MANCHESTER — In one corner are the strengths — strong local schools, outdoor recreational opportunities and an engaged citizenry among them. In the other corner, weaknesses — which include deficits of affordable housing, shovel-ready industrial space and workforce diversity.
In between are the threats and opportunities — lack of public interest in private development, an aging population, along with opportunities for telecommuting and creating a vision and a plan for economic development.
Such a strategic plan, and the background behind it, will be the focus of a presentation scheduled for Thursday, Feb. 11 at the Long Trail School, where the results of a nearly year-long study of the Northshire's economy will be unveiled.
Bill Colvin, the assistant director and community development coordinator for the Bennington County Regional Commission, will lead the presentation and discussion of the Northshire Economic Development Strategy, or NEDS, which grew out of a collaborative effort between Manchester, Dorset and Manchester Village to explore ways to boost the overall economic conditions prevailing in the three towns. The study was funded through a grant from the state's Agency of Commerce and Community Affairs, with local matching money added in.
The overarching goal of the project, stated in a draft copy of the report obtained by The Journal, is to "create a vibrant environment that encourages people to both live and work in the Northshire."
The report comes at a time of renewed interest in the economic vitality of the region and Bennington County as a whole. Another report, released last December by a nine-member committee empowered by the state legislature to examine the economies of Bennington and Windham counties found disturbing trends of population loss, demographic challenges, and a slower recovery from the 2007-09 recession than elsewhere in the state. Much like the NEDS report, it found concerns with affordable workforce housing and a need for better coordination between stakeholders involved with economic development, along with the assets that could be leveraged.
While the geographic scope of the NEDS report is less wide-ranging than the one turned in by the southern Vermont Economic Zone committee, there is some overlap, Colvin said in a phone interview Monday.
"There are some things coming out of the zone report which I think will impact the implementation of the NEDS strategy and vice versa," he said, "not the least of which is the general dialogue around larger regional economic development opportunities."
The report Colvin will present next Thursday at Long Trail School, prepared in conjunction with Camoin Associates, a Saratoga Springs, N.Y.-based consulting firm, analyzes the demographic makeup, educational levels and housing trends throughout the three-town region, among others. It finds that Dorset and Manchester have a significantly higher population of 50-64 year-olds than elsewhere in the state, which if unchanged, poses questions for the economic vitality of the region looking forward. At the same time, this is a highly educated population, with a higher percentage of people holding college degrees or post-graduate degrees than Vermont as a whole or even nationally.
On the other hand, housing sales paint a mixed picture. While the median value of homes that sold over the last 10 years did not drastically decline and has more or less recovered to pre-recession levels, the number of such sales decreased sharply. "Dorset had recovered to pre-recession annual sales numbers by 2014, but Manchester, despite showing signs of recovery, still had fewer residential sales than it had in the early 2000's," the report states.
Additionally, construction of new housing and residential units has been in stark decline since 2004, when both Manchester and Dorset had major upticks in the number of housing permits issued. The number of permits issued in 2014, the last year included in the survey, has them at near zero in Dorset, compared with more than 50 in 2004, and at about 10 for Manchester in 2014, compared to about 85 in 2004.
The ripple effect of the relative lack of low cost workforce housing impacts business in general, and also the arts community, generally seen as an area of strength. But arts organizations are struggling to maintain their fundraising and philanthropic donations, and also need to better coordinate their branding messages in a more cohesive way, according to the report.
Whether the report serves as a spur to action or not may hinge on how successful the Manchester and the Mountains Regional Chamber of Commerce — soon to transition to a new entity to be known as The Partnership — is at its private-public fundraising efforts, said Seth Bongartz, the president of Hildene and a member of the NEDS steering committee. The Chamber/Partnership hopes to raise $75,000 from its 17 member towns during March Town Meeting, which if successful, would give a boost to raising more money for marketing and economic development efforts, sharpened after having spent much time over the past 17 months rethinking its mission, he said.
"The Partnership is positioned to turn this into reality," Bongartz said, referring to the NEDS report. "If the communities are supportive, this thing really has legs, which will in turn leverage more private money. It's critical we follow through and turn this into reality."
Now that a thorough study and set of recommendations are in place, towns can begin to think of ways to implement them, said John O'Keefe, Manchester's town manager. Boosting sports and outdoor recreational opportunities is one area Manchester residents will have a chance to push forward during town meeting, he said.
"The 2016 Town Meeting will consider authorizing $75,000 in funding for fields at the (Rec) Park," he stated in an e-mail. "The Parks and Recreation Committee believes the new fields will help ... to significantly expand tournaments. The new fields will also help to attract younger workers with children. It looks like at this point we may have identified $300,000 of the $400,000 necessary to build the fields (including the Town's $75,000)."
The Planning Commission and Selectboard recently increased the allowable building height to three stories, which hopefully will spur interest among developers in creating more housing stock downtown. Additionally, the town's planning commission also recently received a grant to redo the Town's zoning bylaws. Much of that focus will include how to make building middle class housing more affordable, especially in the Farmer and Rural Residential Districts, O'Keefe said.
Rob Gaiotti, the town manager of Dorset, also pointed to The Partnership as being an important element in ensuring the report avoids the fate of gathering dust on a shelf. Working in conjunction with the towns, the new entity would be able to "move the needle" towards improving the local economy, he said.
Dorset also plans to pitch in on the outdoor recreation front, he added.
"Dorset is making strides by expanding our Town Forest and has plans to implement $60,000 worth of hiking and biking trail improvements on the property in the summer of 2016," he stated in an e-mail. "This will be funded through private donations and grants and the work will be carried out by the Vermont Youth Conservation Corps. Our longer term goal is to review the possibility of re-establishing 'The Dorset Trail' a 10 mile hiking loop connecting the ridge-lines of the mountains in the center of Dorset, and offer this up as a unique regional asset as well."
In 2014 the Dorset Planning Commission also integrated a more detailed economic development section of the Town Plan and more recently laid out a plan to consult with BCRC on a technical review of the zoning bylaw, Gaiotti said, with an eye towards using the data gathered to help with future community planning.
Another key may be the willingness of communities to take a more regional approach to economic development and planning, Colvin said.
"There are a lot of common challenges here — none of us have a lot of resources to address these and maybe the best approach is for us to try and do this together," he said. "Some things are coalescing around this opportunity to really start thinking more broadly."
The presentation at Long Trail School set for Thursday, Feb. 11, will start at 5:30 p.m. and will be a joint meeting between the Manchester and Dorset Select Boards and the Northshire Economic Development Committee.