Southern Vermont is in trouble. Its population is declining and aging. Tourism has not recovered from pre-recession levels; residential construction is at half the level of 2006; retail sales are down. Between 2000 and 2013, the under 18 population in Windham and Bennington Counties dropped nearly 20%. We must reverse current trends and retain and grow the population, lower the average age, raise the average wage, and promote and embrace greater population diversity. In essence, we need to repopulate southern Vermont. Urgent action is required. – 2016 Southern Vermont Economic Development Zone Committee Report
Vermont Department of Labor data indicates that Southern Vermont’s overall population is not declining. It is also not increasing. What it is doing is getting older. The biggest shifts in our population have been a loss of about 3.5% of the 35-54-year-old population and a corresponding increase in the 65+ aged population. We know this age shift is both impacting our (your) employer’s ability to find workers, the population of our schools and increasing the demand for retiree services. And we know this demographic trend is happening throughout rural America. Which means we are competing with the rest of the country for workers.
We are writing to share our commitment, and the commitment of many others, to improving our regional economy to make it possible for a new generation of Southern Vermonters to prosper here. And one of the most important aspects of doing that is understanding and acting on our population trends. We invite your participation in charting our path forward.
Meg is the Chair of the Southeastern Vermont Economic Development Strategies (SeVEDS) Board and Jason is the Chair of the Bennington Regional Economic Development (RED) Group. We are the lucky leaders of two groups of people from the private sector, public sector, non-profit and academic communities in Windham and Bennington Counties who are passionate about Southern Vermont’s future. Our boards work year-round with staff from the Brattleboro Development Credit Corporation, the Bennington County Industrial Corporation and the Bennington County Regional Commission to understand what factors are most impacting the Southern Vermont economy and what we “regional locals” can do to positively influence those factors. That has meant spending a lot of time talking about population – keeping our youth, reengaging retirees, understanding what role diversity, housing, childcare plays in our ability to recruit talent.
We are doing this engagement through development of a CEDS – that stands for a Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy. A CEDS is a federally prescribed process by which we assess our region’s data and share that with residents, businesses, non-profits and towns so that collectively we can identify our assets, size up our challenges and opportunities and chart a path forward. We then develop five-year action plan and work with the region to implement the goals and strategies in that plan. The Windham Region developed a CEDS in 2014 and last year alone that plan attracted more than 6 million dollars in new project dollars and supported the retention or growth of more than 600 jobs.
In 2015 the Vermont Legislature identified our two counties as an area whose economy was in need of special attention due to population and economic loss – calling for an integrated investment strategy for retaining and attracting businesses and creation of a workforce development system. This area is called the Southern Vermont Economic Development Zone. And we are working with your friends, neighbors, customers, patients and contractors to develop the 2019 Southern Vermont CEDS in this zone.
One of the biggest challenges in creating and sustaining improvements in rural areas is securing grassroots participation and we invite yours. In the coming weeks our boards and staff from our regional organizations will hold a series of public input sessions – designed specifically to receive feedback on our preliminary assessment of data about Windham and Bennington Counties and to see if the region agrees with the goals we have set out. Please consider making an investment in our collective future by attending one of these sessions and sharing what you know. “Together” is our best way forward.
- Monday September 24thManchester 8-10 am – Manchester Town Meeting Room
- Monday September 24thWilmington 2-4 pm – Wilmington Old School
- Monday September 24thBrattleboro 6-8 pm – Brattleboro Selectboard Meeting Room
- Wednesday September 26thBennington 6-8 pm – Mount Anthony Masonic Lodge
- Friday September 28thBellows Falls 8-10 am – Lower Theater
More information on the Southern Vermont CEDS can be found at https://www.sovermontsummit.com/2019-zone-ceds
Meg Streeter, Meg Streeter Realty – Wilmington
Jason Dolmetsch, MSK Engineering – Bennington