Vermont's economic future is uncertain


BRATTLEBORO >> Vermont has incredible business start up rates and survival, according to a report presented by the Vermont Futures Project.

"Vermont continues to be a place where businesses start and don't die, which is about the sixth highest survival rate in the country, and that's huge and says something considering what a small economy it is," said Jennifer Stromsten, who, with Jeff Lewis, was retained by the Vermont Chamber Foundation to develop a plan for the Vermont Futures Project, which is an effort to improve Vermont's economic performance.

However, said Stromsten, "We can't go towards the things that we emotionally respond to very well, whether it's small businesses or farmers, at the expense entirely of the things that actually fill the tax coffers frankly, that pay the rent, that pay the piper, I mean that is the deal. And I think we are really trying to put this in perspective, hence the bar charts that say, 'this is really the GDP of all of the sectors,' and we can say that manufacturing is going away and shrinking, but it's really big."

The Vermont Futures Project is a new initiative that hopes to make the reality of the state's economy crystal clear for citizens through leadership, research and education. The project launched its site,, on Jan. 8. The data presented at the website highlights key indicators regarding Vermont's economic growth which they hope will stimulate conversations that result in positive change.

"This data is saying here are Vermont's realties," Stromsten told the Reformer.

The statistics come about through research from the UMass Center for Economic Development. The hope is that numbers will provide a broad overview of the Vermont economy and its key trends. In particular Lewis and Stromsten long to highlight Vermont's declining workforce and the lack of housing that the working family or student can afford.

"Even if we had this growth of population, we don't have a place to house them," said Lewis.

In preparation for the launch of the website, Stromsten said that she and Lewis spent six months in conversations with 50-plus people about what kind of information would be of use to them about the economy. On their website, the "Dashboard" tab reflects a lot of those conversations. The page shows six different dials: economic activity; innovation and entrepreneurs; workforce and talent; Vermont demographics; quality of place and infrastructure and investment. Each of these dials shows an "economy score," which is Vermont's average in those specific categories. For example "workforce and talent" has an economy score of 23 out of 100, and below it explains why this number is a concern and what factors play a role in the turnout.

The website reinforces, "unemployment in Vermont, long below US average, is around 4 percent (2014) pointing to a challenging labor market for employers."

Lewis further outlines this point of question in their research that shows that there are 320,000 people who are working in Vermont, but that there is an annual deficit of 24,675 of the population of Vermont.

"Pretty much everyone who is able to work, is working," said Lewis.

According to Stromsten's data the size of Vermont's workforce has not grown for a decade and employers increasingly import the talent they need. One connection that they have drawn is the declining population of 25- to 44 year-olds, which is down 22.8, down from 28.9 percent in 2000. Stromsten and Lewis believe that as the "baby boomers" retire, this may produce a shortage of the young people needed to replace those workers.

According to a presentation provided by the Vermont Futures Project, one of the most prominent missions of the project is to offer favorable circumstances for Vermont citizens.

"Vermont needs an equally powerful component of opportunity for its people and businesses," The Vermont Futures Project highlighted in its presentation.

In selecting and scoring this data presented, the project ties in the six pillars of architecture to highlight three points: "what we do, who we are and where we live." The data is selected and analyzed by UMass Center for Economic Development, Henry Renski, Director. The Vermont Futures Project Board studied this data and rated each pillar by level of concern. For example the economy and entrepreneurship are linked for a few reasons stated in the project presentation, "innovation is the life-blood of economic activity; news ways of doing thing as well as new things are critical and Vermont Entrepreneurship has a rural flavor — lots of one person businesses."

While improvement is needed in Vermont in some areas, the data highlights the state in high ratings as a quality of place. The presentation states that Vermont treasures its land and heritage and that revenue has forgone to preserve land in perpetuity; small community life enhances social capital and contains vision and Act 250 was but visionary but incomplete, no land use plan was ever written. The "quality of place" dial has a 80 out of 100 rating.

According to Lewis and Stromsten, they hope to break some of the assumptions of what is most valuable to Vermont in terms of what helps it thrive economically. According to their "GDP Industry" under "Economic Activity," in 2014 the GDP by industry is highest among real estate, government and manufacturing.

Stromsten believes that too often conversations about the economy in Vermont surround quality of place and people, but omit topics regarding manufacturing and the financial services sector.

"Quality of place and people are really great conversations, but they are not really talking about the things that make-up the bulk of the economic activity," said Stromsten. "If you're going to grow your tax revenue in your spending to execute on your environmental and social values, you're really going to have to grow your economy in a way that is healthy."

Vermont Chamber Foundation funded the project's risk capital, but the project is its own non-profit and will survive through donations.

For 10 years Lewis has worked in the area as the former director of Brattleboro Development Credit Corp. He also is the founder of Southeastern Vermont Economic Development Strategies. Through his work at BDCC, he met Betsy Bishop, President of the Vermont Chamber of Commerce, who eventually sought Lewis for this Vermont Futures Project. Lewis brought Stromsten, a recent master's graduate of the University of Massachusetts Regional Planning Program into this project since they had co-founded a former project regarding the closing of Vermont Yankee,the Institute for Nuclear Host Communities.

Maddi Shaw can be reached at 802-254-2311 ext 275.


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