Our urgent need for economic development

Monday December 24, 2012

I greeted a Brattleboro acquaintance with the standard haven’t-seen-you-in-awhile question: "How are you doing?" I received a most unexpected response: "Great!"

I couldn’t help but notice her reaction. Nobody ever says, "Great!" so enthusiastically.

Turns out, after months of looking for work -- and coming close to losing her house -- she’d finally found a job.

"It’s so important to have meaningful work," I said.

She shook her head: "Oh, this isn’t meaningful work. It’s not in my field. It’s not a dream job. In fact, I can’t believe I’m doing it. But it’s work. Period. And I can keep my home."

There’s no getting around it. We have a genuine jobs problem here in Southeastern Vermont.

By just about every economic measure, the Windham Region is in decline. A presentation by the Southeastern Vermont Economic Strategies Group (SeVEDS) to the Windham Regional Commission last February laid out the bleak picture. This team -- an affiliate of the Brattleboro Development Credit Corporation and made up of individuals from both the public and private sector in Windham County -- initially formed to improve broadband and cell service in our area, but soon realized that our problems are much more complex than just bad communications services.

We lag behind New Hampshire, Massachusetts, the U.S. -- and Vermont as a whole -- in average wages, and our median age is significantly higher. This decline in young workers will most likely lead to the further disappearance of jobs. As companies can’t find well-trained, entry-level workers, they will fill these positions with commuters from outside our area or will leave all together. We’ve also fallen behind in technical skills. At a recent workforce readiness workshop offered by SeVEDS, in conjunction with Vermont Technical College and Community College of Vermont, regional employers sent the message loud and clear: We have to prepare our young workforce better. In addition to providing them with specific technical skills required for jobs in our area, we must more effectively connect these workers with potential jobs.

The percentage of wage-earning residents in our county has also declined. We have a much smaller percentage of these workers here in Windham County, when compared to the rest of the state, and more residents who receive government subsidies or live off investments. So, we have growing sectors at the low and high ends of the economic spectrum, and no growth in between. Our residents tend to be more highly educated when compared to the rest of the region, but this has not translated into higher wages. College graduates earn substantially more in both Cheshire County, New Hampshire, and in Hampshire County, Massachusetts. This is partly because the percentage of residents employed by the private sector has decreased in our area while those employed by the public sector has increased. This seems to imply a lack of economic risk-taking needed to develop an energetic and innovative regional economy.

Risk aversion is completely incongruous with our reputation as an arts incubator. Our cultural offerings are simply marvelous: A thriving circus school, a dynamic youth theater, the Vermont Jazz Center. And on and on. There is so much creative energy here that it feels like the area can barely contain the resulting vibrations. But we can’t sustain all these dynamic organizations if we don’t improve our regional economy.

Growing jobs and business will not hurt our reputation as a funky and imaginative community. And it’s wrong to think that the problem is intractable. I had a good friend tell me recently, "You’re becoming a true Vermonter -- you’re dabbling in all sorts of projects." I felt a certain pride at her observation, but also a deep longing for my region. We shouldn’t simply resign ourselves to cobbling together bits of income, but instead be actively working to bring good-paying jobs to the area.

Thankfully, there’s been a lot of good news coming from SeVEDS lately. Its Workforce Development Committee has recently partnered with the Vermont State Colleges to offer leadership and training events to support regional employers. And this group will soon be steered by a most capable hand: Patricia Moulton Powden. Powden -- currently Vermont’s Deputy Secretary for the Agency of Commerce and Community Development -- will bring her incomparable and much-needed experience and expertise to our region’s economic development efforts.

This excellent news is set against the backdrop of SeVEDS’ contract with ViTAL Economy Alliance to develop a Windham Region Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy (CEDS) for the 23 towns of Windham County plus Winhall, Weston, Searsburg and Readsboro. There will be public forums in March and May connected with the creation of this CEDS document. Watch for these announcements, and then attend the discussions for two reasons: First, we must all understand and accept the reality of our bleak economic landscape before we can get moving. Secondly, exciting ideas always bubble up when Vermonters put their heads together to solve a wicked problem.

I recently joined the SeVEDS Workforce Development Committee; I’m deeply concerned about the long-term health of our regional economy. I want my children to have the option to stay and work in the area when they’re older, although they will almost certainly make other plans -- despite my best intentions and machinations. In the past year, as I’ve watched several friends and acquaintances slip from the middle class, I’ve realized that we must be a both a vibrant arts community and a dynamic economic hub.

We all have a stake in this. Let’s not settle for an economy that barely keeps us afloat. Let’s create one that reflects the tide of creativity and innovation that surges here.

Rebecca Balint writes about history, education and culture. She welcomes your comments at bbalint37@gmail.com. Read her blog at www.reformer802.com/speakerscorner.


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