BENNINGTON >> Democratic gubernatorial candidate Sue Minter visited Bennington on Friday to discuss economic development, after an economic study of Bennington and Windham counties found this part of Vermont to be "in trouble."
Minter, a former member of the Vermont House of Representatives, and current secretary of the Vermont Agency of Transportation, met with several groups across town, participating in a roundtable discussion with community leaders at the Bennington County Regional Commission, holding a meeting with Bennington College president Mariko Silver, and speaking with local business owner and entrepreneur Dimitri Garder at the Lightning Jar. "What I know from the data," she said in an interview, "is that Bennington County has many economic challenges. But what I have found is an energy and a willingness from local leaders to address these issues."
Present for the roundtable were BCRC executive director Jim Sullivan, assistant director Bill Colvin, state senator Brian Campion, state representatives Alice Miller and Kiah Morris, Bennington selectman Michael Keane, Shaftsbury selectboard chairman Tim Scoggins, and Garder. Throughout the meeting, Minter mostly listened to the outlooks and ideas presented by the people at the table, taking notes almost constantly. She did go over the three key points of her economic development plan: building infrastructure, creating a culture of entrepreneurship and innovation, and workforce development.
Scoggins said that the recent report wasn't news to Shaftsbury. "We knew the economy wasn't great before they told us," he said. In order to combat this, he said, the selectboard is working on projects to make the town more attractive to businesses and homeowners, starting by improving many of the over 50 miles of dirt roads in the town, which had a population of just under 3,600 in the 2010 census. He also said he was hopeful that the Shaftsbury School Board could "make lemonade" out of the education bill, Act 46, and perhaps use it to increase school choice in the town, which could be a plus for families considering moving into the area.
Sullivan said that two of the strategies he is focused on for improving the economic outlook of Bennington are workforce development, from early childhood education through adult training, and marketing the location of Bennington, which he described as one of the town's greatest resources, specifically how it is situated between the Capital District of New York, the Berkshires of Massachusetts, and the Green Mountain National Forest. Minter agreed that early education is an important place to focus on, as reaching children at that age can help reduce the performance gap between low-income students and the rest of the population, which she said could help break the cycle of poverty.
Garder agreed that combating poverty would be a necessary step in re-building Bennington's economy. The Global Z founder, who is also one of the driving forces behind the Lightning Jar and the Bennington Idea Fund, said, "We can't view poverty and economic development as completely separate issues. In Bennington, they've been entwined for a long time." Along those same lines, Colvin pointed out that the rosy unemployment statistics of Bennington county are largely just a mirage, pointing out that the workforce in Bennington County has dropped by 1,900 in recent years, while the population has remained mostly level. "Those people haven't left," he said, but they are also no longer contributing to the economic growth of the community.
Morris said that childcare remains one of the biggest problems in Bennington, and cited a lack of it as the top reason why women drop out of programs at the Community College of Vermont. She cited a study by the American Association of University Women, which points out that Vermont, Alaska, Guam, and Puerto Rico are the only states or territories in the United States where no community colleges offer on-site childcare for their students. Miller echoed the concerns around the table about Bennington's shrinking workforce, saying, "There are so many wonderful things going on here, but we have a real workforce problem... We are ready for a second War on Poverty," referencing the policies of Lyndon B. Johnson, which dropped the poverty rate in the U.S. from 17.3 percent in 1964 to 11.1 percent in 1973.
Keane called for increasing efforts to recruit workers from outside Vermont. "People are retiring and leaving the workforce faster than we can replace them internally," he said, "We really lack the outreach, we have to think beyond our borders."
Minter, who also visited Manchester as part of her southern Vermont tour, said that she remains optimistic about Bennington's chances for recovery, but she stressed that, because of changes to the global economy, what worked for Bennington in the past will not work for the town in the future. "If we are simply focused on what we're not, rather than what we can be, we'll never get there," she said.