Economist: Windham County economy has a way to go

Thursday October 4, 2012


Brattleboro Reformer

BRATTLEBORO -- University of Vermont economics professor Art Woolf told Windham County business leaders Tuesday that while the world and U.S. economies are stuck in very stubborn downturns, southeastern Vermont has its own long range issues that could make it very hard for the region to turn things around.

Woolf was in Brattleboro to talk to members of the Brattleboro Area Chamber of Commerce, which held a breakfast at the Brattleboro Retreat.

He showed a series of graphs and talked about the steep economic drop that happened between 2007 and 2009.

The United States lost between 12 and 13 million jobs during this period, Woolf said, and economies staggered across Europe while even China saw its economy slow down.

Even when compared to other recessions over the past 70 years, the current U.S. recession has been steeper, and has gone on longer, than at any other period.

"It feels bad because it was bad," he said. "It’s not a pretty picture and the outlook isn’t good."

Vermont’s economy also has been affected, and the like the rest of the world, the state is working to just get the economy back to how it was before the recession started.

Woolf said Vermont, and Windham County, would have enough of a challenge creating jobs in the current climate, but southeastern Vermont was already going through troubling demographic changes that curtail strong economic growth.

Showing census projections on the average age in Windham County and on the number of people expected to move to the area, Woolf said both trends make it hard for businesses to support growth.

Windham County was already looking at a loss in jobs before 2007, and he said as the region competes for new jobs, it gets harder when everyone else is looking for growth.

New Hampshire and Massachusetts seem to be doing better, he said, drawing businesses, and people away from Vermont.

He said even when compared to the rest of the state, which also suffers from an aging population and slow growth, Windham County comes in near the bottom of the list of counties on many indicators. Woolf spoke for about 40 minutes, and when people asked questions at the end he offered few solutions or rosy projections.

He said a proposed 1-percent sales tax that the town wants to use to pay for the police-fire renovation would be bad for business. He said the state’s plans to transform health care could be a drain on the economy.

And he said one of Vermont’s biggest challenges is its tendency to equate growth with sprawl, an attitude, he said, that makes it hard to develop jobs.

After the meeting, BACC Executive Director Jerry Goldberg said Woolf’s news was something "We don’t want to hear, but something we have to hear."

Woolf said the country could make some changes by slashing spending, but the changes would cause real pain, and therefore, he said, Congress is not likely to act.

In the meanwhile, while the world and the U.S. figure out how to get things moving, Woolf said Windham County is going to be affected, and the region will have to make changes to improve the outlook.

"There are some things we can do something about, and some things we can’t do something about," said Woolf. "We have to make those choices."


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