The project is part of the southeastern Vermont’s federal Comprehensive Economic Development Strategies effort led by Southeastern Vermont Economic Development Strategies. The $100,000 in funding for the project comes from Bennington and Windham regional commissions under a disaster recovery grant from the federal economic development administration.
Earlier in the year, Atlas Advertising, of Denver, CO, met with southern Vermont residents and business owners, and looked at existing data as well as collecting their own in developing their report. Thursday evening, Atlas presented their findings. The entire report is available at http://seveds.com/sovt-marketing/.
The project is intended to unite southern Vermont’s disparate valleys and regions under a common marketing brand and effort – without eclipsing any region’s already established identity. In addition to SeVEDS, the project includes the Bennington Regional Chamber of Commerce, Brattleboro Area Chamber of Commerce, Mount Snow Valley Chamber of Commerce, and Manchester and the Mountains Chamber of Commerce, as well as the Brattleboro Development Credit Corporation. “We have to create a brand umbrella,” says BDCC Director of Economic Development Laura Sibilia. “The thing that connects all our great southern Vermont assets. We have to have that brand that people will buy into.”
Atlas looked at what Vermonters and visitors associate with southern Vermont. Overall, words like friendly, closer, and beautiful stand out. Many visitors said they come here because they own a vacation home (26.34%), visit family and friends (18.82%), or for scenic drives (10.75%). Visitors also said southern Vermont is closer to where they live (CT, NY), but still has “Vermont charm” and friendly people. Interest in southern Vermont shopping, events, and festivals rated even higher than skiing for visitors.
Atlas also listed Vermont’s quality of life as a top driver for business and workforce development. Despite complaints from Vermonters about permitting issues, Atlas also found that the easy access to local and state government Vermonters enjoy is considered an asset for economic development.
One of the top challenges facing Vermont is workforce development. According to Atlas’ findings, Vermont has difficulty recruiting businesses not only because there are few workers, but many workers don’t have appropriate training. Attracting young talent is difficult, and the population continues to age. Sibilia says the aging workforce is one of the biggest challenges, one shared with most Northeastern states. “It’s comforting to know it’s not just us, and everyone is going through this,” she said. “So how do we differentiate ourselves from the rest of the country? I feel like focusing on why people love Vermont and make the choice to be here will tell us how to market it.”
Atlas also found that, for workers who do come to Vermont, there are few opportunities for advancement, few opportunities for other jobs, and few jobs for spouses. Other challenges include tax rates in the state, the closure of Vermont Yankee, and a lack of existing business facilities.
Workforce development is one of the issues SeVEDS has been focusing on, Sibilia says. While some businesses can, and are, developing their own workforce locally, there is a growing need for trained professionals. “GS Precision is investing $250,000 with Vermont Technical College on a workforce development program, which is a big deal,” she says. “But you can’t provide on-the-job training for a psychiatric nurse.”
Perhaps enigmatically, Atlas lists higher education at places like Southern Vermont College, Bennington College, and CCV as top assets, but also lists a lack of student “engagement” at colleges as one of the biggest challenges. The report also lists higher education as one of the area’s biggest opportunities, noting that UVM is setting up programs to serve southern Vermont, and two state colleges are planning to set up shop in Brattleboro.
Sibilia says the findings are just the first step in the project. If the coalition of marketing and economic development entities decides the project has merit based on the findings, the next step will be to begin the creative process. “We’ll start refining the brand and looking at a logo,” she said.
After the umbrella brand is created and approved, the development of the mechanisms for workforce and tourism marketing will begin.
“We’re building toward the Vermont Industry Conference to kick off the whole shebang. The state is excited about this – we’re all small and we don’t have a lot of money. Chambers in southern Vermont, over the last five to 10 years, have been pulling together on small projects and festivals. We need to do more of that.”