Our opinion: Vermont needs to diversify


On Wednesday morning Vermonters turned on their TVs and computers to learn about the massive snowstorm that swept through the Northeast, dumping as much as 18 inches on parts of New York and southern New England. Then we looked out our own windows and wondered, where's our share of that white gold?

No doubt there were some throughout the state who felt overwhelming relief that we didn't get hammered like our neighbors to the south. It meant less shoveling and safer driving conditions. But in a state that relies so heavily on snow, this week's non-weather event was a huge disappointment. Ski resorts, snowmobile clubs and businesses, and others whose livelihoods depend on that white fluffy stuff were feeling just a little green with envy.

The season started out OK, with at least two significant storms blanketing the state with up to a foot of snow. The average snowfall at the Burlington International Airport for this point in the winter is 37.5 inches, according to the Associated Press. This year it's at 34.2 inches, but the cold, snowy periods have been followed quickly by thaws and rain. The limited dustings we received over the past week or so didn't amount to much. In fact, we can still see grass sticking up through the snow in many parts of Windham County.

While the frigid temperatures of late have been a boon to the ski resorts, which have invested millions of dollars to make up for Mother Nature's lack of bounty, snowmobilers and the businesses that rely on them need the real thing.

Of course, winter is far from over and we're sure to get more snow in the coming weeks and months. But all of this fretting from one winter to the next makes us realize that Vermont as a whole relies too much on weather we cannot control. One mild winter can have long-term ramifications for many of our businesses, and that has a trickle-down effect on jobs, wages and tax revenue for the state.

Don't get us wrong; we love our winter activity businesses here. They are a big part of what makes Vermont such a great destination, and in a good year contribute a great deal to the economic well being of so many of our friends and neighbors, as well as the state coffers.

Having said that, though, Vermont needs to give more thought to diversifying its assets. Relying so heavily on tourism, whether it's skiers and snowmobilers or those attracted to our foliage and the rich culture of arts here in Windham County, leaves us in a constant state of flux, uncertain what to expect from one year to the next.

That's pretty much the same point made by Southeastern Vermont Economic Development Strategies in the Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy document released last month.

To quote from CEDS: "Quality of place and the ability to attract artists, free agents, and retired or semi-retired households are not sufficient conditions for long-term, sustainable growth and regional prosperity. Developing and maintaining community assets that contribute to quality of place, for example, requires steady growth in the region's tax base. Cultivating the region's appreciation for creative industries, such as artists, theater and writers, does little good if the next generation of residents cannot find employment that provides enough discretionary income to attend performances or donate to non-profit arts organizations. And retirees, while valuable members, leaders, and sources of discretionary income in any community, cannot offer much in the way of employment opportunities for the next generation of workers."

The document goes on to say that achieving sustainable development means "striking the right balance between preserving natural and cultural assets and growing the regional economy at a sufficient pace to provide the resources that are necessary to preserve those assets."

SeVEDS has highlighted several areas of economic growth opportunity that Vermont as a whole, and Windham County in particular should pursue. These include precision manufacturing, business and technical services, green building products and services, and niche agricultural products, as well as our hospitality, retail, arts and tourism industries.

Successfully growing these other industries will not only provide more long-term stability for the state, but will also solve some other nagging problems that have been a drag on our economic vitality. These include revising the population decline (especially younger Vermonters), improving workforce quality, and increasing the number of well-paying jobs.


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