BENNINGTON >> "Southern Vermont is in trouble," according to a new report that focuses on the region's economy and demographics.
The report, completed by the Southern Vermont Economic Development Zone's nine-member task force, identifies a downward economic trend in both Bennington and Windham counties.
Ideas to counteract the trend include: Creating a broadband internet financing plan; encouraging growth of existing businesses and the arts economy; developing a marketing campaign to attract businesses and workers; encouraging public-private partnerships; and founding a regional economic development plan.
"Urgent action is required" among the two counties' 44 towns, the report states, to increase the population, lower the average age, and bring more opportunities to residents.
"In essence, we need to repopulate Southern Vermont," the report states.
The document was released on Thursday and will be sent to the Secretary of the Agency of Commerce and Community Development, in addition to house and senate committees.
Committee members were business leaders, elected officials, an educator and employees of regional planning and economic development entities. The report was due on or before Dec. 1 and was founded by an economic development bill passed by the legislature this year.
Tourism has not recovered from pre-recession levels, the report states, while retail sales are down, residential construction is half of what it was in 2006 and the under 18 population in both counties dropped nearly 20 percent between 2000 and 2013.
Challenges in the region are "lack of coordination across the region (particularly in Bennington County,)" in addition to lack of capital, broadband and cell phone access, housing, and limited transportation.
The members recommend an "integrated" and multi-faceted approach" that would align existing economic development efforts, bring public and private dollars to the region, and measure progress.
Windham County has had success by creating a Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy (CEDS), the report states, but its success will remain limited unless Bennington County can act as a partner. Members recommend a $50,000 grant from the state enterprise fund be given to Bennington County to support a regional CEDS.
There is about $1.4 million left in the fund to draw from, Wayne Granquist, the chairman of the task force which prepared the report said in a telephone interview Tuesday. Since Gov. Shumlin tapped that fund for $100,000 to assist the chamber of commerce in Chittenden County to explore ways of improving trade between Quebec and the northern regions of the state, that hopefully would serve as a precedent for releasing the $50,000 the southern Vermont economic zone report recommended, he added.
"We think that's a good example of a grant to improve the kinds of economic conditions we're talking about in southern Vermont," he said. "So I'm hopeful he'll see it that way."
The CEDS program has been successful in Windham County, and now should be expanded to include both Bennington County and other nearby communities, such as Weston, he said.
That would give the region access to federal funds to promote the region and boost the work of the regional CEDS, an important factor at a time when the state is strapped for funds, he said.
There is no silver bullet to fire which will fix the issues faced in the region, he cautioned.
An integrated strategy bringing together public and private sectors, along with business and educational leaders, was the critical thing that the report concludes, he said.
The region needs a mix of housing options "to attract younger populations and allow older residents to remain in their homes as they age," the report states. The document references a "shortage of quality housing for year-round residents" and states a third of housing stock is seasonal, while another third was built before 1940.
The committee recommends identify and support existing "industry clusters" that "provide the greatest promise for growing good paying jobs in Southern Vermont," such as the green building and services, precision manufacturing, food manufacturing and higher education.
Members found no comprehensive vision for workforce development and that many young workers lack "critical skills." They recommended supervisory unions that respond to workforce demand and a "visible pipeline approach" to give students age-appropriate exposure to work fields from the beginning of schooling.
Workforce training ultimately begins at the pre-Kindergarten level, Granquist said, highlighting the important role education has to play in upgrading the quality of the workforce.
"Children in school have to be introduced to the work environment and the joy of work long before they graduate from high school," he said.
The world of manufacturing, for example, is increasingly a far cry from the assembly line drudgery of years past, and many modern plants are highly digitalized operations requiring skills that earlier generations of workers never had to learn. It's a world that youngsters need more exposure to long before they start looking for a job, he said.
Existing employers "have no collaborative vehicle for recruiting workforce," the report states, and there's currently no regional marketing project.
"Without a comprehensive marketing and recruiting strategy, our area is too often viewed as depressed, with few job opportunities, limited growth potential, and 'not much to do' for families, professionals, and young people," the report states. Outside investors can see the region as "miles of nothing stashed in between a few ski resorts," it continues.
The regions wide variety of arts, culture and entertainment, the report states, "help define the region, attract newcomers and help retain those already here." Members recommend town and regional plans include art and cultural sections and, following Brattleboro's example, the creation of town art committees.
Another key factor in boosting the economy of the area was to increase the population numbers, said Lyman Orton, the former CEO of the Vermont Country Store, which has corporate offices in Manchester as well as its landmark retail store in Weston.
Here too, the educational community had an important role to play. The region has a network of schools widely perceived as above average, and that could be a way to lure young families here, he said.
"For years people have been moving in on their own but we haven't particularly marketed that," he said. "We have the opportunity to attract many more parents of elementary school-age kids."
A marketing campaign, "Become a Vermonter — for a weekend — for life," has stalled due to lack of funding, the report states. Members recommend the marketing project be funded at a minimum of $250,000 per year.
To encourage private-public partnerships, members recommend encouraging collaborative co-working spaces, like the Lightning Jar in downtown Bennington; teaming with universities on emerging industries and markets; and promoting Amtrak passenger rail service from Albany to New York City.
Granquist said that he was hopeful the report would spur further dialogue, and noted that Bill Botzow, D-Pownal, and the chairman of the House Economic Development Committee, was a frequent attendee of the task force's meetings. Granquist is hopeful he will be holding hearings in January within his committee when the legislature reconvenes, and he will be happy to testify when those are held.
"This report is an important step forward," said Rep. Oliver Olsen (I-Weston, Stratton, Winhall, Jamaica and Londonderry). "The task force was able to clearly articulate the challenges facing Southern Vermont, and succinctly outlined concrete actions that the region can take to get our economy back on track. By defining Southern Vermont as a region, identifying our shared challenges, and putting forward an action plan, the region is better positioned to leverage the public and private resources that will be so critical to our economic recovery."
The task force chairman was Wayne Granquist of Weston. The members appointed by the legislature were: Tom Caine of Against the Grain, Brattleboro; Chris Campany, Windham Regional Planning Commission; Bill Colvin, Bennington Regional Planning Commission; Adam Grinold, Brattleboro Development and Credit Corporation; Michael Keane, Bennington Select Board member; Peter Odierna, Bennington Regional Industrial Corporation; Mariko Silver, Bennington College president; and Lisa Sullivan of Bartleby's Books, Wilmington.
Contact Edward Damon at 413-770-6979. Andrew McKeever of the Manchester Journal contributed to this report. He can be reached at 802-490-6000.