Hope for the Northeast Kingdom economy

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(Host) Commentator Timothy McQuiston sees a hopeful future for the Northeast Kingdom’s economy.

(McQuiston) Recent news about the economy of the Northeast Kingdom has been decidedly sour. There have been layoffs, bankruptcies, globalization, and bad news on top of bad news from Ethan Allen, the region’s largest employer. Not only did Ethan Allen close two Vermont plants in the last couple years, but, even after that, ownership continued to rattle its sabre. They said, in so many words, that unless Vermont could find a way to become more business friendly, they’d pull out of the state.

That’s not very friendly sounding at all. The Connecticut-based Ethan Allen has been very critical of power costs in Vermont. As a high-end furniture maker, it’s a voracious consumer of electricity – it bites off huge chunks of power at a time.

But that’s just one company. There have been lots of other problems with the Kingdom’s economy. Symptoms of the economic decline the last few years have included other job cuts, plant closings and a general decline in local spirits. Here’s a hint at how ugly it got. A year ago, Newport’s unemployment rate was a nasty 10.5 percent – the worst in the state. St. Johnsbury’s was a dismal 8 percent.

A year later, however, things may be looking up. The statistics have improved, and so has the mood of local businesspeople. In one year, Newport has dropped two points off its unemployment rate and added 200 jobs. St Jay has dropped to under six percent and added 550 jobs.

Established companies, including Lydall, which makes thermal panels for the automotive industry, Maple Grove Farms and Northeastern Vermont Regional Hospital have grown right through the recent recession. Lydall alone has added 60 workers in six months and now employs 185. Newer companies like furniture parts maker Classic Designs and Mobile Medical, which produces mobile surgical equipment, are expanding. One of Mobile Medical’s biggest clients is the US military.

Even the worrisome Ethan Allen has warmed up along with the weather. Officials there are working with the state and energy consultants to make their plants more efficient. And on top of that, former workers have opened up their own woodworking plant in Ethan Allen’s recently closed facility in Island Pond.

Things are getting so cozy in the Kingdom, the chambers of commerce in St. Jay and Newport are going to merge.

And if you’re looking for a metaphor for the region, here’s one possibility. The Black Bear Tavern & Grille in St. Johnsbury, the area’s only extra large banquet facility, went bankrupt and closed last year, thus forcing the suspension of the annual Northeast Kingdom Business Celebration. It’s now re-opened, and recently it hosted the eighth annual event.

This is Timothy McQuiston.

Timothy McQuiston is editor of Vermont Business magazine.

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