NEWS RELEASE — Campaign for Vermont
Thursday, March 7, 2013
Contact: Shawn Shouldice
March, 7, 2013, RUTLAND – A four-member panel organized and moderated by Bruce Lisman of the Campaign for Vermont (CFV) spent the evening of Feb. 26 at South Station Restaurant discussing challenges to Rutland County’s economic security and prosperity, as well as possible solutions.
The panel members cited several persistent challenges: underemployment, low property values, limited communication among towns and school districts. Additionally, the area lacks a major university and some transportation infrastructure enjoyed by Burlington and other nearby metro areas, such as an international airport and an Interstate highway.
On the plus side, Rutland County has significant assets such as the Stafford Tech Center, which Lisman and the panel agreed is among the best technical training schools in Vermont; significant current and future energy investments; a rebounding manufacturing sector; and young, enthusiastic and diversifying farmers.
“For the restaurant business, Rutland is a tough place,” Bill Gillam, co-owner of South Station, said. “Unemployment is high, with companies leaving a little bit at a time, not all at once. People are fed up that despite all of their hard work, property values are going down.”
Lyle Jepson of the Stafford Technical Center shared the concern about property values. He bought his home for $207,000 and then invested thousands in energy efficiency and other improvements. Hoping to recoup his investment, he was dismayed when a real estate agent suggested he list it for only $174,000. “People are leaving the state, our population is declining,” he said. Lisman, who organized the forum, noted Vermont’s declining population is perhaps its most significant challenge and the most obvious symptom of the need for change.
Ludy Biddle of Neighborworks said her organization is making homes more valuable, and saving homeowners money now, by improving energy efficiency. Her organization has used a $4.5 million federal grant to help retrofit 600 homes in and around Rutland County, with an average savings of 391 gallons of heating fuel per year. “That’s money that isn’t leaving Rutland County to pay for oil,” she said.
Another hopeful sign is the rejuvenated farmers’ market, she said. “It’s an extraordinary outpouring of enthusiasm and creativity that moved that farmers’ market into the building, clearing the debris away.” Farmers are getting younger, she noted. The Vermont Secretary of Agriculture recently drew cheers from a large crowd of young farmers when he said, “the best years of Vermont agriculture are ahead of us,” she reported.
Biddle also noted that Green Mountain Power is honoring its commitment turn Rutland into Vermont’s “Solar City.” Picking up on the subject of energy, Rutland Economic Development Corp. executive director Jamie Stewart expressed strong support for the arrival of natural gas to the Rutland area. “We need to get energy costs down,” he said. “We need to get natural gas into the region.” The presence of natural gas draws new business. An executive for a national specialty foods processor – potentially a great asset to the farmers mentioned by Biddle – told Stewart that his company insists on natural gas service. Service to Rutland is five to seven years away, Stewart predicted.
Positive change for air travel also is on the way, Stewart said. Rutland’s airport is the most-used regional facility in Vermont. A runway extension and corporate hangers will be built soon. A new terminal is on the way.
A vaunted blue-collar manufacturing area for generations, Rutland is now on the rebound after years of job losses, Stewart noted. He cited growth at General Electric, which had fallen from about 2500 employees to as low as 950, but is now on the rise. One contractor to GE has grown from 45 to 250 employees. These businesses are “leaner, more efficient, and modernized,” he said. Also, local banks are more eager to loan money because many local businesses have enjoyed a year or more of positive profit and loss statements.
In fact, the Rutland area’s biggest economic challenge is the shortfall in skilled workers needed to sustain a growing manufacturing sector. “I see that as the number one challenge going forward,” he said, pointing again to the need to reverse the state’s population trends.
All the panelists agreed that the Stafford Technical Center would play a large role in solving that particular problem. Lisman enthused about his visit earlier in the day to the regional tech center, noting the happy, hard-working student body. Jepson said, “I would like to think Stafford Tech is a bullet on the economic resume of the county.” It was observed that Stafford Tech offers an evening program that provides customized training to the needs of local industry. For example, it has begun a program to train welders for Hubbardton Forge.
The panel also discussed the tradeoffs involved in “regionalizing” school and public safety services – savings on administration and coordination of services on the plus side, and loss of local control on the other.
The panel was the fourth in a statewide series hosted by Campaign For Vermont, an independent coalition begun by Lisman and others in November, 2011 to promote greater economic security and prosperity for all Vermonters. For more information, including a list of the Rutland County members of the Campaign, go to www.CampaignForVermont.org.