Windsor County leaders will not be deterred

Okemo Mountain Resort. Photo courtesy of Okemo Mountain Resort.

Though post-pandemic challenges persist, innovation and collaboration may yet win the day

by Joy Choquette, Vermont Business Magazine Sprawling down the eastern side of Vermont, Windsor County boasts a variety of industries in its 977 square miles. As the pandemic winds down, area business leaders and association executives weigh in.

Has the county fully bounced back? What new developments are on the horizon? And what struggles are area businesses and organizations still facing?

Like most counties, Windsor has longstanding businesses and nonprofits that make up the backbone of the area’s economy. These include some of the largest employers in the region: Veterans Health Administration, Health Care and Rehabilitation Services, Nolato GW and Springfield Hospital.

Food and beverage companies are other large players. The county is the home of King Arthur Baking Company, Harpoon Brewery of Vermont and Black River Produce, among others.

There were approximately 20,000 employees throughout the county based on the 2020 US Census. With 1,910 businesses and nonprofits, staffing issues continue to challenge area leaders.

Workforce Shortages Persist

Bob Flint, executive director of Springfield Regional Development Corporation, said that demographics and workforce participation are “ongoing challenges” that the county faces.

“There needs to be continued work on barriers to sustainable employment,” said Flint, “as well as investments in education and training.”

He noted that this comes in the form of career and technical education, both for secondary students and adults. Alongside the Green Mountain Economic Development Corporation, the SRDC is collaborating with the Working Communities Challenge projects.

Erika Hoffman-Kiess, executive director of GMEDC, said she, too, is concerned with workforce shortages. The problem is being addressed in part by the organization’s work with the White River Valley Consortium of the Vermont Working Communities Challenge, she said.

“It is one of the most immediate ways that we can have an impact,” Hoffman-Kiess said. “Under that umbrella, we are working to build a regional network of people addressing the workforce housing shortage in traditional and alternative ways.”

These include bringing together developers, municipalities and interested property owners to learn from each other. It also means working closely with technical experts to determine what works, what doesn’t and how to best leverage available resources, she said.

MicroMOO to the Rescue

One of the issues that many employees face is transportation. Whether due to an unreliable vehicle or the rising cost of fuel, it can be difficult to get to work. For residents of Windsor County, as in most other rural areas, this poses a significant hardship.

Southeast Vermont Transit is tackling this problem through unconventional means; the agency recently launched a pilot microtransit service, MicroMOO, in the town of Windsor.

“It’s like Uber with a van,” said CEO Randy Schoonmaker.

Photo: Southeast Vermont Transit (SVT) is unconventionally tackling this problem. It recently launched a new microtransit service, MicroMOO in the town of Windsor. Photo: SVET

Schoonmaker said the initial push for the service came from Mt Ascutney Hospital, who saw it as a way to ease the transportation burden for many of its patients. But unlike many community transportation programs, MicroMOO isn’t limited to medical visits, nor only for patients, the elderly or those with disabilities. It is open to anyone within the Windsor town limits, along with drop-offs and pickups at the park-and-ride lot on Route 91.

MicroMOO currently provides about 10 to 15 rides per day but hopes to increase that number significantly. “So far, the response has been very positive,” said Schoonmaker.

The two-year pilot program is funded by federal ($120,000) and state ($30,000) grants. To date, five of the 12 microtransit studies completed in the state have received funding. “We’re still in the experimental stage,” Schoonmaker said.

While this type of program isn’t viable for every community in Vermont, Schoonmaker believes many towns could benefit from it. Helping improve patronage of area businesses is one such outcome.

“It’s designed to increase everyone’s mobility to every place,” he said.

Key Shortages Persist

In March of last year, Governor Scott authorized $60 million for certain types of health care and social-services employers to boost workforce recruitment and retention with premium pay. Still, Vermont’s health care and social-services organizations struggle to find qualified help and keep staff at the necessary levels. Because of this, a second round of monies has been made available. In February of this year, primary care practices, dentist offices and therapeutic community residences were encouraged to apply for grants.

While a boon of traveling nurses throughout the state has temporarily helped alleviate staff shortages at medical facilities, it’s not a permanent solution.

And area businesses face other challenges.

“Housing prices, availability and condition remain a problem,” said Peter Gregory, executive director of the Two Rivers-Ottauquechee Regional Commission in Woodstock.

Photo: Peter Gregory, executive director of TRORC. Photo: TRORC.

Clay Adams, president and CEO of Mascoma Bank, agreed.

“Housing, child care and staff shortages continue to be major challenges for our business,” Adams said. “We ask nonprofits, municipalities and businesses around our service area these same questions, and those three items are consistently at or near the top of the list.”

Inflation, too, is a struggle for everyone now. Could it contribute to another recession? Though possible, Adams doesn’t believe it is likely.

“While the global and national data show some possibilities of recession, in Windsor County and Northern New England generally I am confident we are well-prepared to weather economic uncertainties,” he said. “Typically, we do not see the high-highs or low-lows that other regions in the country experience.”

Strengths of the County

Another area that Windsor County struggles with also has a silver lining. The county’s location, particularly its northern region, can be problematic because state resources end at the border, said Hoffman-Kiess. Her organization works hard to mitigate that.

“Working to build a strong cross-border relationship with my counterparts in Grafton County (New Hampshire) has been important,” she noted. “We may not be able to share state-based program funding, but we can share information about needs and opportunities on both sides of the river.”

That, in turn, benefits the Greater Lebanon NH-VT Micropolitan region, Hoffman-Kiess said.

This type of collaboration is a growing trend across the country. Partnering with other businesses can be greatly beneficial.

“There is no underestimating the power of relationship building,” said Adams. “No matter the industry one is in, there comes a time when we need human-to-human contact.”

Likewise, connecting with area residents and others in one’s industry can help shape the services offered. This often makes them more effective as well.

For MicroMOO, this came in the form of securing a core team and stakeholders, all of whom were on the ground in Windsor town. “We relied on the local people to tell us what we needed,” said Schoonmaker. Additionally, the organization held community meetings to get feedback.

This feedback influenced MicroMOO’s services, Schoonmaker added. One resident who spoke up at a meeting needed to be at work at the industrial park at 6 am, an hour before MicroMOO was scheduled to start its morning route. The service was altered to accommodate this rider who, Schoonmaker said, “has been riding every day.”

Bouncing Back From COVID

Most respondents expressed cautious optimism about the economic outlook of Windsor County post-pandemic. Flint said the region reflects national and global trends.

“Most businesses are doing well but are cautiously watching interest rates and wrestling with broader issues like workforce needs and supply-chain constraints,” Flint said.

Hoffman-Kiess agreed that national trends are playing out at the local level.

“I would add that several of the national issues — workforce availability, housing and child care — are playing out more severely in our rural areas,” she said.

These issues were challenging before the pandemic hit and are now at a crisis level.

“Inflation can also have an outsized impact in rural areas, where the levels of capital sought may be lower, or the risk may be higher given lack of market density,” said Hoffman-Kiess.

“Rising inflation makes access to the right level of capital, at rates that can be serviced, even more challenging,” said Hoffman-Kiess.

While most of the businesses in the northern part of the county are getting by, several small business owners have reached the point of no return, she added.

“They cannot get workers they need, and the owners can no longer fill the gap,” said Hoffman-Kiess. “They are burned out and done — just cannot make it work any longer.”

On the plus side, said Flint, tourism has bounced back nicely. Home sale prices, too, have shown strong growth.

“Our region’s manufacturers continue to be strong, as are the construction and trade sectors,” Flint said.

Hoffman-Kiess sees similar trends in the northern part of the county, though she does have concerns. The lack of available workforce, she noted, threatens the stability of the tourism and hospitality sector as well as the manufacturing and construction industries.

“We must find a way to feed these sectors the resources that they need,” said Hoffman-Kiess. The performance of these sectors is strong, she added, and they are worth the investment to keep them that way.

Photo: Clay Adams, president, and CEO of Mascoma Bank. Photo: Plus Photography, Charles A. Parker.

Adams believes that the pandemic offered a few silver linings at Mascoma Bank. He noted that it helped the bank and its customers to embrace technology changes at a much quicker rate. Additionally, he noted, there is now more flexibility in where employees work.

The bank offers remote and hybrid options for those positions that don’t require working in a physical office.

“We can now offer back-office roles in many different states, allowing us to hire talent that was previously unavailable to us,” said Adams. “At the same time, the value of our local, personalized customer service has never been higher. Our customers like being able to tackle their financial challenges and questions with our employees in a face-to-face manner.”

New Developments on the Horizon

Though the county faces struggles, there are also bright spots ahead. A new development, Central & Main, is planned for downtown Windsor. The mixed-income housing complex will be located on a vacant one-acre lot adjacent to the Windsor Diner.

Central & Main will consist of 30 rental units, 23 of which are targeted to low-income households. Plans are underway to begin construction this spring.

Addressing the need for child care, Woodstock’s town select board recently approved $330,000 in grants to help support working parents. Grant monies will be used to create nearly 80 new child care spots for town residents.

Photo: Assessment work was mostly completed before winter weather set in on the demolition of the J&L plant on Clinton Street in Springfield, which began in 2021. Once spring arrives, the remaining exterior work for the first part of the demo project (the LBL Fabrications exterior wall and the roofing material on the north end) will be completed. The J&L Plant 1 site was one of several properties to receive a total of $14 million under Vermont’s Brownfield Economic Revitalization Alliance (BERA) program. SRCD photo.

The project, taken on by Woodstock’s Economic Development Commission, will support four local child care providers with infrastructure needs and additional staffing.

Meanwhile, MicroMOO plans to expand its service to about 40 riders per day. Schoonmaker, who said he is grateful for both the state and federal grant monies for this project, is hopeful it will benefit everyone in the community.

“This is a great mobility equity opportunity,” Schoonmaker said. “You don’t have to live along a bus route to access this. We can serve a lot of people wherever they live.”

While there are ongoing struggles in the county, Hoffman-Kiess remains optimistic about the future.

“I feel that recent past investments made available by various pandemic funding vehicles will start to come online in earnest this year,” she said.

“Supply chains are catching up, construction starts scheduled last year are beginning to come online, and while inflation might hit the scopes of some of these projects, we will start to see the outcomes of this funding,” she said.

This includes new housing and child care projects, expansion of cultural facilities, improvements to production lines and available infrastructure, and other types of capital projects.

Are there still economic challenges facing Windsor County? Yes. Is there also strength, innovation and hope on the horizon? Also, yes.

As 2023 continues to unfold, Windsor County — like most areas of Vermont — must rise to meet the challenges.

But as Brian Tracy once said, “Welcome the challenges. Look for the opportunities in every situation to learn and grow in wisdom.”

Joy Choquette writes from the Franklin County area.