Business and civic leaders from the state’s southeast corner gathered Friday to launch a campaign to reverse a looming economic crisis.
A multi-town coalition is developing a formal economic development strategy that may help the region qualify for federal economic development programs and grants.
Despite the reputation of Brattleboro as a thriving arts hub, Windham County faces serious economic challenges.
According to a new economic profile, more than half the area’s population is at or near retirement age. The region lags behind the rest of Vermont and New England in wages and job opportunities, especially opportunities for younger workers.
That’s without factoring in the eventual closing of Vermont Yankee, which will mean the loss of hundreds of the region’s highest paying jobs.
Frank Knott is president of Vital Economy Alliance, the group that prepared the report.
"The reality is something is going to happen there and the economic impact of not having those jobs is going to be significant," he told the gathering.
"So you can either choose to be a victim or you can choose to define your strategy before it happens."
The report was commissioned by the multi-town Southeastern Vermont Economic Development Strategies group.
The coalition’s goals include building a more robust work force to attract and keep higher paying jobs. A key to that, the report says, is attracting younger workers to replace baby boomers as they leave the work force.
Thirty-one year old Jill James works at Chroma Technologies, a growing company in Rockingham that’s had trouble finding skilled workers to fill jobs.
James says, "It’s hard to put out these positions and get responses that, once they come, say ‘You sound like a great company but what else is in this area for me or for my family?’"
The report says college-educated workers earn eighteen percent more in nearby New Hampshire, and twenty-three percent more in neighboring Massachusetts. James says that’s a problem.
"It’s hard to justify being here and finding a job that justifies the amount of money that your spend on a college education."
But Brattleboro Select woman Dora Bouboulis says some young people are coming to the area, especially those who want to work in agriculture and the arts.
"There is a subset of younger people who are looking for alternative life styles who are being attracted to this community," Bouboulis says. "They are building families and they are building businesses and arts venues and nonprofits. And they’re coming in droves."
The coalition and its consultants will hold public meetings around the region in March and again in May, to give everyone a chance to help shape a new vision for the region’s future.
The plan must eventually be approved by the federal Economic Development Authority, in order to qualify for the agency’s programs.