Stakeholders work on regional economic plan

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MANCHESTER — Southern Vermont has a lot going for it, but it needs to tackle workforce development, housing and infrastructure needs if it's going to thrive as a region in the future, attendees said at a pair of economic development planning meetings held Monday here and in Bennington.

The sessions were intended to direct the Southern Vermont Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy (SVCEDS), in which groups from Bennington and Brattleboro work to create the first-ever joint economic plan for Windham and Bennington counties.

The SVCEDS is being developed by the Regional Economic Development Group of Southwestern Vermont and Southeastern Vermont Economic Development Strategies, in conjunction with the Bennington County Industrial Corporation, Bennington County Regional Commission, Brattleboro Development Credit Corporation, Camoin Associates and Garnet Consulting Services.

The goal is to create a comprehensive economic strategy for the two counties as a whole, leading to an action plan that identifies problems as well as potential solutions.

During the two-hour workshop, attendees were asked to talk about what they love about Southern Vermont, the greatest challenges for its businesses and residents, what issues the plan should address and what major initiative — if money were no option — would have the greatest positive impact on the region.

In Manchester, participants cited community and commitment to education as the things they love most about Southern Vermont. Challenges cited for residents and business owners included difficulty finding qualified and motivated employees and access to affordable housing.

Jim Salsgiver of Dorset described the region's sense of community as a significant positive. "I'd be hesitant about being anywhere else," he said. Joe Bluming of Jamaica said he appreciates the access to neighbors and leaders, and the lower stress of day-to-day life in the region as positives. And Matt Harrington, executive director of the Bennington Area Chamber of Commerce, said commitment to quality of education is among the area's best traits.

Another local trait identified in Manchester was the region's habit of tackling and solving problems for itself — a habit born out of the region's relative isolation from Montpelier and Burlington. "What we have learned in southern Vermont is that no one is coming to save us. Collaboration is the key to success for rural economic development planning, and that means there is room for everyone to participate," said state Rep. Laura Sibilia, the BDCC's director of regional strategies.

While workforce housing remains a significant concern, attracting and training workers to fill existing jobs and fuel business growth took center stage in the discussion about challenges. Paying workers salaries competitive with nearby regions is another challenge, attendees said. The lack of east-west transit options between Manchester and Brattleboro, and between Bennington and Brattleboro, was also identified as a factor.

But Don Keelan of Arlington cited another potential hurdle — a lack of community involvement. "If you want to change things for the positive, you have to break the grip of apathy," he said, pointing out that only 6 percent of eligible voters cast ballots in Bennington's recent vote on changes to the town charter. The Bennington SVCEDS meeting was held at the Fire Department at 10 a.m., and was well-attended with dozens of area business owners, town officials, and more filling almost every chair in the room.

In Bennington, several groups identified the community as the thing they love most about Southern Vermont, while others noted the landscape, the history, the calm pace of life, and the closeness to New York and Massachusetts.

In terms of challenges for residents and business owners, the group identified a lack of childcare, difficulty finding qualified and motivated employees, elderly business owners without succession plans, wage stagnation and access to affordable housing.

Zirwat Chowdhury, Bennington's community development director, said that many children are falling through the cracks of the area's public education system, and that finding ways to make education more accessible for lower income students could foster economic growth.

"We are stepping into a world where we have kids who are growing up and at six years old are either taking robotics classes or don't even know how to read yet. The fact that we're having to bridge a future across that depth of difference is really challenging. Until we acknowledge how to create aspiration across the economic fragmentation, we're not going to have a Southern Vermont that isn't just pretty to look at, but is actually beautiful to live in."

More public input sessions are scheduled for this fall. For more information contact Jonathon Cooper of the BCIC at 802-442-0713 ext. 312.

Bennington Banner reporter Derek Carson contributed to this story.

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