Our opinion: Economic summit worth your time

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If you're someone who cares about Southern Vermont's regional economy, then circle Thursday, May 23 on your calendar. That's the date of the third annual Southern Vermont Economy Summit, at the Mount Snow Grand Resort in Dover. You can find out more at https://www.sovermontsummit.com.

The theme of this year's summit is "Investing in Southern Vermont's Future." It's described as "strategies for planning, focus, and developing the economy," with the highlights including entrepreneurial projects and strategies that are currently being employed in Southern Vermont. The first projects being rolled out as a result of the five-year Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy (CEDS) for Bennington and Windham counties will be unveiled.

Economic development can be a dry topic. But this is important stuff.

Southern Vermont's economic challenges, in particular its shrinking workforce and its aging population, have been cast in bold relief by recent events. The closures of three private small colleges in Southern Vermont, along with the financial crisis at Springfield Hospital, make it easy to engage in magical thinking — the false premise that because something bad has happened to someone else, that it could happen to us as well. It doesn't help when the facts seem to point to such possibilities, because the economic pressures on small hospitals and small colleges are not going away.

It's easy to wonder in times such as these if anyone's actually steering the boat, let alone making sure it doesn't strike an iceberg.

But this all-day forum, and the CEDS plan, are the proof that locally, someone is not only paying attention, but building the framework for potential solutions. Its stakeholders in both counties are serious about identifying economic issues, collecting public input, and crafting potential solutions.

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And they've dedicated an entire day in a central location to thinking about Southern Vermont's problems, and how they might be solved.

It matters all the more when one considers that help from Montpelier in the form of state investment might never arrive.

On Monday, VTDigger.org published a story about the state's unfunded pension liability of $1.513 billion. That's a direct result of decades of Democratic and Republican governors choosing to underfund state pension allocations, and the Legislature going along for the ride.

The opportunity cost is steep. Catching up on that pension liability will drain millions from the state treasury that could have been spent on more pressing needs. How many millions? This year, $120 million, and an average of $150 million over the next 20 years.

That's how you get a state reliant upon tourism spending a mere $3 million to market the state every year — a tiny fraction of what New Hampshire and Maine allocate yearly. That's how you get willfully underfunded state colleges that too many Vermonters cannot afford, rather than a robust workforce development pipeline that could fill immediate needs. There's no money for anything else when expedience and thrift are allowed to take the place of vision and investment.

Long story short, it's altogether likely that if economic development is going to happen here, we will have to take the initiative and make it happen ourselves. So it behooves us to pay attention when elected and business leaders call a summit that offers economic development topics for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

We'll be there on May 23. Will you?


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