MANCHESTER >> Following a summit session last month to discuss future strategies for the Shires of Vermont region, officials say a consensus has emerged on some overarching goals while the fine-point details will take more time and effort.
About 60 leaders from the public and private sectors throughout the Bennington County region met in Manchester on Sept. 13, tackling the issues of economic development, tourism and marketing, and collaboration and coalition building across community lines. The event was organized by the Shires of Vermont Regional Marketing Organization and the Bennington Area Chamber of Commerce.
Matt Harrington, executive director of the Bennington chamber, said this was the first large gathering to focus on those topics since the Manchester and the Mountains Chamber of Commerce ceased operations in the spring, prompting widespread concern about how to continue the organization's promotional efforts.
Harrington said the four-hour Shires Summit at The Equinox Resort also was held exactly a decade after an earlier summit that resulted in the region being branded as the Shires of Vermont — intended to link the Northshire (around Manchester) and the Southshire (around Bennington) in promoting the varied attractions of the entire county.
Jonah Spivak, chairman of the Shires RMO board, said participants at the 2006 meeting were told that "it would take about 10 years for the brand to take [in the minds of visitors and the local residents]," and he said that process did take time but it now has indeed been accomplished.
The next steps, Spivak said, will be to forge more cohesive marketing and economic development efforts involving stakeholders across the county, and possibly elsewhere in southern Vermont, such as in nearby Windham County.
"We now have a big picture mandate and are moving forward regionally," Spivak said following the summit conference.
Officials said the focus for now shifts to a working group to meet to explore collaborative initiatives and how those could be implemented and possibly formalized.
"Now it's time to roll up our sleeves and get to work," said Spivak.
During the summit, which was facilitated by consultant Doug Marsh of Organization Dynamics --- http://organizationdynamics.net/ --- a rough draft plan for proceeding regionally was begun, Spivak said. He said it involved brainstorming across two broad areas — economic development and marketing of the Shires of Vermont to visitors, as well as residents who may be less than familiar with either Manchester or Bennington.
"While there was widespread consensus to promote [economic development] regionally, we understand that on the marketing side of the equation it is more complicated," Spivak said, referring to the different attractions or advantages of the different towns and of the north and south county sections.
A related point made at the summit, Harrington said, was that residents of the county "may see the borders and lines between our towns; our visitors do not, and they don't travel that way."
There also was consensus to later this month again invite the summit participants and others to further explore both the challenges and opportunities of cooperation across the region.
The collaboration topics being discussed involve approaches to expanding high-speed internet services, upgrading the county's physical infrastructure; improved marketing for the region with combined resources; work force development and education initiatives, and creating a more powerful regional advocacy group to lobby state government in Montpelier.
With the overall goals essentially agreed upon, Harrington said the next focus is on "how do we get this from Point B to Point C."
During the summit session, Marsh presented information on a range of regional collaborative efforts from around the country. Spivak noted that one such organization is 1Berkshire, which over several years merged the Berkshire Chamber of Commerce and Berkshire Visitors Bureau in a strategic alliance to promote both business development and market the Berkshires to potential visitors.
The region's collaborative efforts "are getting more and more formal as they go along," he said. "I think 1Berkshire is an excellent model for us That is the direction we are headed, but it has to come from the people."
Spivak added, "Coalition building is what is happening now."
Among those representing the economic develop sector in the regional effort are officials from the Bennington County Regional Commission. Bill Colvin, the commission's assistant director and Community Development Program coordinator, said there seems to be consensus that the "blocking and tackling of economic development" in the shires region will go through the BCRC, which earlier this year formed a partnership with the Bennington County Industrial Corp.
On topics like work force and entrepreneurial development, Colvin said a regional approach — possibly including all of southern Vermont — is widely favored, but there are differences of opinion on how tourism and similar marketing should be handled, considering the often varying needs and goals of the different areas of the region.
"I think the process will evolve," Colvin said, adding, "This was a good start. I'm excited to have some additional conversations."
The regional marketing organization is a non-profit corporation that has been in existence since the 1990s. It became the Shires of Vermont in 2006 after a regional branding effort.
Harrington said the state once provided annual funding for 10 regional promotion districts, but the Shires of Vermont area is the last one still receiving funding. It received $25,000 this year, but that source remains uncertain for next year.
However, the availability of economic development funding through federal or state government programs is being researched to bolster the regional efforts.
More information is available at www.TheShiresofVermont.com.
Jim Therrien covers Southern Vermont for the Bennington Banner and for VtDigger.org. He can be reached at 802-447-7567, Ext. 114.