Saturday June 29, 2013

WILMINGTON -- The main task of the Southeastern Vermont Economic Development Strategies organization is to reverse economic decline in Windham County.

Over the past few months SeVEDS has been working on completing its Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy document, which requires local input.

"It can be just a document that sits on a shelf or it can be a true living blueprint of where we want to take our community," said economist Mark Madsen, a principal of PriorityOne Advisors, which along with ViTAL Economy assists in improving rural areas' economies. "We can use that CEDS to help the community understand itself. It can help agencies, nonprofits, other organizations and businesses that want to invest in the region. It becomes an underlying critical element and helps people understand who we are."

On June 26, ViTAL Economy Founder Frank Knott, Madsen and members of the Brattleboro Development Credit Corporation held a public input session for SeVEDS at the Wilmington Town Meeting Room. It was part of a series of local follow-up meetings that asked participants if their previous comments and concerns were heard correctly.

Knott and members of the BDCC traveled around Windham County in April, gathering data for the CEDS document. Similar meetings were held in Bellows Falls, Londonderry and Brattleboro.

This input is crucial for SeVEDS in putting together the CEDS document, which will be submitted on Aug. 9 and completed at the end of October.

"It's not just a document, a list of projects or a list of data of the region," said Madsen. "It really is a story of where we're coming from and in this case, it's a patchwork of a few different things, and from it we want to put together a quilt with solid, stable economic opportunities for the future."

The information that was gathered included data that revealed why the population was declining and the economy has remained stagnant.

The issues that SeVEDS has been addressing include the region's low wages, the rising cost of living, limited job opportunities and how a disconnect was created between skills needed by employers and skills found in the workforce.

The CEDS document will seek to improve the infrastructure of the region's municipalities. SeVEDS is establishing redevelopment projects, which include but will not be limited to making an inventory of buildings that are not currently being used within the county. The organization also is planning to set up workforce development programs.

SeVEDS is requesting that organizations and businesses submit ideas for projects that can be included in the CEDS document. There will be a priority list, but BDCC Economic Development Director Laura Sibilia said that if a project wasn't on the priority list this year, it may be sometime in the future.

"We're focused on what actions and strategies we can take to turn the ship," she said.

It was pointed out that currently, Windham County is a net importer of labor.

"In other words, we need to bring more people to the region," said Knott. "There's going to be lost job opportunities over the next 20 years."

A presentation stated that over those 20 years, there would be approximately 6,610 lost job opportunities, $249 million in lost earnings and missed opportunities that could add up to $525 million if nothing is done to change the economy in Windham County. Knott asked educators in the room why this should matter to them.

"We should inform the kids of the opportunities they have," said Dover School Principal Bill Anton. "If we're not doing that, they're not going to get the jobs and stay here."

It was pointed at that Wilmington has unique attributes that pertained to its profile. The presentation stated that during public input, it had been concluded that "fierce independence" is a weakness while "interdependence" is a strength of the town.

Common challenges for the region that had been identified were negative perceptions about economic development, weak entrepreneur systems, lack of attracting and retaining young people and lack of job opportunities for the youth.

Commonly cited strengths of the region included the political environment, outdoor recreation, scenic beauty and the arts.

In a survey that SeVEDS conducted, 66 percent of the people said they would be in the region in five years, while 33 percent said they did not know if they would.

The survey also showed that 65 percent said the loss of their job or their spouse's job would be the primary reason they would leave the area.

Some ideas for improving the economy in the region included increasing awareness and demand for green, sustainable and naturally wholesome products and services, building multi-entity workforce development groups and making the area more attractive to those who only visit in certain seasons.

SeVEDS will be meeting with arts, educational and business groups to discuss projects and programs that the CEDS document should focus on.

Chris Mays can be reached at 802-254-2311, ext. 273, or cmays@reformer.com. Follow Chris on Twitter @CMaysReformer.