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Guest Editorial: Some answers for Vermont are local — and in the past

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Posted on July 13, 2017 |
By Stephen C. Terry



There is no more critical public policy debate now in Vermont than how to create a future that will provide opportunity and prosperity for generations to come.

Young couples wonder almost every day how they can financially manage to live here, (especially in Chittenden County), find affordable rent or buy a home, pay for childcare, pay off student loans, and if there are prospects here for advancement in their careers.

On the other end of the age spectrum are older Vermonters wondering if they can afford to live out their senior years in their home state where they have had careers, grown families, and in the place they love. Many of these older Vermonters have seen their children move out of the state for careers, advancement and opportunity. While some of these fleeing Vermont natives would like to return as they start having their own children, they are discouraged by what they perceive as lack of opportunity and the high cost of living.

This very issue was highlighted at a recent Vermont State Chamber of Commerce Expo luncheon at which the Vermont Futures Project Vision for Vermont by 2040 was the topic of discussion. (Disclosure: I am a member of the Vermont Futures Board).

A major concern is the workforce supply gap. In order to build a growing economy so that our state continues to be a desired place to live, work, and do business, Vermont will need annual new workforce additions of 10,975 people each year between now and 2040.

In order to accomplish that laudable goal, Vermont has to set some aggressive growth targets:

•  Be in the top 10 for U.S. median household income. We are now 21st in the ranking at $59,494.

•  Achieve a 4 percent growth in the grand list per year. We are now growing at 1.4 percent per year based on 2015 statistics.

•  Build new or retrofit 5,000 housing units per year. We are now at 1,998 housing starts based on 2015 statistics, up from 1,546 in 2014.

•  Be in the top 25 of the states for ranking in gross state product per capita. We now rank 34th at $48,344.

The big number to keep in mind is that since 2000 Vermont has experienced little or no population growth; that is due to deaths, Vermonters between ages 25 and 40 moving away, and a very modest birthrate. Vermont’s population in 2015 was 626,042. Sadly, many towns are losing population every day.

So what to do? The work ahead for the Vermont Futures Project is to develop action plans to help Vermonters meet their desired prosperity goal by 2040.

One thing is very clear: To achieve this economic future we cannot rely solely on new state policy mandated from the top down. The action plan will also require local and regional planning and development commissions to create strategies that best fit their region, and their local conditions.

Thinking locally and regionally is needed. The rest of Vermont will never, even if it ever wanted to, be like Chittenden County, the state’s most vibrant county. The stark reality is that there are now two Vermonts — Chittenden County and the other 13 counties, some stronger than others and some in serious decline. Acknowledging this growing gap is essential if we are to achieve a vibrant Vermont by 2040.

Finally, and most importantly, the private sector has to drive Vermont’s future:

•  Keep innovating.

•  Seek new business opportunities from customers around the world for products and intellectual capital based here.

•  Develop new alliances with Vermont’s higher education institutions.

•  Work with state leaders of technical and vocational education schools for new strategies to train workers.

•  Develop new sources of capital to finance Vermont start-ups as well as more mature businesses.

•  Take on this leadership responsibility now if Vermont is to grow.

As we look to the future, it is helpful to take a look back at the past when Vermont was smaller, more homogeneous, more contained economically, and driven by local priorities.

Not that the past in Vermont was perfect. Eighty years ago, Vermont was a still a place where hillside farmers tried to scratch out a living and a natural resources-based economy had its tough challenges. Rural poverty was ever present across the state, and painfully visible on its back roads.

Yet, as described in the 1937 Vermont Year Book published by the National Survey in Chester, there were some interesting ideas and programs in place that we should ponder for the future.

The notion of free college education is very much in vogue since the 2016 presidential campaign. However, in 1937, Vermont residents pursuing teacher training at UVM, Castleton, Johnson and Lyndon were able to attend tuition free as long as they agreed to teach in Vermont public schools. That helped keep Vermonters home after college with reduced student debt.

The Vermont State School of Agriculture in Randolph Center, which was advertised as a “Good School for Farm Boys,” was tuition free with “low maintenance charges.” Now that small dairy operations (cows, sheep and goats) and food for table products are now cutting edge, here is another valuable “back to the future” idea.

Most intriguing was that in 18 cities around the U.S. there were “Vermont Associations,” links for native Vermonters who moved away but still wanted to keep in close contact to their home state.

Let’s keep the spirit of Vermont alive to entice Vermonters to come back home and help propel needed growth, and let’s be really serious and actively recruit new migration to Vermont, something we haven’t seen since the decade of the 1960s and 1970s.

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