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October 27th, 2008

Farmers keep eye on immigration policy during election season


ADDISON COUNTY — In a little more than a week American voters are going to cast their votes in an historic election as the nation faces one of its worst economic crises.

For area dairy farmers who have become more and more dependent on migrant laborers, one issue has transcended party affiliation: immigration reform. And for many there is an urgent need for something to happen.

“We need a realistic immigration policy — a system with a good and solid policy including a reasonable border control discouraging illegal immigration, but open to a thoughtful program permitting migrant workers to enter the United States to work in industries that American workers do not want to work in,” said John Roberts, who keeps 200 cows on his Cornwall farm and employs two migrant laborers.

Today, Vermont’s dairy farms employ an estimated 2,000 migrant workers, 500 of which work in Addison County. Migrant workers help with milking cows, working in the barns, and maintaining the daily operation of dairy farming.

“If I were to snap my fingers to remove every migrant worker in America, it would bring the country to a standstill. They fill low-skilled but very important jobs,” Roberts said.

“It’s not just agriculture and not just Vermont. The Hispanic workforce is booming nationally,” pointed out Tim Howlett, who milks 950 cows on his Bridport spread. “The way I view it is that you can either import the labor or export the jobs. Do you want to buy milk that’s produced in a country that has nowhere near the regulations and safety net that we do here?”

Howlett employs three migrant workers.

full story

October 23rd

'Overflow' homeless shelter sought for county


VERGENNES — Local advocates for the homeless are searching for one or more “overflow” shelters to accommodate what they believe could be a record number of people out in the cold in Addison County this winter.

The overflow shelter(s) are part of an emergency response plan for homelessness that leaders of the John Graham Emergency Shelter are putting together for the coming months, when people now living in cars and tents must find warmer quarters.

Meanwhile, advocates in other Vermont counties are also working on their own emergency response plans, which they hope will garner some state funding when Vermont’s Joint Fiscal Committee convenes next month.

The state’s shelters have already seen a increase of 10 to 20 percent in clients compared to the same time last year, according to Elizabeth Ready, executive director of the John Graham Emergency Shelter on Vergennes.

The helpline Vermont 2-1-1 received approximately 2,400 calls last month from people inquiring about food, lodging and fuel, Ready noted.

“Basically, there is a sense that we don’t known what’s going to happen this winter,” Ready said.

Ready gives the John Graham Shelter board regular updates on the numbers of people seeking services. Recent updates indicate that the shelter has been unable to meet demand, even with a new transitional housing project on East Street (see story, Page 1A).

The John Graham shelter current refers homeless people it cannot accommodate to other shelters in Chittenden or Rutland counties. In some cases, overflow clients are put up in area motels where they unfortunately don’t have access to support services.

full story

Connor Homes hit by layoffs


MIDDLEBURY — After several years of rapid expansion, Middlebury-based Connor Homes has scaled back operations and trimmed staff as business slows in the current economic downturn.

About 50 people now work for the homegrown company, which specializes in colonial reproduction “kit” homes assembled in the 115,000-square-foot Route 7 building that is the former home of Standard Register.

That means the employee base is down around 20 from just the past spring, when Connor Homes officials reported booming business even as the national housing market was slumping. Officials back in May said that sales had tripled during the previous year.

But Connor Homes Chief Operating Officer Holly Kelton confirmed on Tuesday that many prospective customers have been putting their orders on hold in view of recent events on Wall Street.

“In September, a number of our customers decided to postpone production of homes,” Kelton said. “We have temporarily scaled back operations.”

Connor Homes began restructuring at its plant in August, Kelton said, replacing some of its workers with others who had different “skill levels.” She said the company started reducing its employee base last month, primarily in the design and production departments.

Gabe McGuigan of Brandon worked as an architect designer at Connor Homes until he was let go in July. McGuigan said he noticed times getting tougher when fewer orders for average-sized homes (around 2,000 square feet) were being taken on by work crews. That left smaller projects — like sheds and garages — or larger homes that were not as profitable to the company, according to McGuigan.

“The drop began at the end of June and went on from there,” said McGuigan, who added the company at one point had to shut down the shop “for a couple of weeks because there was nothing to do.”

full story

Local housing prices holding steady


ADDISON COUNTY — Despite nationwide gloom and doom in the real estate sector and a drop in home sales in Vermont and Addison County, there is evidence that the values of the homes that most state and local residents own have held their own.

According to information on the Vermont Department of Taxes Web site, the median value of homes on 6 acres or fewer (described as R-I homes on property transfer returns) sold in Addison County through the first nine months of 2008 is $213,500. That represents an increase of about $6,000, or 2.9 percent, from the median value over the entire 12 months of 2007.

Statewide, the median sales price of an R-I home in the first nine months of 2007 — the price point at which an equal number of homes sold for either less and more money — was $206,000, an increase of $6,000, or 3 percent, from all of 2006.

Independent real estate appraiser Bill Benton of Vergennes said he is not ready to call that good news, especially considering that fewer R-I homes are selling this year in Addison County than in 2007. Through Sept. 30, 2008, 128 R-I homes in Addison County sold, while 252 R-I homes sold in all of 2007.

Benton said that sales figure for all of 2008 will be lucky to hit 150 this year, but he is happy to see prices hold their own.

“I’m not saying that’s definitely a positive trend, but I’m saying it’s at least stable,” he said.

National Bank of Middlebury President Ken Perine also sees stable values in the home sales his business is tracking, although he wouldn’t rule out a price drop of 5 percent or less. Perine said typically Vermont, including Addison County, does not see the wild swings in real estate value that markets elsewhere do. 

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October 20th

Film takes multicultural look at Lake Champlain history


VERGENNES — The Vergennes Opera House on Friday will debut a work by filmmaker Caro Thompson — a documentary set for a December premiere on Vermont Public Television — on the century-and-half in Lake Champlain’s history beginning in 1609, when the region’s native population first interacted with the European newcomers to North America.

Thompson, who will discuss the film at a reception following the 7 p.m. screening, said “Champlain: The Lake Between,” is an effort to show history from all points of view, not just those of the English settlers who eventually dominated the Northeastern United States.

Thompson, who has produced five films in collaboration with VPT, first heard in 2003 of the 2009 quadricentennial celebration of Samuel de Champlain becoming the first European to see the lake that now bares his name, and said the idea for the film came quickly.

“I immediately saw it as an opportunity to tell a multicultural story that is often not the approach to colonial history,” Thompson said, adding, “I believe very strongly that history needs to be inclusive. And it’s usually told from the perspective of the folks who won ... The story of the Lake Champlain region is a story of the Abenaki perspective, the Mohawk perspective, the French perspective, the English perspective, the American perspective. It’s a multicultural story, and that’s rarely told.”

Thompson also quickly picked up allies in the effort to tell that story. Elsa Gilbertson, who directs the Chimney Point Historic Site in Addison for the Vermont Division of Historic Preservation, and state archaeologist Giovanna Peebles were working on a grant for a major archaeological investigation of former French settlements along Addison County’s lakefront, in tandem with the Bixby Library in Vergennes.

full story

Free health clinic returns to Vergennes


VERGENNES — A nonprofit agency and a city physicians’ office will soon team up to restore free health care services to those with little or no coverage.

The Vergennes Open Door Clinic will offer medical services to needy residents every other Thursday, from 6 to 9 p.m., beginning Oct. 23, at the Little City Family Practice at 10 North St. Community Health Services of Addison County (CHSAC) is spearheading the clinic, with the help and cooperation of Dr. Tim Bicknell of the Little City Family Practice.

Ken Dabbs, executive director of CHSAC, said the new clinic is being offered in response to inquiries from an increasing number of area residents who are finding themselves with inadequate health care coverage. Those people used to be able to get basic health care services at an open door clinic CHSAC briefly established at the John Graham Emergency Shelter in Vergennes. That clinic closed last year after a brief run, however, when funding dried up.

“While the clinic was (at the shelter) it had a pretty high utilization rate by patients of the Vergennes area,” Dabbs said, noting 166 patients were served by volunteer health care professionals at the shelter-based  facility in 2006.

“When the Vergennes clinic ceased to exist, patients had to travel to Middlebury,” Dabbs said, alluding to the Middlebury Open Door Clinic located in Suite 2 of the Vermont Sun Fitness Center building at 812 Exchange St. The Middlebury clinic has received around 600 client visits thus far in 2008, a figure that is “way up” compared to the same period last year, according to Dabbs.

“I think the current economic issues are magnifying this problem,” Dabbs said.

full story

Bristol senior care home earns award fro programs


BRISTOL — Drawing acclaim for innovative programming for senior citizens, Bristol’s Living Well — a residential care facility dedicated to holistic care for elders — will be honored next week at an awards ceremony in Montpelier.

The care facility has snagged one of seven awards being given out this year by the Governor’s Commission on Healthy Aging to facilities and individual providers in Vermont, earning the title of “Program Champion.”

For anyone who has seen Living Well’s vivacious drumming circle in action, it’s an award well deserved.

The four-year-old facility, housed in a 105-year-old home on Maple Street, began its drumming program around a year and a half ago. Living Well administrator Dee Deluca attended a conference where she saw a film about a man who did drumming with vets in Veterans Administration hospitals — and when she returned, she mentioned the idea to the Living Well staff.

Activities Director Dechen Rheault, who heads up the band, said she wished she’d videotaped the project from the beginning, if only to document what she said has been a dramatic change in the residents.

“The most amazing thing for me is to see the transformation of the residents,” she said. She’s watched residents change from “very shy or more inward people” to enthusiastic, outgoing musicians, despite the fact that all except for perhaps one band member had never played an instrument before.

“Those transformations are so apparent, so apparent,” she said.

On any given day, between seven and 10 residents (the facility is home to 11 in all) show up for drumming practice, and Bristol neighbors, residents’ family members and members of the Living Well staff frequently join the drumming circle.

full story

October 16th

County school enrollment continues to fall


ADDISON COUNTY — Despite national trends of rising public school enrollments, Vermont schools are struggling to balance high costs and shrinking student populations — a problem that could prove especially trying for Addison County schools, where the total number of students has dropped slightly faster than the state average.

Between 2000 and 2008, the county’s student population fell 11.6 percent. Statewide, public school enrollment dropped 10.5 percent over that same period. Nationally, enrollment for public primary and secondary schools over that eight-year stretch rose over 4 percent.

With state education funding dependent upon the number of students attending a school, falling enrollments can be problematic for officials charged with balancing school budgets. The revenue generated by enrollment supports overhead costs like transportation and building maintenance — costs that continue to go up, despite shrinking student populations.

“We definitely are paying attention to (these trends), with enrollment numbers going down and the cost still increasing,” said Jill Remick, the communications director for the Vermont Department of Education.

And in a year when school budgets are bound to be tight — and new legislation could make the budget approval process more difficult — the state’s spending-per-pupil yardstick could be more important than ever.

Addison Northeast Supervisory Union Business Manager Greg Burdick said that he is keeping his eye on that all-important spending-per-pupil number — the number against which the state measures every school’s spending plan. 

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