Monday November 5, 2012

BELLOWS FALLS -- The municipal manager was disappointed with the turnout of an economic development seminar held in the lower theater of the Rockingham Town Hall on Thursday.

Tim Cullenen told University of Vermont Extension Community Resources Development Specialists Mary Peabody and Bill McMaster and Jon-Michael R. Muise, the area director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development, he was sorry their seminar was met by such a small number of people from the community.

About 10 local officials, residents and business owners filed into the lower theater to hear suggestions on how to improve the area’s sour financial situation.

"We had higher hopes. We had hoped for a larger turnout," Cullenen said about the attendance after the seminar had finished. "I think all the people who are really interested in what is going on showed up."

The seminar focused on the area’s economic woes and how people can work to improve the situation.

Peabody, Muise and McMaster gave a PowerPoint presentation to identify reasons for the lackluster local economy and offer suggestions on how to improve it.

Peabody said reasons behind the current situation include mega-trends such as a growth in self-employment and sole proprietorship, which means there are fewer individuals hiring scores of workers. She said it is vital to take a good look at the quality of leadership in the community.


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Peabody cited another reason as being the rapidly increasing age of Vermont residents. When he was running to represent Windham-3 in the Vermont House of Representatives, local attorney Chris Moore told the Reformer this state has the second oldest population in the country (just behind Maine). Peabody said it is important to offer physical and cultural amenities to bring young educated people to the area and keep them here.

Half the population is older than 45 and the median age is just under 42, according to UVM Extension’s statistics.

Peabody told the audience that successful communities have a common understanding of the new realities of economic development, a commitment to collaboration, a global view and an understanding of current strengths and weaknesses.

"If it was an easy recipe, we would just hand it to you," she said. "It’s not cookie-cutter. It’s not one-size-fits-all."

Rockingham Development Director Francis "Dutch" Walsh, who was in attendance, spoke when Peabody asked the audience for information about the local community.

"If you look at southern Vermont, because that’s where we are, if the trends we see continue with aging population and people moving out of the area -- going to college and not coming back -- by 2015 we’re going to lose over 8,000 potential workers," he said from his seat. "So we’re going to have a workforce with 8,000 people less. That’s huge for Windham County."

Peabody went on to list keys necessary for economic success via the presentation. She said these keys include offering government funds for subsidies and tax breaks and developing an industrial infrastructure, developing training programs, strengthening the health of existing firms, providing social and physical resources, building on unique regional assets (such as human capital, amenities, creative economy, innovation), focusing on leadership development, developing/maintaining quality environment and bridging economic and community development.

Muise then spoke to the crowd and said success hinges on a partnership between the local and regional levels. He said Vermont is a passionate "Buy Local" state and each community wants to prosper on its own.

"We’re a small state made up of small communities. ... Each community is its own entity in Vermont," he said. "We want to do it by ourselves and go it alone."

He cited how each community wants to have it own farmers’ markets but few have enough farmers or customers for that. He said places like Brattleboro manage to do it because it "has critical mass. It is a regional hub."

Peabody took over the conversation again and said it is important to invest in transportation and telecommunications infrastructure, to adopt technologies that strengthen a competitive advantage and to improve the delivery of public services.

The seminar wrapped up with McMaster explaining some statistics about the area. He showed the audience that, according to 2010 data, the average household income is $55,818 in Rockingham and $59,769 in Windham County. These figures pale in comparison to the state average of $64,939.

Domenic Poli can be reached at dpoli@reformer.com, or 802-254-2311, ext. 277.