BENNINGTON -- Help from the Vermont Legislature on transportation issues comprised a large portion of requests made during an unusual visit Tuesday afternoon by two House committees.
The House Committee on Transportation and the House Committee on Commerce and Economic Development visited the Bennington Firehouse for a hearing at which working groups of Bennington Economic Development Partners made presentations. Bill Botzow, D-Bennington, chairman of the Committee on Commerce and Economic Development, presided over the meeting.
The 20 legislators on the committees had visited Rutland earlier on Tuesday. Accompanying them were several people from state departments, including the Agency of Commerce and Community Development, the Department of Labor, the Department of Buildings and General Services, and several people from the Agency of Transportation.
"What we're doing today basically is hearing from the people where we visit, with the agencies and departments also visiting and being a resource to go forward," Botzow said. "You have people here from all over the state."
A message to the meeting from House Speaker Shap Smith emphasized the link between economic development and good transportation. Implicit in the meeting was that the discussion included the greater Bennington area, not just the town itself.
Michael Harrington, Bennington downtown community development director, said he hoped the meeting would enable the visitors "to gain a clear understanding of Bennington's unique regional development efforts and assets and to consider ways that you may be able to assist us with a handful of what we feel are critical projects in the area."
Such progress might come from future conversations, "so we're hoping that today is just the jumping off point," he said.
Members of Bennington Economic Development Partners made an overall presentation and also presented on workforce and education, recruitment and retention, and transportation. In May 2013, the Bennington Select Board adopted an economic strategic development plan. "So what you're going to hear from the Bennington Economic Development Partners is their efforts to move that strategic plan forward," Harrington said. "We've been able to pull those decision makers and major players that play a role in economic development around the table to be having regular, cohesive ... conversations every month, and the right people on the bus heading in the right direction."
Together they have been developing joint initiatives, he said.
The presenters went over community assets, reasons why businesses should want to locate in Bennington, community challenges, and emerging opportunities. Community assets include proximity to large population centers and transportation hubs; challenges include a complex school governance structure and vacant properties.
Emerging opportunities include comprehensive and impactful marketing of community assets and attributes; growth of a business sector providing ancillary support to the town's primary manufacturers, and Bennington being seen as an "entrepreneur-friendly community."
Wendy Morse, district supervisor for the Vermont Department of Labor, said that challenges employers face in acquiring an adequate workforce are a commonality between Rutland and Bennington.
"Businesses can only grow at the rate of the labor force," she said' "and that's really where we're at right now."
The most recent unemployment statistics indicate that Bennington's unemployment rate is 4.6 percent and Rutland's 3.9 percent. "Which essentially means we're really at full employment," she said. "So the greatest challenge is going to be to develop skills in individuals that aren't out there job-seeking right now."
Bill Colvin, community development coordinator with the Bennington County Regional Commission, said that about $9 million of direct state money funds the type of workforce development the Bennington Economic Development Partners detailed. "I think what you've heard here today is that a lot of very good work happens at the regional level through the type of programs that we have just described. There is very little funding to support that work," Colvin said. "We would certainly encourage looking at the opportunity to create challenge grants for regions to be able to go off and to compete for the completion of 'best practices projects,' if you will."
However, Michele Kupersmith, D-South Burlington, expressed concern about the underemployed, apart from those already employed who need to update their skills to move up the ladder. "Even given a low unemployment rate, it's my belief that Vermonters (who are underemployed) do not have an access portal for training that's directly tied to the business and the opportunity."
On housing challenges for prospective future employees, which Bennington Economic Development Partners is in the middle of studying, Rep. Paul Ralston, D-Middlebury, said he would like to get the local study's interim data because the Legislature is taking up the issue of workforce housing during this session.
On transportation, the presenters focused on realistic, short-term items rather than a long-term wish list. These focused mainly on the Route 7A/67A corridor. Bennington officials have already been working directly with the Agency of Transportation on several of them.
Bennington Assistant Town Manager and Planning Director Dan Monks mentioned improvements to Kocher Drive, specifically pedestrian-related. "We have $400,000 in earmarked funds -- we're going to need some more to finish that project," he said. "We see that as a great opportunity to work directly with the state."
A second project was with acquisition of land needed for the improvement of the Route 67A and Route 7A intersection. The land in question is the site of the former LaFlammes furniture store, which was destroyed by fire on Jan. 3. "There was a recent fire at a very important intersection -- that property is now probably available and we would look to work with the agency to acquire that intersection," Monks said.
He also asked the legislators to seek ways to make seeking acquiring federal funding for projects easier. "For Vermont-sized projects, the federal requirements to get through those federally funded projects are excessive," Monks said. "We find that oftentimes our match is just a little bit under what it would cost us just to do the project ourselves."
Monks also asked for support for a direct transit connection to the Rensselaer rail station.
At the conclusion of the hearing, the legislators slowly boarded a bus to take a tour of Northside Drive, then it was back to Montpelier.