The plan is being developed as part of the application process for the federal Economic Development Agency’s Comprehensive Economic Development Strategies program. If approved, SeVEDS participating communities could be eligible for federal money to help implement the plan.
Economic development consultant Frank Knott, of Vital Economy, explained the concepts and goals that have already been identified by SeVEDS. Knott repeated some of the grim economic statistics related to Windham County. The county has a declining and aging population, earning lower wages than the nation and its neighboring communities, with an increasing percentage of money coming from “unearned” income such as retirement benefits. “The status quo, long term, isn’t going to work for Windham County,” Knott said. “How do we reverse this decline? How do we keep our young people? How do we grow more jobs?”
Knott said there are economic development opportunities tailored to suit rural communities. He noted that the general population movement trend over the last 20 years was out of the suburbs, in contrast to the previous 50 years. “The movement is from the suburbs to a rural active lifestyle, or from the suburbs to an urban active lifestyle.”
Meeting attendee Cullen Meves said she and her fiancé moved to the region from Virginia after college because they liked the rural New England lifestyle. But she said it has been difficult. “I was able to find work here, but my fiancé has to commute to Boston for his job,” she said. “Less than half of my friends go to work, most telecommute. If you can tap into that and expand broadband, you can grow the economy here.”
“There are lots of young people like yourself that have those experiences here,” said Knott.
Localizing the production of goods and services, Knott said, is key to “capturing a greater share of the value, and increasing economic prosperity.” As an example, Knott talked about merino wool producers in Tasmania, Australia, who he said were producing the finest wool in the world and going bankrupt trying to sell the raw wool on the open market. “We helped them take that wool and convert it into an end-user product by connecting the farmers with 65 knitters and the Internet,” Knott said. “Today, you can buy the finest wool sweaters, hats, and scarves in the world in 16 different currencies. And they never sell one pound of raw wool off the island.”
He also told the group that there was power in banding together as a region. “One of the challenges,” he said, “is to get our heads out of town competition. We don’t have to lose our town identity by working together. If you can figure out how to link your asset in this town to one in Brattleboro, Londonderry, and Dover, you obtain more critical mass and everyone benefits together.”
Turning to wages, Knott said the average wage in Windham County has declined since 2011 from about $38,000 to $36,000. Wages for people with undergraduate or graduate degrees were lower in Windham County than in surrounding communities – something that may be preventing people from moving to the area. “If a job is offered in Northampton for someone with a graduate degree for $55,000, and $42,000 here, where are they going to go? What does that tell you?”
“We’re lacking a plan,” said one member of the group.
“But most of the people here are planners,” objected Royal Wilson, owner of the Moutaineer Inn in Dover. “We’ve got economic development people in Dover and Wilmington, and the bitown thing going on.”
“Many of the people who should be in this room, aren’t,” added Dover business owner and selectboard member Randy Terk.
Halifax Selectboard Chair Edee Edwards said infrastructure was a barrier to economic development in her town. “We still don’t have high speed Internet,” she said. “There are plans and grants to get it here, but I’m concerned about what the backup plan would be if they can’t.”
“Internet is first,” agreed Jean Boardman, of Marlboro. “And also the transportation between the towns. People have to drive to work. If they can’t there’s no alternative to using your car and gas. It goes right down to the coordination of parking in Brattleboro. If you come in on the train in Brattleboro, there’s no information about how to find transportation. And there’s no overnight parking at the train station anymore, so you can’t take the train to New York overnight like you used to.”
Wilmington Town Clerk Susie Haughwout said the valley should encourage second-home owners to shift their businesses to the area. “I think we’re missing a remarkable opportunity with second-home owners,” she said. “They’re people who have made the decision that they love the area enough to invest in it, and many would like to make the transition to living here full time. We need to promote that if you can bring your business, or part of your business, or your income here, you can do it.”
Knott asked if anyone had “mapped” where second-home owners work and what their professions are. “That information would tell you what would allow them to extend their stays,” Knott said.
Terk said one of the biggest economic challenges the area faces is the Vermont Legislature. “One of the things proposed this year was a living wage,” he said. “Apparently our legislators thought one way to solve our problems was by raising the minimum wage to $12.50. The perception is that all of our small businesses have deep pockets and can afford to pay high wages and even higher property taxes. But a lot of people are going to start voting with their feet and there will be a smaller and smaller tax base.”
But Knott said state government was something that an economic development plan can’t address. “In every state we’re working in, the state anti-business climate turns out to be one of the top five issues. But the other four are within local control. You’ve got to pay attention to what the state is doing, but we can make changes at the local level that make a difference regardless of what the state does.”
Knott said what SeVEDS and towns like Dover and Wilmington are doing is influencing what the state does. “There’s something going on here that’s really positive,” he said. “Then take the success you have and start educating the Legislature about how things actually work.”
Knott told the group that SeVEDS would be holding similar meetings in other areas of the county, and would return in June to report on their findings and take new input on the CEDS plan.