This past Wednesday two consultants working with the Vermont Department of Economic Development and the state commissioner were in Middlebury promoting economic development. A good crowd turned out, an energetic and informative three-hour workshop ensued, and the group was invited to join a follow-up session to help fine-tune a statewide comprehensive economic development plan.
Hosted locally by the Addison County Economic Development Corporation and the Addison County Regional Planning Commission, the Vermont DED is sponsoring similar meetings with each of the state’s economic development corporations. The exercise to develop a statewide Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy is a first for the state and makes Vermont only the second state in the nation to do so. The initiative is part of Gov. Peter Shumlin’s 2012-2015 Strategic Plan and one of the key reasons to tackle process — financed entirely with federal funds — is that it facilitates federal money for projects that come out of the plan.
The broad goal of the initiative “is to solicit strategies and tactics for helping Vermont’s economy grow in a manner that improves wages and job opportunities, builds business, enhances quality of life and preserves Vermont’s brand, values and natural resources.”
But it is not just a plan about growing business. It also incorporates the education community, transportation issues, nonprofits, social services, housing and other interests and invites leaders from every aspect of our community. Per federal law, the make-up of the statewide CEDS committee, which monitors the statewide process from start to finish, can be composed of no more than 50 percent from private sector businesses. That ensures a wide spectrum of the state’s interests will be represented.
What’s not to like?
Here we have state government reaching out to every facet of our communities in every county in Vermont. Here is the state bureaucracy doing what many citizens routinely ask them to do: “Get out of from under Montpelier’s Golden Dome and come talk to us and get our feedback!”
That is precisely what this process is doing, and as strategic plans go this one ranks right up there with the best.
But there is no escaping the familiar worry: that it will be another strategic plan that makes a few headlines when it’s completed, garners congratulatory pats on the backs from the participants and then sits on a backroom shelf waiting for the political will to push the best ideas forward.
What’s needed early on is a commitment by the communities involved, the host institutions, the Legislature and the Shumlin administration to keep the CEDS report, due in the summer of 2014, in the fore of public consciousness until a good chunk of the strategy is implemented.
What’s needed is a commitment by the Legislature to provide adequate financing to see the best projects become reality. And what’s needed is for citizens at the local level to take the best of their own ideas and run with them.
As citizens we must understand that the state doesn’t have bottomless funds to grow every great idea to fruition. What the state cando is set the stage for creativity, and then help the best projects by providing contacts, seed grants, mentors and other soft forms of support — while expecting each regional group to grow its own garden of economic opportunities.
Two things too often undermine that process: 1) a Legislature that rejects the very idea of funding economic development because social needs are more pressing, and 2) the defeatist cynics in the state who yell into the echo chamber that government is the problem and then stymie the initiative.
To counter that, the Legislature must clue into the process sooner than later — this fall, not next January or, worse, next May — and consider the bigger picture: that without a vibrant economy, our social problems will only compound; with a vibrant economy, the state can make it better for everyone. And naysayers should step outside their echo chamber and repeat with an entrepreneurial spirit: ‘We can do this; we can make it work by working together.’
What we don’t want is for this to be another excellent opportunity sent down the drain.
Angelo S. Lynn