North Carolina School of Government Community and Economic Development Program.

Colvin and Black said that the lack of workforce housing is acute in the Manchester area.

According to Colvin, housing was tight in the Manchester area before COVID. During the pandemic, people moving to the area snapped up homes for sale increasing the shortage.

In 2020, the state Department of Taxes reported that 92 homes were sold for a total of $46 million to out-of-state buyers. In 2017, 39 homes were sold for a total of $16.1 million.

For Black, the housing crunch and lack of employees are intertwined.

“Our main focus is providing housing because you just can't attract new businesses if you don't have the employees,” he said. “And we really are trying to get people to live downtown, to walk around downtown, to shop downtown.”

Black said Manchester has responded to its housing crisis by changing its zoning bylaws to encourage more mixed-use redevelopment. For example, the town added an adaptive reuse provision. The change allows converting existing structures such as hotels into full-time housing without being subject to other zoning rules such as density requirements.

Black cited efforts to change the former Inn at Willow Pond into 40 one- and two-bedroom apartments as an example.

The town is also investigating whether to build housing on municipally owned property. Black expects if this project happens, it will be through a partnership between the city and a private developer.

Black added that Manchester is studying a model used in St. Albans. Black said the city partnered with a private developer to build market-rate housing. Funding for the construction came from various sources, including acquiring money from the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board and private investors.

“The cost of building is just so high right now that the only way it can be affordable is if you work in some kind of partnership,” he said. “So we've been working on that for about a year.”

Like Manchester, Bennington wrestles with housing issues.

“It's a bit of a Catch-22 because it's good that the real estate market has picked up and that more people have bought homes,” she said. “But then that also makes affordable homes or quality rentals hard to find.”

Barsotti hopes Bennington will receive more federal COVID-relief dollars to rehabilitate older housing stock.

“The housing projects are happening right now,” she said. “But they’re not happening at a pace that's quick enough for the need.”

Despite A Strong Fiscal Year, Companies Still Feeling COVID’s Ripple Effects

Mack Molding President Jeff Somple said that the manufacturer ended its fiscal year in June better than expected.

The pandemic increased demand for many of Mack’s products, Somple wrote in an email.

Mack specializes in injection molded plastics and provides contracted manufacturing services for multiple industries such as pharmaceutical manufacturing, air-cleaning devices, and testing equipment.

“We are open for business, have openings at all levels of the company, and are facing tremendous growth over the coming year,” Somple wrote.

Photo: Interior of Mack Molding. Photo courtesy of Mack Molding.

Despite the positive fiscal year, COVID is still affecting Mack’s employees, suppliers, and customers, Somple added.

Like many manufacturers, COVID-19 disrupted the company’s supply chain, Somple said.

Mack relies on a global network of industries. Thanks to the pandemic, the company is faced with daily changes to this network in the form of supply shortages, transportation issues, and logistical challenges.

“Managing our production on a day-to-day basis is challenging and has tested us in ways we couldn’t have imagined a couple of years ago,” he said.

“Our number one challenge is being able to staff our facilities to the levels necessary,” he added. “We have experienced tremendous workforce challenges.”

Mack has taken steps to attract more workers by increasing wages, offering a sign-on bonus, referral bonuses, and hosting job fairs.

“We are still looking for employees at all of our Vermont facilities,” Somple said. “We continued our internship program this summer, and hopefully, that will help mitigate some of our challenges, but not until graduation next year!”

Finding Solutions And Responding To Increased Demand

JK Adams has manufactured wood kitchen and homeware products in its Dorset facility since 1944. Last year, the pandemic spurred the company to ramp up production as more stay-at-home cooks ordered kitchenware and professional products.

“We were able to react swiftly as we foresaw the increase in demand, securing materials, streamlining operations, and tooling up the facility,” wrote CEO Daniel Isaac in an email.

Photo: JK Adams team 2021. Photo courtesy of JK Adams.

“Our Direct-to-Consumer businesses are exceeding all expectations, and revenues through our Wholesale, Custom, and Contract Manufacturing channels are very positive,” he added.

The pandemic also led JK Adams to produce a completely new product: full face shields.

Under an emergency authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the company could distribute the personal protective equipment. The company has since become fully registered with the FDA to manufacture and distribute the face shields, including a line for children.

“In March 2020, our team knew that we wanted to be part of the solution; to utilize our experience, skill, and equipment in whatever capacity we could, to ensure people on the front line fighting COVID-19 for all of us, were as safe as possible,” said Isaac. “We will continue our distribution and extend our offerings as the medical market and federal, and state government contracts dictate.”

JK Adams is a family-owned company with what Isaac described as an “amazing loyal team,” with the longest-serving team member being with the company for 55 years.

Isaac added that despite this, the company has struggled to find workers. It currently operates two fully staffed shifts thanks to strategic efforts to recruit and retain workers.

“We have not remained exempt from this challenge, and our commitment to manufacturing in rural Vermont has proved exacerbatory,” he said. “The cost-per-hire increased thirty-fold, with the cost-per-retained team member proving even greater.”

JK Adams’ success during COVID reminds Isaac that not everyone’s pandemic story is as kind.

“We cannot ignore nor underestimate the fact that that there are many people in our communities throughout our beautiful state that are not as fortunate as us,” he said. “As our businesses flourish, we must be proactive in our commitment to our community to ensure all our neighbors are supported and have the opportunity to thrive as we do.”

Responding To COVID And Keeping A Lookout For The Post-Pandemic Economy

Colvin said only time would determine how the pandemic has changed the county’s economy.

“Some of the adjustments we've made as a result of the pandemic are going to influence how business does business going forward,” he said.

Black is keeping an eye on the foliage season.

“The third quarter of the fall foliage season is historically the best for our local option tax,” he said. “I’m hoping that the third quarter is going to be amazing, and we're all very optimistic.”

 

Olga Peters is a freelance writer from Windham County. She is also the marketing coordinator at Stevens & Associates, one of the companies redeveloping the Putnam Block.