Welcoming immigrants could reverse shrinking population

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BRATTLEBORO — If current trends continue, the next census slated to start this year will show that Vermont's population continues to shrink. Deaths outnumber births and people are hesitant to move to the Green Mountain State to help replenish its population. This is happening in rural communities around the country, but Vermont is one of the hardest hit.

In response, the Boston Federal Reserve in partnership with the state of Vermont launched the Working Communities Challenge, a grant competition that supports local collaborative efforts to build strong, healthy economies and communities in the Green Mountain State.

Stakeholders from both Bennington County and Windham County joined together to apply for a planning grant and received $15,000 to begin the process. The initial grant will be used to prepare over the next six months an application for a $300,000, three-year grant. That grant is intended to be used to make the Southern Vermont Zone "a safe, welcoming, and supportive places for all residents, including legal immigrants, first- and second-generation Americans, and foreign-born workers, students, and their families," according to documents supplied by the Brattleboro Development Credit Corporation. "The mission is to develop a 'New Vermonter' community network by creating a cross-sector collaboration, scaled to become a robust, inclusive, and sustainable system of support ..."

The BDCC is working with the Windham Regional Commission, Bennington County Regional Commission, and the Bennington County Industrial Corporation. Other partners include SIT Graduate Institute, Southeast Vermont Transit, Bellows Falls Area Development Corporation and the Community Asylum Seekers Project.

"This is really about creating a system for accepting new Americans and new people to Vermont," said Bill Colvin, BCRC's assistant director and community development program coordinator. "Putting that system in place, to create a welcoming environment for immigrants and others, will pay dividends for all Vermonters."

"If we don't find a way to bring new people to southern Vermont and we continue to lose people, it will hurt our businesses, schools and transportation systems," said BDCC Executive Director Adam Grinold. "Every Vermonter knows there are not enough Vermonters to work the jobs that exist today. Employers must decide to continue to invest capital in their facilities and operations to remain competitive without confidence in current and future access to workers. These investments are already being curtailed, and that is how we shrink ourselves into a downward economic cycle that is hard, if not impossible to break. Every job and every Vermonter counts and we need more Vermonters."

"This project will build upon Community Asylum Seekers Project's successful approach to the resettlement of asylum seekers, and scale that up to welcome more people and develop a regional system," states a document explaining the focus of the grant application. "This will require expanding already extensive collaborations with schools, churches, employers, transportation providers, human service providers, and communities."

"We're very excited to be a partner in this initiative," said CASP Executive Director Steve Crofter. "The involvement of all the other players and the resources they bring to the table will make a huge difference in our ability to provide the services our asylum-seeking guests need. At the same time, our experience in bringing asylum seekers into our communities will be beneficial to the Working Communities project as a whole, as we collaborate with the other partners in creating a systemic shift in our region's ability to welcome, not only asylum seekers, but legal immigrants of all kinds."

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The Southern Vermont Zone is made up of Windham County and Bennington County and the town of Weston in Windsor County. The zone was designated as an area of special economic need by the Vermont Legislature and is the planning area for the federally funded Southern Vermont Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy.

The first Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy, completed in 2014 by Southeastern Vermont Economic Development Strategies, identified the need to increase the size and quality of the workforce as a means of bolstering the regional economy. An aging workforce, people 20 to 35 leaving the state, and limited immigration has led to stagnating and decreasing availability of labor, students for the schools, and volunteers for civic and community organizations, notes the 2014 CEDS, a conclusion that was restated in the CEDS presented in 2019.

"There is a focus on legal immigration, but it will benefit all who choose to relocate to southern Vermont," said Grinold. "The intention is to develop a system that helps welcome new Americans to become new Vermonters."

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Colvin said one of the reasons people don't move to Vermont is because it's not diverse enough for them. "Having more diversity is an attraction to people looking to relocate."

Immigrants also have a documented track record of spurring economic growth when they settle into a community, said Jonathan Cooper, the BCRC's community and economic development specialist.

"We have plenty of examples of the vitality and value of immigrant populations in small and rural towns," he said. "There are strong levels of business ownership and strong connections to community services and community organizations."

Colvin said that decisions coming out of the White House are hurting small rural states like Vermont.

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"There are headwinds at the national level with regard to immigration," said Bill Colvin, BCRC's assistant director and community development program coordinator. "We're acutely aware of that."

But Colvin said it would behoove the region to have systems in place to welcome new Americans if and when things change in Washington, D.C.

Alex Beck, BDCC's workforce and education program manager, said over the next six months, the team will identify all the assets in the Southern Vermont Zone and assess the opportunities to grow the region's population. "The No. 1 thing the Boston Fed was clear about is this is not for programs or initiatives. It's for a transformation of systems already in place."

Evaluating systems already in place will also benefit current Vermont residents and not just people hoping to relocate here, said Grinold.

"There are significant support services, opportunities and resources for Vermonters," said Grinold. "A lot of what we are doing in this project is making sure opportunities and resources Vermonters already have access to are made accessible to new Americans."

To learn more, visit www.brattleborodevelopment.com or www.bcrcvt.org or email Beck at abeck@brattleborodevelopment.com or

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


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