NORTH BENNINGTON >> Economic development was the primary topic at Thursday's Bennington County Regional Committee monthly meeting at Bennington College.
BCRC assistant director and community development program coordinator Bill Colvin gave two presentations, the first on the Northshire Economic Development Strategy (NEDS), a project designed to develop ways to encourage people to live and work in the Northshire region, and the second on the Southern Vermont Economic Development Zone Report (SVEDZ) that was released in December. Berta Maginniss, director of the Manchester and the Mountains Regional Chamber of Commerce also spoke about a new "Partnership" between the Chamber, area businesses, and municipalities, designed to bring new vitality to the Northshire economy.
The goal of the NEDS, said Colvin, who was one of the BCRC's representatives on the project team, is to "create a vibrant environment that encourages people to both live and work in the Northshire." After describing the history of the project, which began last year, Colvin described two different economic strategies, which he termed "economic hunting" and "economic gardening." Economic hunting involves using strategies like tax incentives and fee waivers to lure businesses into the area. He said that this method is based in the logic that, "our community is deficient, and must attract outside talent and industry."
The other alternative, as he put it, was economic gardening, or fostering economic growth from within, and nurturing business that are already there. Strategies for doing that include business planning and counseling; access to capital, such as revolving loan accounts; business incubators like co-working space and tech hubs; and entrepreneurship programs.
Colvin also acknowledged that the declining population of the region presented a challenge. "That challenge," he said, "if we don't bring additional people to the area, is only going to get worse." He said, in order to combat the problem of an aging and declining population, more young people need to be attracted to the area. However, he said, young people are less interested in large houses with lots of land, and would rather live near the downtowns where they work. Colvin said that the study had also shown that there were opportunities for the expansion of retail in the Manchester area, and that many opportunities existed for cooperation between the North- and Southshires.
Former Bennington select board chairman Greg Van Houten asked about seasonal vulnerability for Manchester, and if that was a concern. Colvin replied that the busiest time for retail is actually the summer, which balances the increased traffic from ski tourists in the winter. He added that the economy does not see the huge seasonal swings you might expect, and is actually relatively level.
Maginniss said The Partnership, a new comprehensive business model for the Chamber, is the result of an eight-month long study process. According to documentation available about the project, "The Partnership will design and manage an aggressive year-round marketing program to stimulate increased regional visitation, increased visitor spending, building a new audience of travelers, and reinforcing long-term loyalty among return visitors." She said that, for the time being, her organization is focused on the Northshire, but that opportunities for cooperation with the Bennington area exist.
"We don't have a wonderful facility like this for learning," she said of their host, the Center for the Advancement of Public Action at Bennington College, "or the medical facilities. We have to come here. And we don't even have beer! As we know, everything is better with beer, so we know we have to work together... We had to begin somewhere. I don't see this in any way limiting regional partnership. I see this as growing into something much bigger."