The reality is that Vermont is a two-economy state, with one economy that revolves around Chittenden County and another that defines the rest of the state. There is a lot of positive economic activity up around the Burlington area, but as soon as you get outside of Chittenden County, and particularly south of Route 4, things start to look a little different.
The challenge is that many of the statistics, such as our unemployment rate, are heavily weighted by the positive economic data from the most populous region of our state, and often don't represent the reality in our own region.
As I have traveled around the towns of Jamaica, Londonderry, Stratton, Weston, and Winhall during my campaign for state representative, I have heard, over and over again, that we need to build a stronger, more diversified economy in our region. Many people I have spoken with are working part-time, or working multiple jobs to make ends meet - a story that our state's unemployment figures don't tell. And a number of local small businesses are still struggling to regain their footing after Tropical Storm Irene. For these folks, rose-colored statistics from up north don't add up to prosperity here at home.
It's time that the policy leaders started to acknowledge that we really are a two-economy state, and that we need to develop strategies to address the unique economic challenges that less populated areas of the state face.
For starters, we need to tackle the issue of how Vermont manages economic development incentives. One of the largest and most successful economic development incentive programs that the State of Vermont offers is the Vermont Economic Growth Incentive (VEGI) program.
VEGI is an incentive program that provides a cash payment to businesses that create new jobs in Vermont, but because of the complexity (and therefore administrative cost) of the program, it is virtually inaccessible to the typical small business in our region. As a practical matter, you need to be a moderate-sized company with aggressive hiring plans and the staff to administer this complex program. More often than not, these are the kinds of companies we won't find in our area. This is perhaps one of the most glaring examples of how state investment in economic development is skewed towards the most populous regions of our state.
The time has come to start looking at companion incentive programs that are accessible and better aligned to the needs of small businesses, such as those that are the backbone of our local economy.
In addition to economic development incentives, we need to look at ways to boost economic development in rural Vermont with increased marketing investment. While we always need to be looking for ways to diversify our economy in communities like our own, we cannot escape the fact that travel and tourism will always be major components of our rural economy. Recognizing that more populous regions of the state have intrinsic benefits that give them an economic advantage (like density of resources), we must fight for a bigger share of marketing investment that the state spends to promote Vermont as a travel destination.
Beyond these immediate objectives, we also need to be thinking long-term about shoring up our economic foundation, which starts by making higher education more affordable and more accessible to those who live in more rural areas of the state. Business leaders and economic development experts agree that availability of quality post-secondary education is the backbone of any vibrant economy. That doesn't necessarily mean that we need to expand college campuses. With increasing availability of broadband Internet, we can use technology to make educational opportunities more widely available across our state - at a lower cost.
Speaking of broadband, this is something that we should view as a critical component of our state's economic infrastructure - just as roads and bridges define our transportation infrastructure. We need to continue to build on the efforts underway to deploy middle-mile and last-mile Internet access to rural areas of Vermont - but do so in a manner that ensures continued investment and upgrades of this important economic infrastructure to ensure that we don't fall behind.
Overall, Vermont is a great state to live and work, one that my family has called home for generations. But we have some work to do to ensure that Vermont offers the kinds of economic opportunities that allow our children and grandchildren to afford to live here. I am optimistic about the future and I think with the right approach, we can work together to advance some of the ideas that will make Vermont - and our region - an even better place to live and work.
Tim Goodwin is an Independent candidate for the Vermont House of Representatives from the towns of Jamaica, Winhall, Weston, Stratton and Londonderry.