Addison County Economic Report: Region sees opportunities, with obstacles

-A A +A

Addison County Economic Report: Region sees opportunities, with obstacles

Sun, 08/07/2022 - 4:17pm -- tim

Photo: The Addison County Chamber of Commerce is having a busy summer. Along with preparing for festivals in Vergennes and Bristol, the chamber is launching the Middlebury Car Show and Fall Festival in October. Shown are photos fromVergennes Day last year. Courtesy photo.

As the economy attempts to speed ahead post-pandemic, a lack of housing, workers, and childcare restrict economic activity

by Olga Peters, Vermont Business Magazine According to several economic development specialists, Addison County’s economy is performing well. The county has much to be excited about, such as Amtrak’s Ethan Allen Express extended rail service running to Middlebury and Vergennes in July.

Top of Fred Kenney’s list is the county’s economic diversity.

According to the executive director of the Addison County Economic Development Corp (ACEDC), the county’s economic diversity makes it resilient. The mix of small businesses, manufacturers, nonprofits, and institutions such as Middlebury College means that the county isn’t reliant on a single industry.

Yet, a shortage of workers, affordable housing, and quality childcare remain the preverbal stone in the economy’s shoe.

“I'm sure you're hearing this from everybody because it impacts everybody. We've got labor shortage issues. We have serious housing shortage issues here, and they're all complicated by what remains of the pandemic,” added Phil Summers, executive director of the Addison County Chamber of Commerce.

These shortages are a common theme for Vermont as a whole. This raises the question, can local efforts make a dent, or does the state need to do more?

“Workforce, however, is not necessarily a county issue. In fact, none of these are necessarily county issues,” said Adam Lougee, executive director of the Addison County Regional Planning Commission.


A Positive Economy

Fred Kenney described the Addison County economy as positive.  Along with its healthy mix of businesses, Kenney said that many of the county’s companies are locally owned. This means that most of the money raised and spent in Addison County stays in Addison County.

“We have less of a chance of somebody somewhere else making a decision about whether a business is going to be here or not. We've got local people making that decision,” he said.

Another strength, said Kenney, is that the county has a good amount of available private and public capital supporting its strong entrepreneurial spirit.

But he is also realistic. The county’s labor shortages and supply chain issues appear to limit businesses’ ability to expand.

According to Kenney, several businesses want to grow but can't find the people to work additional shifts.

He said that a lack of readily available commercial space is also an issue in Addison County. the county has few turnkey mezzanine level, 4,000 to 8,000 square foot spaces. This size is often the next step for businesses ready to move from their garage or basement.

“There's a couple of projects coming online down the road that will help alleviate some of these problems,” he said.

The ACEDC is working on a few development projects to bring large businesses to the area.

For example, Eco Global is considering moving its headquarters and manufacturing facility to Middlebury. The ACEDC received $30,000 from the USDA to conduct a feasibility study.

Eco Global, based in Chelsea, diverts single-use plastic film and flexible packaging from landfill and converts them into a product called Ekopolimer(TM).

“That'll be quite a big project for Middlebury if it happens,” he said.

The ACEDC recently helped Otter Creek Childcare Center apply for grant funding for a significant expansion that it’s undertaking with Middlebury College.

While all these projects are good news for the county, Kenney feels impatient.

“All of those projects will take a while before they can alleviate some of the pressing needs in the county,” he said.

Kenney said an in-depth overhaul of the state’s permitting processes, such as Act 250, could speed up development and help everyone in Vermont.


Zoning Bylaws And Clean Water

Adam Lougee of the Addison County Regional Planning Commission (ACRPC) said that, like everywhere in Vermont, Addison County faces an aging population, and employees are at a premium. He called the lack of housing “very acute.”

Updating local zoning is one method municipalities are using to make room for new housing.

The ACRPC is working with multiple towns, such as Bristol, Shoreham, and Lincoln, to update their zoning bylaws.

Most of the updates he’s seeing facilitate housing and commercial development in and around the village center. While not a quick fix, these changes can enable future growth.

Lougee noted that most of the towns in Addison County are small, like Lincoln (population 1,323), then they are large, like Middlebury (population 9,152).

He said that it is more important for these smaller villages to build their population than it may be for the larger towns. To do this, however, the villages need more places for people to live and work.

“Especially if they're going to keep surviving and hopefully thriving,” he said.

Lougee believes that the lowest hanging fruit available to address the housing issue is establishing a statewide system supporting the creation of accessory dwelling units.

He added that wastewater and stormwater remain the most significant infrastructure issues across the county.

Vergennes residents approved a bond to fund an approximately $25.5 million wastewater and stormwater system overhaul. According to the city’s website, portions of the municipal water and wastewater system were old and needed repairs. Also, the city had to mitigate what the town discharges into Otter Creek.

“So that's really big infrastructure news for the city of Vergennes,” he said.

Perhaps one of the most significant projects happening at the Regional Planning Commission also involves water quality. The state has designated the ACRPC as a clean water service provider for the Otter Creek Basin.

According to Lougee, the commission has approximately $1 million to conduct clean water projects in the Otter Creek watershed, emphasizing reducing phosphorus, the primary pollutant in Lake Champlain. Lougee anticipates the work getting underway this fall.

To aid the city of Vergennes, the ACRPC is conducting what's called a planning and environmental linkages study. The study area includes the city and surrounding communities.

He said that the $1 million study explores alternative routes for the truck traffic currently passing through Vergennes.

Lougee explained that the city has probably twice as many trucks running through its downtown in a given day as most of the comparable villages in the state.

The study is geared toward a federal audience and is designed to make the federal NEPA process easier.

NEPA stands for National Environmental Policy Act which is a significant environmental permitting review that projects receiving a lot of federal money go through, he said.

The study will serve as due diligence to prove to the federal government that the local community has scrutinized every alternative route and prioritized those it views as most viable.

“We are looking to get our federal partners involved early and demonstrate to them that we've looked at all these alternatives and that they should proceed with the ones we've chosen,” he said.

Lougee doesn't know which alternatives will ultimately top the list.

“Everybody's been very good about recognizing that the trucks do have an impact on downtown Vergennes and now it's our job just to make sure that we address it without causing problems for the city’s neighbors,” he said

The Regional Planning Commission has also received $500,000 of EPA funding for Brownfield assessments throughout Addison County over the next four years.


Festivals And High Rents

The Addison County Chamber of Commerce is having a busy summer. Along with preparing for festivals in Vergennes and Bristol, the chamber is launching the Middlebury Car Show and Fall Festival in October.

Meanwhile, the organization is also moving its offices and visitor center.

Photo: The Addison County Chamber of Commerce is having a busy summer. Along with preparing for festivals in Vergennes and Bristol, the chamber is launching the Middlebury Car Show and Fall Festival in October. Shown are photos fromVergennes Day last year. Courtesy photo

Executive Director Phil Summers said the final location has yet to be confirmed.

Summers described the Addison County economy as a slow return.

Businesses are doing well, and customers are buying, but statewide and national issues - workforce, pandemic - still impact the economy.

“The housing shortage is just a monumental obstacle that a lot of our businesses are struggling with because it's one thing to go and work really hard to bring in an employee, and then if they can't find any place to live, that's within a reasonable commute, they're going elsewhere,” he said.

Summers and his family have been unable to find a house since he took the chamber executive director role last October.

Finding an apartment was also very difficult, he said.

What he could find, in his opinion, was extremely overpriced.

“I swear, we've answered more calls asking, are there any available apartments? Is there any available housing?” he said. “And, you know, the answer is, unfortunately, there isn't much of anything.”

Summers said he recently took a call from a woman asking who she could speak to about “these landlords that are raising our rents to these ridiculous amounts.”

The cost of childcare is top of Summers’ mind since his daughter gave birth.

According to Summers, his daughter investigated childcare options in anticipation of returning to work this summer. He said that the cost has sometimes equaled what some people earn in a year.

“What's the point of keeping a job if you've got to pay $30,000 a year for childcare?” he said. “I don't know how lower-income people can afford to work.”

He believes the state should put more time and money into improving this situation for families with young children.

A bright spot for chamber members is that consumers are out and looking to buy, despite inflation and workforce shortages.

Summers mentioned a conversation with a chamber member who owns several car dealerships. According to Summers, the car dealer said that profits have never been better. Orders go back months.

At the same time, the dealership is lucky to have six new cars on a lot at any time.

“So even though the supply chain issue is a large concern, at the same time, consumers are still stepping up to buy cars,” Summers said. “They're stepping up to try to go out to eat. And so far, they don't seem to mind any delays in service.”


Partnering With The Community

In an email from Middlebury College Executive Vice President for Finance and Administration, David Provost wrote that the college is doing well financially but faces similar issues as other employers.

Middlebury has had a busy summer. Applications for the Class of 2026 totaled 13,028, said Provost, the highest number in the college’s history.

“Renovations of older buildings taking place this summer continue to support the construction industry and offer an opportunity to install energy-saving features that will help Middlebury reach its climate goals outlined in its Energy2028 plan,” Provost wrote. “

As part of the plan, Middlebury also worked with Green Mountain Power and Encore Renewables to start work on a new solar site that will begin operating in 2023.”

The college is trying to alleviate the housing crunch by partnering with Summit Properties [see sidebar]. 

Finally, the college is part of a group of local organizations seeking to expand the Otter Creek Child Care Center. 

Other new projects and programming at the college include a $25 million gift to support conflict transformation education, the largest gift the college has ever received. 

“This fund will enable Middlebury to apply its intellectual resources and global reach to create a cross-disciplinary collaborative devoted to conflict transformation,” wrote Provost. “All of Middlebury’s entities - the College at the center, the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, California, the Bread Loaf School of English, the C.V. Starr Schools Abroad, and the Language Schools - will be involved in coursework and programming designed to impact education at the high school, undergraduate, and graduate levels.” 

He added, “In addition, the grant will fund research projects throughout Middlebury to help faculty, staff, and students understand the dynamics of conflict and develop effective ways to teach and learn in this area.” 

More information is available on the college’s website (

When considering the health of the Addison County economy, Provost noted that traditionally, economic development has concentrated in Chittenden County. 

However, he wrote that the county’s buildable land and growth space are decreasing.

“Addison County, like other rural Vermont areas, has significant potential to attract new residents and new businesses that would help spread future growth in Vermont more evenly throughout the state,” wrote Provost.

In his opinion, Addison County is the logical next place for growth in Chittenden County to migrate to, given its location and amenities.

“Hopefully, as we move toward endemic management of COVID-19 and with the disruption of the rail project now behind us, downtown Middlebury will rebound and rebuild,” he wrote. 

“But before we grow, we need to invest in some core infrastructure and services such as robust childcare, broadband, clean energy solutions, and housing,” he added. “The college is committed to playing a major role in all of these investments.” 

He added, “The college is also committed to retaining more of our graduates here in Vermont post-graduation to support business growth in the region and throughout Vermont.” 


Building An Economy Beyond Dollars And Cents

Local economies have a symbiotic relationship with their communities. When people settle in a community, their choice is the culmination of quality of life factors: affordable housing, well-paying jobs, the quality of the local school, and the vibrancy of a community itself.

For Catharine Findiesen Hays, director of the Bixby Memorial Free Library in Vergennes, libraries across the state sit at the intersection of quality of life and economic development.

Photo: Bixby Memorial Free Library monthly Friends of The Bixby Library book sale. Interior of Bixby Memorial Free Library. Courtesy photos.

Hays points to Bixby’s founding as proof. According to her, participating in the economic life of the library's five towns - Vergennes, Addison, Waltham, Ferrisburgh, and Panton - has been part of the library’s charter since it opened its doors in 1912.

She said the library was designed with spaces available not just to patrons checking out books but to the farmers conducting business.

The library’s rear entrance was arranged to allow farm families in town for the day space to rest. To Hays’ knowledge, in its early days, the Bixby supplied women with the only public restroom in Vergennes.

She added that the building, with its stained glass dome and other features, is a tourist attraction in its own right.

A tour through the American Library Association’s website shows multiple studies from across North America quantifying libraries’ economic contributions.

In Philadelphia, one study noted that the economic value of services that helped workers access job opportunities and skills totaled $6 million in FY2010. Another study looking at the economic impact of annual operations for public libraries in Minnesota found that in FY2010, these libraries had a payroll impact of more than $260.8 million and an employment impact of approximately 3,674 jobs in the state. Among these studies, one notes that when searching for a home, most buyers considered a property’s proximity to a library positive.

Most of all, however, Hays views Bixby as an economic engine based on its services, the partnerships it fosters, and the people who work and volunteer at the library.

Every year, local businesses donate money and in-kind goods to the library’s programming and fundraising efforts, Hays said. The library and Boys & Girls Club of Greater Vergennes have held a Lego camp for four years. This year, Collins Aerospace is partnering on the program to hold a Lego Robotics club to build kids’ STEM skills.

“We want to show kids that they don’t have to leave Vermont to get a good job,” she said.


Open Jobs

The ACEDC oversees the Addison County Workforce Alliance. The coalition of approximately 22 organizations, businesses, and educational institutions meets monthly to solve some of the county’s workforce issues. 

In an April newsletter, Kenney outlined actions policymakers could take to support the business community:

Empower the Regional Development Corporations to build connections between public and private labor force stakeholders to improve alignment, collaboration, insights, and strategies on the regional level.

Make resources available for programs that will attract new workers and families while retaining current workers

Create incentives to entice people to relocate to the state

Create programs to help with workforce, housing, childcare, and improve the amenities that families desire 

He also urged businesses not to wait for policymakers. 

In the short term, businesses can scope out overlooked talent areas such as previously justice-involved people. Long term, companies should move workforce planning to the top of their to-do lists and build it into their long-range business strategies. 

According to the Vermont Department of Labor’s most recent unemployment numbers, the state’s unemployment rate dropped to 2.3 percent in May. For the Middlebury market, the number was lower at 1.9 percent.

In a statement, Commissioner Michael Harrington noted that employers in Vermont and nationwide all struggle to find workers.

“With a three to one ratio of vacant positions to unemployed Vermonters, employers must use every tool available to them to locate and attract jobseekers,” Harrington wrote. “The employers who are successful in this effort will be those who come at the problem with an open mind and who are willing to try things that have never been done before.”

Harrington said that the Department of Labor's Workforce Development team can provide a one-on-one consultation to employers and job seekers. 

For more information about other workforce services, visit,

Summers said the chamber recently sponsored a summer jobs fair in Middlebury. Approximately 40 to 50 employers attended. 

“If we had 30 jobseekers show up, I’d be exaggerating,” said Summers.

Hays has been flexible with staff work hours to keep the doors open at the Bixby Library. 

Her efforts have paid off. The library is open half an hour longer than before the pandemic, making Hays immensely proud. 

The library used to have two 30-hour positions. The library’s Board of Trustees has approved three 30-hour positions to accommodate staff's family lives.

Hays also credits the trustees with having the wisdom to extend health care, vision, and dental benefits to all full-time staff. 

Libraries have had a long unfortunate tradition of treating librarians as unpaid housewives. The attitude was that the librarians loved their jobs so much they didn't need a salary, and their benefits could come from their husbands' jobs, she said. 

Middlebury College has felt the pinch of a competitive job market, scarce housing, and a lack of childcare. In response, the college has taken several steps, including pay increases. 

“To bring Middlebury's salaries in line with market rates and to raise compensation for the lowest-paid employees, in particular, the trustees approved a fiscal year 2023 budget that included an $8.2 million investment in faculty and staff salaries that went into effect July 1, 2022,” Provost wrote. 

According to a May press release, the salary changes come after what the college described as an extensive benchmarking process that studied salaries for staff and faculty in Vermont and California.

As of July, Collins Aerospace, one of the county’s largest employers, listed 50 job openings in its Vergennes facility. Middlebury College listed 51 open positions. An unscientific search on the job site, for Addison County, VT, returned 1,785 results.


The Ethan Allen Express

In July, Amtrak opened ticket sales for the Ethan Allen Express for daily travel between Burlington and New York City. The route includes stops at refurbished depots in Middlebury and Vergennes.

The expanded service is the first intercity rail passenger service to Burlington since the early 1950s, said the Vermont Agency of Transportation (AOT) in a press release.

The train’s return to the Middlebury and the Ferrisburgh-Vergennes stations was celebrated with a kickoff event on July 29.

The celebration marked AOT’s investment in planning and infrastructure work to upgrade the tracks between Rutland and Burlington to accommodate higher speed passenger rail.

“Providing this new service along the western corridor wouldn’t have happened without the partnership between the Agency of Transportation, the General Assembly, Vermont’s Congressional delegation, and the U.S. Department of Transportation, and the willingness of communities along the way,” said Governor Phil Scott. “This new service will benefit Vermonters in countless ways, all while helping to grow our economy.”

Along with extending the rail service, the project rehabilitated the historical Ferrisburgh-Vergennes train depot. The rehab required relocating the circa 1850 train station approximately 1,000 feet to a park-and-ride facility. A new eight-foot-wide low-level train platform will facilitate shared use of passenger and freight operations.

Kenney said the ACEDC is using funds it received from the state for regional tourism. The ACEDC and partners like the Addison County Chamber of Commerce are developing itinerary-based travel suggestions for the county’s drive markets in New York, Albany, and Boston.

The train's return also marks the completion of the extensive three-year Middlebury bridge and tunnel project. In 2020 AOT replaced two century-old rail bridges in the center of Middlebury with a 360-foot tunnel. The project required shutting down portions of the downtown for 10 weeks.

“Local, state and federal officials have been working to re-establish this vital transportation link for decades. I am grateful to our congressional delegation and multiple governors for prioritizing this transportation investment for years and to Vermont Rail, Lake Champlain Transportation, and Transportation Secretary Joe Flynn for working closely with the City to resolve residents’ concerns about Amtrak overnighting in Burlington that threatened to delay this day further. Finally, I applaud Public Works Director Chapin Spencer, City Engineer Norm Baldwin, and the rest of the City team that worked very hard for years to make today’s announcement possible.”


A New Normal? Yet?

Kenny feels that Addison County has reached a post-pandemic new normal in that businesses, by necessity, have adjusted.

Many of these adjustments are positive, Kenney said. For example, several businesses in search of new supply chains found them locally.

Kenney said, “Many have even gone beyond recovery and into reimagining how to run their business whether there's COVID or not.”

Summer believes the county has reached a new normal - almost.

“I think it's a new normal, but it's also another phase of the pandemic at the same time,” he said. “Because there are those people that think, well, the pandemic is really over. If I get sick, I'm not going to get that sick. And then there are people who don't think it's over, and they don't want to get sick.”

For example, the Chamber has returned to hosting its mixers in person. Many people won't attend because they're not comfortable being in public because of the pandemic.

Provost said the college has adapted.

“COVID-19 is still with us, but we have learned how to adapt and thrive during the pandemic,” he wrote.

“We have the ability to manage it with the methods we are now very familiar with, from masking to vaccinations,” Provost continued. “Using these mitigation measures, we have been able to offer our students a robust learning environment.”

However, Lougee and Hays noted that much of what Addison County faces are statewide issues. The county’s ability alone to fix the problems is limited.

Hays said, “So it’s frustrating because I think we have the opportunity to be even more robust. But there are those systemic challenges that we’re all trying to solve.”


Olga Peters is a freelance writer from Southern Vermont.