The nine-member Committee was charged, by the 2015 Vermont Legislature, to come up with suggestions that would stimulate the economy of the 44 towns and villages within Windham and Bennington counties. The report was quite specific in its recommendations, as well as being acutely blunt as to what is ailing this part of Vermont.
The Committee did not pull any punches — "Southern Vermont is in trouble" due to tourism being down, residential construction half of what it was in 2006, a loss of 20 percent of the population under the age of 18 since 2000, a lack of affordable housing and viable transportation, workforce reputation (did not mention specifics on this one), limited growth potential and not much to do for families.
What was surprising was that the report made no mention of the sizable economic impact of the nonprofit and government sectors within the area, the two sectors have the largest concentration of employees.
This is not the first time a report has been issued on what ails southern Vermont (See the May 5, 2004 Long-Term Strategic Economic Development Plan). What makes this one different is that it is quite specific in describing the problems and recommended solutions. If anything, the solutions are so detailed that is appears as one Herculean to-do-list. And as noted on page 21 of the report, "The Committee was not provided with funding." Why is that not surprising?
Much of what is contained in the report could have been ascertained last spring by interviewing the executives of a long-time Bennington employer, Plasan-NA. The first class auto and defense industry employer left the county for Grand Rapids, Mich. and took with it hundreds of skilled or high paying jobs, due to many of the reasons stated in this and previous reports.
The report also notes that there are over 20 agencies in the two counties working in one fashion or another on economic development. I would have thought that the Committee recommend that they be disbanded and have one overriding agency that would act in a comprehensive manner in executing the report's recommendations? However, the Committee did recommend a more integrated approach.
When reading the Committee's report and the media headlines that followed, one could have an awful negative reaction. However, this could be dispatched by reading a year-end article in the Rutland Herald that described the last days in office of Mayor Michael Nutter of Philadelphia. The mayor of eight years noted that "Philadelphia's deep-seated poverty is stopping the city from reaching its potential." He went on to say, "It is persistent. It is deep. It has a vice-like grip on some folks at an intergenerational level." Nevertheless, Mayor Nutter still remained optimistic.
If the mayor of a city, that has a population twice that of Vermont, can remain hopeful, we of southern Vermont should believe that in time we can reverse the downward economic spiral noted in the Committee's report. There are signs that we have reversed the trend, as evidenced by the tens of millions of dollars recently invested in the tourism and health-care sectors of Bennington and Windham Counties and GP Precision's multi-million dollar expansion in Brattleboro.
And as far as outside investors are concerned, they should be given copies of pages 16 and 17 of the report. There they will find countless cultural sites to visit in southern Vermont that are nicely located between the mountains.
Don Keelan writes a bi-weekly column and lives in Arlington.