Report tackles southern Vermont's economic 'trouble'

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BRATTLEBORO >> A new economic study of Windham and Bennington counties begins with this succinct assessment: "Southern Vermont is in trouble."

The bulk of the report, mandated by this year's creation of the Southern Vermont Economic Development Zone, is dedicated to potential solutions to the region's financial and demographic troubles.

Proposed solutions include: creating a regional economic strategy; funding a recruiting and marketing campaign; developing a broadband-financing plan; and starting a public-private partnership to lure investment capital.

The document was released Thursday. It will be delivered to the state Agency of Commerce and Community Development and to two legislative committees.

The authors are hoping for a quick response.

"In essence, we need to repopulate Southern Vermont," the report says. "Urgent action is required."

The Southern Vermont zone, which encompasses 44 towns served by the Windham and Bennington regional commissions, was codified in an economic development bill toward the end of the 2015 legislative session. There was no funding attached to the development zone, but the law called for a nine-member study committee tasked with producing a report by Dec. 1.

The effort was spurred by concern about demographic trends and economic stagnation in the two counties. The new report sums those up in its introductory paragraph, citing a declining and aging population: Between 2000 and 2013, the document says, the region's under-18 population plummeted by almost 20 percent.

On the economic side, the report cites declining retail sales and tourism as well as a residential construction volume that's half of what it was in 2006.

The report lists a number of challenges in Southern Vermont, with a "lack of coordination across the region" topping the list. Other challenges are access to capital; workforce development; housing; broadband and cellular connectivity; "awareness and marketing"; and limited transportation.

To start tackling those problems, the committee suggests an "integrated approach" and makes a number of recommendations:

• Creating a federally recognized Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy (CEDS) covering the entire Southern Vermont zone.

The Windham region already has a CEDS, and the report says the Southeastern Vermont Economic Development Strategies initiative has drawn in more than $1 million in governmental and private funding. However, "the success of the Windham region will remain limited unless the Bennington region can act as a partner," the report says. "Bennington has not yet developed the tools that have enabled Windham to advance."

Creation of a regional CEDS should be backed by a $50,000 grant from the Vermont Enterprise Fund to the Bennington region, the committee says.

• Forming, whether by executive order or legislation, an interagency council of state offices focused on Southern Vermont.

The committee found that "state government is largely organized into silos, with integration occurring at the top, if at all." A state interagency council could "interface with businesses attempting to move in or grow, thereby creating a simplified approach and streamlining the development process" in Southern Vermont.

• Developing a plan to meet the state's telecommunication goals in Southern Vermont.

This might include formation of "communication union districts" in the area to fast-track fiber optic connections to homes and businesses. Among other recommendations, the committee also wants better mobile-device mapping, complaining that "there is a lack of accurate information about the exact extent of the deficiencies" in the zone's cellular coverage.

• Offering incentives and policies to encourage a housing mix "to attract younger populations and allow older residents to remain in their homes as they age."

The report cites a "shortage of quality housing for year-round residents": About a third of the housing stock in Southern Vermont is seasonal, while another third was built prior to 1940.

The committee wants a study of present and future real-estate needs, and officials say the goal of retaining and attracting new businesses should play a part in that study.

• Identifying and supporting "clusters," defined as a concentration of related businesses in an area.

Officials already are working to promote a green building cluster in the Windham region. It's critical that "a major effort be made to further identify and support sectors that provide the greatest promise for growing good-paying jobs in Southern Vermont," committee members wrote.

• Enhancing the arts and cultural community in Southern Vermont. For example, town and regional plans should include arts and cultural policies, and towns should establish arts committees modeled on Brattleboro's, committee members wrote.

"To a large extent, these assets are hidden in plain sight," the report says. "By their very nature, many are independent of each other and do not see the strength they have in acting together."

• Implementing the Southern Vermont Sustainable Recruitment and Marketing Project, which is aimed at both workforce recruitment and tourism promotion.

That project already has been designed, with the theme being "Become a Vermonter – for a weekend – for life." The program has gained support in both counties, but a lack of funding has stymied its launch.

The committee suggests that Brattleboro Development Credit Corp. receive a $75,000 grant from the Vermont Enterprise Fund – with a mandate for a private-sector match – to get the marketing program moving. Future costs could be covered by a mixture of private businesses, grants and matching funds, the report says.

• Integrating the region's workforce, education, internship and career-development programs.

Officials wrote that they "found many shared problems but few integrated solutions" in Southern Vermont. They also found no comprehensive vision for workforce development and many young workers lacking "critical skills."

One proposed solution is creation of a new system for supervisory unions to identify and respond to workforce demand in the region. Another proposal is expansion of the Windham region's internship program to include "mid-career and early career adults."

• Creating a public-private partnership to draw investment money to Southern Vermont.

The variety of steps recommended toward that goal include additional collaborative spaces for entrepreneurs, students and professionals based on the model of the Lightning Jar in downtown Bennington. Another suggestion is bringing the two counties together to better promote transportation access to Southern Vermont, including frequent Amtrak service and the proximity of major airports in Albany, N.Y; Windsor Locks, Conn.; and Manchester, N.H.

With the Southern Vermont committee's report done, what happens next will in part be up to the Legislature. Among the region's lawmakers who pushed for creation of a Southern Vermont Economic Development Zone were Reps. Oliver Olsen, I-Londonderry; Laura Sibilia, I-Dover; and Kiah Morris, D-Bennington. Windham County Democratic Sen. Becca Balint also promoted the zone.

While officials on Thursday were still digesting the report, Olsen lauded the committee for producing the document with no funding and in a relatively short period of time. And he had a positive take on the committee's conclusions, saying the report "highlights the strong partnership between the two counties and the potential that exists for strengthening the relationship."

"The report pulls together many of the interrelated challenges facing Southern Vermont and brings them into sharp focus as a regional problem that we need tackle with a sense of urgency," Olsen said.


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