BENNINGTON - With a steadily declining and aging population, Vermont is seeking to increase the economic well-being of its residents, and perhaps attract newcomers to the Green Mountain State.
Until recently, economic growth initiatives have largely been left as the responsibility of their individual counties and regions.
With the development of the first statewide Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy, officials are looking to determine economic priorities within the state and begin implementing policy changes to benefit both citizens and employers.
A workshop held Friday at the Bennington Fire Department was organized to gather input from residents and interested parties within Bennington and Windham counties.
"We now have only about 630,000 people living in the state," said Jeff Lewis, executive director of Brattleboro Development Credit Corp. "That number is similar to that of a medium-sized city in the rest of the country," said Lewis. "We need to take a look at that."
Lewis, along with approximately two dozen other interested people in the area, participated in the brainstorming session, led by Lisa Gosselin, the Vermont state commissioner of economic development.
"I inherited this project and I think it's one of the most exciting things that's being done right now," said Gosselin, who has been in her post for just over a month, since it was reinstated by Gov. Peter Shumlin in an effort to advance job and economic growth.
Funded by a federal Economic Development Agency grant, the process of developing a statewide CEDS began in June, and is projected to take one year, with a draft proposal and public review taking place in early spring and a final plan adoption set for May 2014.
Traveling to every region within the state, a team of strategic planners including Abby Straus and John Findlay, put together by Mark Waterhouse of Garnet Consulting Services, located in Conn., facilitated the discussion on Friday.
Roberta Harold, owner of Harold & Associates in Montpelier, was on hand to represent the consulting firm, which previously organized the Chittenden County CEDS last year, before becoming the overseer of the larger, statewide project.
Ideas that resurfaced throughout the morning included: Reinventing collaboration with other states and regions, enhancing state infrastructure and improving opportunities in the workforce.
"Many people don't want to live in Vermont at this time in their lives because there are better opportunities elsewhere," said Lewis. "We can force rising wages but that's not going to change the trend."
Comments from participants addressed issues such as keeping the focus local, embracing globalization, rapid changes in population demographics and technology, and enhancing educational opportunities.
"People will make decisions based on their kids over other economic decisions that may make more sense," said one Bennington attendee.
Other ideas brainstormed throughout the workshop included: Finding a way to export the small-town feeling that Vermont is known for, capitalizing on the existing society of 'multi-state transplants to the area' despite navigating a declining workforce in the southern Vermont counties, and implementing a state version of FEMA to ensure help in the event of future disasters.
"The exciting thing about this is that there is potentially money in the outcome," said Harold, who noted that states which have developed clear economic strategies are more likely to receive federal grant monies in the future.
The possible designation of a Green Mountain National Park, from among the state's forests, was recommended by one man who noted, "we are within a four-hour drive of over 60 million people."
For more information visit www.thinkvermont.com and click on "strategic planning," or email your ideas directly to Gosselin at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Contact Khynna at kkuprian@ benningtonbanner.com and follow her on Twitter @khynnakat.