Vermont’s chilly business climate

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(Host) The weather isn’t the only thing that’s chilly this Fall. Commentator Tim McQuiston joins us today to talk about the current Vermont business climate.

(McQuiston) The United States Commerce Department reported last week that the national economy grew at an astounding 7.2% in the third quarter. That’s the fastest expansion since 1984. Even though most of it is attributed to consumer spending encouraged by the recent tax cut, business spending on things like computers also expanded.

Meanwhile, the Vermont Business Roundtable recently released a much more somber report. The Business Roundtable is statewide organization made up of
business executives. In September they issued what they called a “Working Paper.” The title of it is: “Turbulent Seasons: The Bleak Nature of Vermont’s Business Climate.”

“Bleak.” Wow.

This report is from fair-minded Vermonters with a good sense of equilibrium. I can’t think of a word they could use that would be worse than “bleak.”

The report, citing many sources, concludes with this: “In summary, what these various studies suggest is that Vermont’s business climate provides little incentive for doing business in the state, and instead, it is the quality of life and the ties to local communities that keep companies in Vermont.”

The Vermont Business Roundtable consistently found that business executives felt that taxes are too high here, the permit process is too long and too unpredictable, electricity is too expensive, health insurance is too costly, and, maybe worst of all, that Vermont has a generally bad attitude toward business.

There’s an economic model they refer to called the Circle of Prosperity. A prosperous economy supports the quality of life we all want, and vice versa. The Roundtable report suggests that the Circle of Prosperity does not exist here in Vermont.

Now, the big problems we face, from taxes and permitting to health care can’t be fixed over night. But attitudes can change. Business people to a large extent feel they are treated as cash cows to be exploited. That’s an attitude thing that can be changed without having to raise taxes, cut school spending or triage health care. Then too, we all have to keep in mind that if our only selling point is quality of life, we really can’t afford to imperil it either.

A friend of mine recently expanded his business to New Hampshire. Even though the environmental laws are similar, officials on the other side of the Connecticut had a “can do” attitude, while the Vermonters, he said, offered “can not do” excuses.

While the national economic news for the moment is good, and if it really is more than just a short term spending spree, the rising tide will lift Vermont also. But that won’t change the long-term attitudes of local business people.

If Vermont businesses are here solely for the reason that the current owner wants to live here, then maybe our economic outlook truly is bleak.

This is Timothy McQuiston.

Timothy McQuiston is editor of Vermont Business magazine.

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