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Economy in rural parts of Vermont still hurting

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2017-11-08

By Ivan Shadis, as seen in vtdigger.org: https://vtdigger.org/2017/11/08/economy-rural-parts-vermont-still-hurtin...

A program to boost Vermont’s farm and forest industries is having some success, but the state’s economy is still hurting, with about six people a day leaving the workforce, according to speakers at a Statehouse forum.

The hearing Wednesday before the Legislature’s Rural Development Caucus drew more than 20 speakers representing municipal, business, nonprofit and education interests.

Economic difficulties persist despite the success of funds the state has been providing to help grow the economy’s farm and forest sectors, speakers said.

Paul Costello, executive director of the Vermont Council on Rural Development, said working lands funds that the Legislature began providing in 2012 have generated 428 new jobs.

“A job for every $9,000 – which is unprecedented in state funds or federal funds,” said Costello.

Costello said while the funds had helped support young entrepreneurs farming pigs and churning ice cream, and even to regenerate the apple industry in Addison County, many traditional industries are in jeopardy.

Ted Brady agreed. “Jobs are disappearing, people are leaving, and our communities are suffering,” said Brady, deputy secretary of the Agency of Commerce and Community Development. He said it was the greatest transition rural Vermont has ever faced, adding that while there are more than 10,000 jobs open in the state six people leave the workforce each day.

Brady said the state needed to be known for more than working lands to draw people to its workforce.“If they want to be a dairyman, they can. Also if they want to be an advanced manufacturing engineer they can do that too and understand that’s here in Vermont,” said Brady.

Brady said that the economic success of rural communities in the century to come would depend on expanding infrastructure, like wastewater treatment and broadband, and towns coming together to plan their economic development. “Every town is different, but every town needs to be together and have a common goal,” said Brady.

House Speaker Mitzi Johnson, D-South Hero, said that there was growing disparity between Vermont’s urban areas and the rural areas where most Vermonters live and work. The U.S. Census Bureau defines as “rural” areas with fewer than 2,500 people, a figure describing three fourths of Vermont’s municipalities according to 2010 census data. Chittenden County, which includes the Burlington metropolitan area, has a median household income about $10,000 higher than the average statewide.

“We won’t be able to solve all our issues until we figure out how to make economies and jobs and strong livelihoods work in all areas of Vermont,” said Johnson.

Many of those who testified said education is key to the economic future of rural communities.

“The future of our rural communities and the future of Vermont State Colleges are inextricably linked,” said Jeb Spaulding, chancellor of the Vermont State Colleges. According to Spaulding, 8 out of 10 students who graduate from the state colleges remain in Vermont. With 2,000 employees working at locations across the state to serve thousands more students, Spaulding says the activity the state schools bring “are the primary fuel of rural regions of this state.”

Some said that the state’s push to consolidate K-12 schools hurt small towns which depend on their schools as civic centers.

“The future of our town is really contingent on the strength of its public institutions and a main public institution for a town like Cabot and like many small towns is its school,” said Rory Thibault, co-owner of a hardware store and school board member in Cabot. Thibault said hundreds of people come into town every day because of the school. “If we were to become a non-operating district – how many of those people would cease coming there? How quickly would our village store collapse?” Thibault asked.

When faced with pressure to close their school, Cabot has consistently voted to keep it open, once in 2013 and again this October.

“If we allow our small K-12 schools throughout the state to go extinct through policy – what are we doing to those towns? We are depriving them of a social structure, a focal point for community, and a concentration of talent” said Thibault.

The importance of well defined civic centers to rural development was brought up from another angle by Michael Moser, a coordinator at the Vermont State Data Center. Moser works with census data, and says that he’s observed the decline in population from rural areas – but says that in many cases these people are moving to more urban areas in state – mainly Chittenden County.

“Why doesn’t the rest of the state experience the economic development occurring in Chittenden County?” asked Moser.

“We have these amazing existing assets in our villages and communities and if we put resources into those areas we’re impacting the greatest number of people immediately and then those impacts can resonate out through the rest of the communities that are served by these traditional market centers,” said Moser.

Speakers also brought up the expansion of broadband internet, access to health care, particularly to address opiate addiction and mental health, and more transportation as important to rural development.