Putney business owners, state reps talk community development

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PUTNEY — During a meeting in the community room of the Putney General Store, local business owners talked about Vermont regulations that are impeding the way they do business.

"It irks me every time when I am walking through the aisles of Rite Aid going liquor shopping, why am I spending on bottles of liquor on retail prices?" asked Stephanie Bonin, co-owner of Duo Restaurant in Brattleboro and a resident of Dummerston. "As a restaurant owner, I have to go and buy just like everyone else at retail prices."

Other states, she said, allow restaurant and bar owners to purchase liquor at wholesale prices.

Charles Dodge, of Putney Mountain Winery and Spirits, also had concerns about the way the state regulates liquor sales.

"Vermont is what is called a control state," said Dodge. "It's proudly exclaimed in the brochure explaining control state that we are not encouraging the sales of liquor. This is a state that needs that revenue and we don't encourage it?"

Dodge also noted that Vermont's process for listing a new alcohol product is cumbersome and takes more time than necessary.

J.D. McCliment, owner of the eponymous pub on Route 5, said he mistakenly failed to file his six-month meals and rooms tax form and didn't know his liquor license was revoked until he went to the local store to purchase liquor for his establishment.

"So I race up to Montpelier to ask why didn't I get a notification and I was told we haven't figured that out yet," said McCliment. "But they can call Rite Aid?"

"I will talk to [the Division of Liquor Control] about that," said Mike Mrowicki, who helped arrange the meeting, which was attended by about 20 people, including Mike Schirling, the secretary of the Agency of Commerce and Community Development, Ted Brady, deputy secretary of the Agency of Commerce and Community Development and Joan Goldstein, the commissioner of the Department of Economic Development.

"It's hard enough to run a small business, we don't want to make it harder," said Mrowicki, who represents Putney, Westminster and Dummerston in the Vermont House or Representatives. Mrowicki was accompanied by Nader Hashim, who also represents the three towns in the House.

The meeting was an opportunity for Schirling, Brady and Goldstein to talk about efforts the state is conducting to assist businesses large and small, encourage tourism and get people to move to Vermont. It was also an opportunity for them to hear what the state could do better to help businesses such as Duo, J.D. McCliment and Putney Mountain Winery and Spirits.

Streamlining the liquor control and permitting process was just one aspect the business owners brought up. They also talked about state regulations that limit the way they can advertise their businesses, especially as it pertains to signage.

Putney General Store co-manager Lyssa Papazian said she started the application with the state to get signage for the store but gave up because it was so difficult.

"I said just forget it," said Papazian.

McCliment, who has a sign at Exit 4 directing them to his pub asked if he could also put a sign on Route 5 in the village center to encourage people to drive just a little farther north.

"I was told [by VTrans] you don't get one on Main Street because you haven't changed direction," he said.

Mrowicki said attempts to change the signage regulations in Vermont "Have run into a buzzsaw."

"There is only one thing more political than Act 250 and that is signage," he said.

Even in the last 18 months, said Mrowicki, there have been attempts to modernize how the Vermont Travel Information Council regulates signage, but to no avail.

Schirling and Goldstein took notes about the complaints and promised to bring them back to Montpelier.

Schirling noted that one of the state's goals over the next few years is to "modernize" many of its policies and processes to make Vermont more business friendly. Most notably, he said, is an update to Act 250, Vermont's Land Use and Development Act, which was passed in 1970.

"No one is talking about modernizing Act 250 to the detriment of the landscape or the ecology or the things that are critical to maintaining Vermont's identity," he said. "However, we need to remove barriers ... in places it makes sense to encourage development."

Schirling said updates to Act 250 might allow developers to do more in downtowns, business centers and industrial parks with less red tape.

"We should be looking at ways to incentivize cluster and infill development," he said. "Young people and our aging demographic are saying that's what they want."

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Clustering housing and businesses in locations such as the center of Putney reduce transportation and infrastructure costs while building community, said Schirling.

Schirling also spoke about initiatives or projects that are not well known outside of Montpelier or have received some negative comment in the media.

That includes Vermont's Remote Worker Grant Program, which offered people up to $10,000 if they relocated Vermont while working remotely for an out-of-state employer.

"The return is substantial," said Schirling. On average, the state has spent about $3,800 per applicant. As of the beginning of August, 56 applications were approved, totaling 140 new residents, when you account for all family members. The average age of applicants has been 38.

Schirling said the $3,800 is less than the one-year return on taxes from the new residents.

"Say what you want about whether we should be targeting existing residents or out-state-workers, it pays for itself right away," he said.

The Legislature recently approved a new worker incentive that will pay people up to $5,000 if they come to work for an existing business, said Goldstein.

"In other areas, and Putney may be one of them, they could earn up to $7,500," she said.

Despite these programs, said Goldstein, 80 percent of the Agency's efforts are spent on working on economic development with existing businesses and communities around the state.

Schirling also asked the attendees what they thought was the No. 1 Vermont export. A number responded maple syrup.

"That's what most people say," he said. While Vermont is the leading producer of maple syrup in the country, said Schirling, microchips are Vermont's No. 1 export.

"We're also known for tourism, outdoor recreation and our small communities," he said. "The challenge is, that's not the only story in Vermont and it's on;y partially resonant with young people today."

Vermont has to do a better job at messaging, said Schirling, if it wants to encourage 12,000 people or more to move to the state each year.

"We need that just to fill the vacant jobs we have," he said.

Many of the attendees asked how they can market their businesses, especially given the costs of buying advertising, both inside and outside of the state.

"For a small business like this," said Papazian, "it's out of reach. If the state can help us plug into regional marketing, that would be huge for us."

"We need help," said McCliment.

"The marketing piece is always challenging," said Billy Straus, interim director of Next Stage Arts Project. "What are we collectively doing to make Putney and southern Vermont a destination for great arts, great entertainment and great food. Getting people to relocate to Vermont is the end game, but you don't get them to relocate until you get them here to do something fun."

They discussed using thinkvermont.com and the Vermont Community Atlas as portals of entry for websites already established by organizations, municipalities and businesses.

Schirling admitted the $3 million the Legislature has allotted for the state's marketing budget doesn't go very far.

"There is a general skepticism about marketing dollars in the Legislature," he said. "We should be spending $20 to $30 million like our neighbors."

Adam Grinold, executive director of the Brattleboro Development Credit Corporation, Windham County's regional development authority, suggested those in attendance consider using the BDCC's bi-weekly newsletter to help them get the word out.

"We are trying to create that communications hub," he said.

Bob Audette can be contacted at 802-254-2311, ext. 151, or raudette@reformer.com.


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