A different kind of 'Malfunction Junction'


At the south end of Brattleboro's charming center is the tangle known locally as Malfunction Junction. This intersection of five roads, one the Brattleboro Food Co-op access, with a nearby train crossing is notoriously complicated and frustrating. A few years ago after much traffic study, planning, and, I am sure, money, a traffic light system was installed which, I am told, raised the "Quality of Service," a graceful technical term, from F to D; and that is that -- the best it can be!

We are now watching another intersection at work with similar quality of service results. It is the connection of politics and economics as the state of Vermont through its elected and appointed leaders attempts to create a policy for distributing the $10 million over five years that the Governor negotiated with Entergy as part of the shutdown deal. That promise is, as I have said, a benchmark in the country: the best result for a community of all the nuclear plant shutdowns that have occurred. Entergy and the governor deserve high praise and credit for working this out.

What we have seen in the last few months, after all the appeal periods expired and the memorandum of understanding was actually in force, has been somewhat less creative and inspiring. Just as too many lines and types of traffic enter Malfunction Junction, complicated by the just off-stage rail line, there are too many interests and too little guiding policy.

Economies are notoriously difficult to manage and stimulate as the past six years have taught us again. Rural economies are even more difficult as they have been under stress for more than 50 years while their core strengths, agriculture and manufacturing, withered. Rebuilding a deteriorating economy is long hard work: as new industries have to be created, a new workforce developed and recruited, and new sources of capital generated. These are not easy. More to the point they are high-risk activities; the possibility of failure or delay is rife at many points. People, it turns out, when motivated by seeing their economy deteriorate and empowered with knowledge and viable strategies are willing to take those risks -- they have no other choice than watch their communities continue to suffer.

But this is the Malfunction Junction because the processes through which these actions can be taken are not fundamentally economic but political; political in the best and grandest sense of how people make decisions that affect them all. But the political is also the realm of politics, which is the awkward process of leadership, elections and the mess of our common life.

The Windham/Entergy grant program, currently constituted as a revolving loan fund, is built around a frequently stated and emphasized goal of job creation. Certainly jobs are a high goal and we hear that refrain nationally constantly. The regional economy, however, well studied by SeVEDS, has right now a shortage of workers not a shortage of jobs. So, oddly creating more jobs will actually make a bad situation worse. Our local businesses that need high quality workers of all kinds have a terrible time hiring and the higher the level of skill or education required the harder the recruitment and retention. So, why set out on an explicit course of job creation when what is desperately needed is workers to take the jobs that exist now?

That is the malfunction junction of this situation: The economic requirement is for employees but the political requirement is for jobs. And since the political, the policy makers, control the process they get to put their needs at the forefront. I have to point out that Vermont is merely an example of a national theme. Jobs are easy to call for, hard to create and even harder to keep in an area if there are no employees. Jobs will go where the workers are -- that seems pretty fundamental.

There are some further dynamics to the Windham County situation that make the call for jobs odd. The great target for jobs is clearly the workforce at Vermont Yankee based on the assumption that when the plant closes those 650 people should become available and the region would love to keep them -- absolutely. We know, however, from observing other communities that have experienced nuclear plant closures that most of those employees will seek and take jobs at other nuclear facilities. Some will simply retire in place on good pensions. Confirmation of this is available in the daily paper from large employment ads by other nuclear power plants seeking to hire Vermont Yankee people. This fact has been known for some years and reported by the Post-VY Task Force. So the problem is not providing jobs for people who won't take them but creating an entire new set of businesses and jobs to strengthen the local economy, and building and recruiting a new set of workers to staff those and the existing businesses.

Of all places, Vermont ought to be able to avoid this classic policy malfunction junction -- we are small, we know each other, and we are smart enough to learn from others. Those are the positive qualities we need to leverage. We are devoted to our quality of life; we should be equally devoted to a high quality of service from our policy makers. We have to acknowledge that the demands of the political world do not always allow or tolerate good thinking, careful strategy and long term investment. Vermont has to do better -- we don't have a lot of time or endless amounts of money so the stakes are high. We have to perform at the highest level. Thankfully, Vermont is capable of that.

Jeffrey M. Lewis was executive director of the Brattleboro Development Credit Corporation for nearly eight years and founder of SeVEDS.


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