Comments to VT Comm. Loan Fund Annual Board Retreat 9/23/2015

Many thanks for inviting me to this important discussion. My goal in a few minutes will be to look at our state in broad strokes so as to add some context to your deliberations and our discussions.

I’ve lived here since 1947, grew up in Morrisville, a small but vibrant town in the ’50s. I left for schooling but came back and started two businesses here. The last business employed some 275 people at its peak and imported $28M a year into Vermont. I was offered several options to move away and earn more money but could never muster the will to leave. My four children all went away and are here in Vermont today earning their own livings.

We Vermonters are generally suspicious of change. Change, however, pretty much ignores our feelings about it. I’ll describe some current changes as they will affect our choices as we plan ahead.

The world is urbanizing. Recently in Europe, we saw offers for whole towns in Spain and Italy up for sale for the same price as a small flat in London or, in some cases, free. Vermont’s urbanization is less extreme but real nonetheless. Our tiny population – less than El Paso, Texas – appears relatively stable, but most growth is in Chittenden County. Rural counties and Rutland, our second biggest city, are either just holding their own or losing population. Rutland is projected to lose 12% between 2010 and 2030.

Sixty years ago, Morrisville had a thriving downtown with two department stores, two movie theaters, three drug stores, and a hardware, appliance and jewelry store. Its sidewalks were bustling with people. That picture is very different today. One reason is the up and out migration of retail commerce. We use to drive the two hours to Burlington twice a year to buy what we couldn’t in Morrisville. Today the big-box stores in Williston and even the outlets in Manchester are struggling, as increasingly they become mere showrooms for online purchases.

Vermont has some sixty community bookstores. The last 40 books I read were ebooks, not because they were cheaper, but because they were more convenient for me… and I’m a writer. Books have meaning but so do price and convenience. Urging people to “buy local” makes sense when it comes to things for which local-sourcing imparts clear value, like food and many non-commodities, but it’s not going to work to ask consumers of any economic strata to willingly pay more for a TV set, computer, car, or tool just because it’s for sale in their town. We’ve already learned this.

Mobility is another issue. We rarely left Lamoille County when I was young, except for the occasional train ride to see relatives in St. Johnsbury or New York City. Yes, you could take the ST. J. and L.C. from Morrisville to St. Johnsbury. For our honeymoon in 1996, Kate and I flew one-stop from Burlington to Beijing. Except for male military service, my parents never dreamed of that kind of world travel. But at 18, my daughter had visited 17 countries. Our young people are highly mobile and can seek change and opportunity anywhere they choose.

We revere our Vermont myths and imagine them confined within our borders – ever heard someone crossing from New York State or New Hampshire into Vermont say they “could feel the difference?”

When in reality we’re part of an economic, cultural and geographic region that includes the rest of New England and Quebec, and we must begin to think regionally.

Economic equity is also an issue. Poet David Budbill refers to Vermonters who live high up on hilltops and those consigned to the valleys. Vermont has one of the highest polarities of wealth in the nation based on IRS income data. That income disparity, along with varying access to education, has more of an impact on opportunity than we’re comfortable acknowledging.

Having said that, our schools are indeed better than we often acknowledge. Much of what we experience as diminished capacity in education has more to do with the decline of an educational culture in our homes than in our schools.

Another point of pressure is our ageing population. Increasingly, we will struggle to afford housing, sustenance, and health care for many in that population who can’t afford their retirements. Vermont, and New England, in general, has one of the lowest birth rates in the nation at 10.5 per 1000 live births. The national average is 14.3 and the high is 21 per 1000.

Vermont is nearing the top of the charts on a per-capita basis for states plagued with opiate addiction and, like the rest of the nation, we are over-incarcerating our citizens. As social and economic conditions inflate mental health statistics, we’re struggling with the infrastructure and maintenance costs of offering mental health care rather than merely free-ranging or jailing this fragile population. I will say we are taking important steps to address all of these issues but the costs to 320,000 Vermont income-tax filers will be daunting.

Inevitably, we must confront the question of whether the cost of our ballooning social safety net is warranted by our adherence to an under-regulated, free market, low-tax, minimal-government belief system. You’ve seen the news about Volkswagen and drug costs skyrocketing for no apparent reason. How long can we sustain our belief that free and unregulated markets always behave in the best interests of their consumers?

I’m not here to challenge ideologies or to convey good or bad news. News is news and we must pay attention so we can plan for tomorrow. Trends must inform our strategy as a state and yours as a generator of growth and stability.

I see great opportunity for Vermont and organizations like the VCLF are at the heart of it.

Paul’s (nod) work and that of Jolinda (nod), Ellen Kahler and others have rightly focused our attention on the economies of the working landscape – food, farm, forest, and energy. The VCLF has wisely focused one of your funds on that fertile area – pun intended.

As climate change alters our national landscape and California must choose between water-intensive dairy, beef, or vegetable and fruit farming, Vermont is forecast to have more water and we are historically endowed with the richest ag. soils in New England. This is good news for agriculture, as is the current food zeitgeist that celebrates small scale, healthy, humane, and low impact farm enterprise. Our food and spirits industries are thriving – and doing so not in Chittenden County. I see more Misty Knoll chicken and Jasper Hill Farms cheese on the menu in Brooklyn than I do in Burlington!

As India and Southeast Asia grow the fastest middle classes in world history, how long will it continue to be cost-effective to harvest Vermont’s cornucopia of hardwoods and stone and “freight” them there to be fabricated into finished goods and then shipped back for resale here in discount stores. These demographic changes in Asia open new opportunities for value-added manufacturing adjacent to our raw materials and a “truck-day” away from the largest North American markets. Caterpillar and some other manufacturers have long since moved their operations back into their communities. We will see more of that.

Remember too, that our largest employer, other than the State itself, is the UVM Medical Center, the second is still Global Foundry, and then comes UVM and Middlebury College.

That tells us a lot about the impact of non-profits on Vermont employment. They currently employ about 20% of us and offer better job opportunities and benefits than our service and hospitality industries. We have fourteen community hospitals and will be growing small clinics in many of our towns that are too small for a critical-care hospital.

Nurses start their careers at about $45,000 and make as much as $130,000 in a specialty hospital setting or functioning as nurse-practitioners and we need more healthcare workers. Our oversized educational system is adjusting to changes in the market and student demographic, but there will always be a need for teachers.

Also as government and the “mission,” or non-profit sector, try and sort out who does what well in social services, we will see more non-profit economic opportunities emerging within communities. Organizations like Laraway Youth Services, Dismas House, VT Works for Women, and VT Youth Conservation Corps are doing yeoman work and doing it cost-efficiently.

People will always need food, health care, education, the arts, and housing – each of which is a sustaining business activity.

But Vermonters also remain independent, creative and entrepreneurial. With the support of organizations like yours, they will find the seed money they need to start new business ventures.

Many thanks for your vital commitment to mission.


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