Economic development initiatives

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In recent editions of the Journal we have seen news and editorials about not one, not two, but three initiatives aimed at revitalizing economic development in our area. Viewed from Manchester as three concentric circles they are; the Southern Vermont Economic Development Zone (covering Bennington and Windham counties); The Partnership (the public-private initiative covering the 18 communities of the Manchester and the Mountains Chamber of Commerce); and the Northshire Economic Development Strategy (covering Manchester Center, Manchester Village and Dorset).

At first sight, there may seem to be duplication, or even competition, between these three. But on the contrary, they should be seen as being strongly complementary and interlocking. Cooperation and collaboration are the watchwords, not competition.

The Southern Vermont Economic Development Zone report looks at the broader picture and opens with the sobering sentences – "Southern Vermont is in trouble. Its population is declining and aging. Tourism has not recovered from pre-recession levels; residential construction is at half the level of 2006; retail sales are down." The report responds to a 2015 call from the Montpelier Legislature to establish an integrated investment strategy for retaining businesses within and recruiting business to the Zone, to establish an implementation plan for recruitment and marketing, and to propose a public-private partnership to aggregate capital and coordinate investment in small- and medium-size businesses located within the Zone.

Looking more locally, in the latter part of 2015 Manchester and the Mountains Chamber of Commerce revised its mission and strategy and came up with The Partnership, aimed at promoting destination marketing and economic development in the 18 communities of Manchester and the surrounding area. As a long-term initiative, The Partnership will design and manage an aggressive year-round marketing program to stimulate increased visitor spending and also to grow and revitalize existing businesses and attract new businesses. These objectives fall entirely in line with the broader aims of the Zone report.

More locally still, there is the Northshire Economic Development Strategy (NEDS). This initiative, a collaborative effort supported by the Select Boards of Manchester Center, Manchester Village and Dorset and a municipal planning grant through the Vermont Agency of Commerce and Community Development, has as its primary goal the creation of "a vibrant environment that encourages people to both live and work in the Northshire." The NEDS report was given a well-attended public presentation at Long Trail School, Dorset, on February 11. A video of the meeting is available on GNAT-TV.

If each of these initiatives was to exist on its own, it is doubtful that there would be enough energy and commitment to achieve success. Action plans appropriate to each effort are being developed and quite deliberately they will interact and overlap with each other. For example, in order to execute some of the actions proposed in the NEDS report it is expected that a leading role will be taken by business members of The Partnership. Actions to promote more visitors and potential homebuyers, to encourage increased

business activity and to revise planning and zoning regulations in order to provide more workforce housing will need the interest and support of residents, local commercial interests and municipal authorities alike. It will also be necessary to preserve the unique character and atmosphere of such local gems as Manchester Village and the center of Dorset: no one is envisaging a Walmart in Dorset or an industrial factory in Manchester Village. But in our area at large, standing still is falling behind and we cannot afford to do that.

Success will require public interest and enthusiasm, constructive action by local for-profit and non-profit interest groups and municipal authorities, and financial support from both private and public sectors. Much can be achieved by putting broad shoulders behind the wheel, as we have seen by the great public asset provided by the privately funded construction of Manchester Community Library and financial support towards the operating costs from the town budget.

The Partnership is already raising money from the private sector and its request for an appropriation of $25,000 from Manchester Town will be put to Australian ballot on Tuesday,

If these three efforts are to be successful, we shall all have to pull together. We shall have to have understanding of and respect for each other's concerns and priorities but, to repeat, the watchwords must be cooperation and collaboration. I think it is fair to say that we all want economic development that is appropriately scaled, opportunities for our friends and neighbors, attractions for visitors and potential homebuyers, and a dynamic economy for our area. We have the right assets and this is all achievable if we believe in ourselves. The first step is to pass the public portion of the funding for The Partnership by voting 'Yes' on March 1. The next and complementary step will be to implement the action plan of the Northshire Economic Development Strategy (NEDS).

Derek Boothby is a resident of Manchester.


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