Editor’s note: This commentary is by Adam Grinold, who is executive director of the Brattleboro Development Credit Corp.; Lyle Jepson, the executive director of the Rutland Economic Development Corp.; and William Colvin, acting director of the Bennington County Industrial Corp.There is a scene from “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” set in days of the Black Plague. Eric Idle moves through a village calling “Bring out your dead!” John Cleese appears, a body slung over his shoulder. As he negotiates offloading the corpse to Idle, the body interrupts; “I’m not dead yet!” Cleese replies, “Oh he will be soon.”
We’re used to people declaring our rural economies dead or dying. They tell us manufacturing is gone. Young people leave. The economy passed Vermont by. This does not describe what we see and do every day as regional development corporation executives serving the Rutland, Bennington and Brattleboro areas.
Yes, we share challenges: too few workers, poor housing choices for working people, and real estate markets where building and redevelopment don’t pencil out. Our specialty as regional development corporations is understanding the tools available to overcome these challenges. We know how to use them. We respond to opportunities. We direct tax-efficient funds to projects and help structure complex deals. Our organizations have built robust systems and capacity to do and to support large-scale capital intensive projects, projects critical to job retention and growth.
Good jobs with good wages are priorities for us, absolutely critical to quality of life for Vermont households and to the health of our communities. By the same token, a great workforce is everything to the businesses and institutions that make up our regional economies. Employers in our districts have job openings now, with anticipated retirements over the next 10 years averaging as much as 40 percent at all levels. The state must commit more resources, not fewer, to workforce development through a modernized state bureaucracy that can deliver responsive, modern workforce training and development.
To understand what we build you need to see our projects and programs, to meet entrepreneurs, interns, trainers and workers. You can’t understand economic development by peering into budgets and projections.
We must also attract new workers, and we can. Our young professional groups are well organized, energetic, powerfully hopeful. They talk about their peers leaving Brooklyn, Boston or San Francisco to escape ruinous costs and find a better work-life balance in places like Vermont. Yes, they experience real challenges in terms of housing, comparative income, child care and student loan debt. The state’s leadership must help us provide these young people with solutions in every region, not throw up our hands and dismiss their potential. We need them as much as they need us.
We can do this. The proposed housing bond is one creative solution being supported by a wide range of organizations from the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board to the Vermont Chamber. It tackles cost of living for working Vermonters head on. The consortium of municipalities working together to make Tax Increment Financing (TIF) available as a tool to create a path toward more sustainable communities is another.
Southwest Medical Center in Bennington is creating their own innovative solution, buying up homes to rehab and help in recruiting the medical professionals and staff they need to be successful. The medical system has also partnered with other local institutions, businesses and community leaders to lead an investment which could transform Bennington’s downtown and create exactly the type of environment necessary to attract and retain the workforce needed. In Rutland, Castleton University is putting college dorms downtown, using student housing as part of a multipronged downtown redevelopment strategy. In Brattleboro, innovation and entrepreneurial programming is being driven by the Brattleboro Development’s Instig8 Program and incubation services.
We help build success every day by leveraging our regional assets. We do this with too little investment from the state. The Vermont Employment Growth Initiative and Vermont Training Program funds must be expanded so companies of every size, in every sector, can benefit. Vermont Economic Progress Council lending is no panacea, but plays an important role in projects across the state.
These are just some of the tools of our trade. To understand what we build you need to see our projects and programs, to meet entrepreneurs, interns, trainers and workers. You can’t understand economic development by peering into budgets and projections. If you want to know what Vermont is capable of, look around. The road ahead is not easy or simple, but our job is to create the conditions that support economic opportunity. We love this work and we believe that we can and must succeed. We invite you all to work with us.