2007 Year in Review: Business

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(Host) We return to our review of the top stories of 2007.

When things change in the business world, it often affects employment and the general economy.

As VPR’s Steve Delaney reports, some of those stories during the past year involved one of the biggest names in business.

(Delaney) The name is Verizon, the big phone company that said in January it wants to sell its land-lines in northern New England.

Potential buyer FairPoint Communications of North Carolina said it will expand high-speed Internet access to rural Vermont. Here’s how Fairport C-E-O Gene Johnson put that promise.

(Johnson) "We believe very strongly in broadband, and believe that broadband really is the future of this business, and we are very much committed to it. We expect a smooth hand-off on this transaction, including regulatory issues like that.”

(Delaney) For Vermont regulators like Public Service Commissioner David O’Brien, the issue wasn’t faster and wider Internet access, but plain old phone service.

(O’Brien) "And, so, looking at FairPoint, we’re going to make it very clear that we want clear and convincing evidence that their customer service culture, their devotion to reliability of the network is their number one priority.”

(Delaney) The Verizon/FairPoint sale, valued at $2.7 billion, hinged on the approval of utility regulators in Maine and New Hampshire, as well as Vermont.

During the summer and into the fall, Fair-Point ran a series of TV ads promoting its commitment to northern New England. The Douglas administration recommended the deal’s approval if Fairpoint agreed to conditions.

But the deal appeared to be in danger when regulators in New Hampshire and Maine stated significant objections.

Late in December Vermont regulators rejected the FairPoint proposal as too risky financially. But they suggested an alternate pathway to future approval.

Toward the end of a disappointing ski season, the troubled American Skiing company said it was selling the Killington/Pico ski area, the state’s largest. The new owners promised significant development at Killington, but angered a lot of Vermonters when they said long-held season passes would not be honored after next season.

Meanwhile a big expansion moved forward at Burke Mountain in the Northeast Kingdom.

During the summer, part of a cooling tower collapsed at the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in Vernon. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s Neil Sheehan spoke about the subsequent investigation.

(Sheehan) "They certainly need to come up with answers about why this occurred. But it doesn’t call into question the safe operation of the reactor day-to-day.”

(Delaney) But nuclear power skeptics said the incident was just one more crack in Vermont Yankee’s claim that all is well at the old plant, in spite of a 20 percent boost in power output last year. Among the critics, James Moore of VPIRG, the Vermont Public Interest Research Group.

(Moore) "This incident calls into question all of the claims that Entergy Nuclear has made about the plant’s clean bill of health, and that it’s operating like new.”

(Delaney) The revived argument over safety at Vermont Yankee would sputter along for months, and at year’s end the NRC scolded the company over the tower collapse. But the effort to secure a 20-year license extension goes on.

Rutland got its air link to Boston restored in November, with three flights a day via Cape Air.

And Vermont’s second city also got a new mayor, Chris Louras, who was greeted by a devastating storm that blasted trees and took out electricity for days.

(Delaney) And at the micro end of the business scale, a Vermont remnant of the once-thriving textile industry soldiers on, with a new product and an eye on the Asian competition. In Northfield, the Cabot Hosiery company knits up five-thousand pairs of socks a week under the brand name Darn Tough Vermont. Sales Director Richard Beliveau says finding a niche in the market is critical.

(Beliveau) "Wool is amazing, for a number of things. It does so many things well that I can’t think of a synthetic fiber that does all of the things wool does, equally as well.”

(Delaney) The performance socks are used for skiing, hiking and cycling, and Cabot is betting that market is big enough to keep the mill running.

(Delaney) There was a big asbestos cleanup project in Lowell and Eden. Fuel costs continued to rise, prompting new worries about needy Vermonters and wintertime temperatures.

(Delaney) And some young musicians in the Vermont Youth Orchestra got a look at a very different way of doing things, on a trip to China.

For VPR News, I’m Steve Delaney.

Note: Our review of the top stories of 2007 concludes Monday with remembrances of some of the Vermonters who died in the past year.

AP Photo: Toby Talbot

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