My Vermont: The Documentary

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VPR examines the
challenges that lie ahead for Vermont in this special 30-minute documentary.
Host Steve Delaney explores how Vermont’s
identity is changing, and what needs to be done to retain the state’s character
in the future. And we look at some of the challenges that lie ahead, as the My Vermont project concludes.


My Vermont


(Steve Delaney) What makes Vermont what is it? For weeks, ordinary Vermonters have been
describing that elusive something.

(Patti Minichiello) "My Vermont is
resilient. My
Vermont will not
swallow its middle class."

(Dawna Neron) "It’s
not perfect, but it just may be as perfect as it gets."

(Delaney) Different, better, unique. We love hearing
those mystique-building thoughts, but do they gloss over a harsher reality?

(Bill Schubart) "I think that sometimes
we get smug in our belief that we do community better, we do this better, we do
that better. We’re different, and we’re unique but we’re not
better, and if we believe that, then we get trapped."

(Delaney) We
will explore Vermont’s identity now and in the future, and get some
insights into what choices may shape our future when our My Vermont program continues, after the news and weather.

(Delaney) Good
evening, I’m Steve Delaney. Tonight VPR’s My
project concludes by exploring what we are today, and how we’ll
meet future challenges in a way that preserves the Vermont difference.

few years ago a football coach became famous for saying of his winning
opponents, "They are who we thought they

we Vermonters who we think we are, and is our state really what many of us say
it is? Listen to some of the many VPR listeners who have addressed the subject
"My Vermont", starting with Josh Van Houten of Richmond.

Houten) "It’s been said that Vermont is what America used to be,
and that in
Vermont we live life
in the slow lane. Both those statements are true, and I wouldn’t have it any
other way."

Patti Minichiello of Rutland:

"My Vermont will never
look like
New Jersey or Long Island, but it will
in the future, I hope, attract more people under thirty, offer them jobs that
pay well and decent choices for affordable housing. My
Vermont is
resilient. My
Vermont will not
swallow up its middle class."

(Delaney) The challenge for those who would guide
Vermont’s future, is to make those visions true, or keep them true, even though
there are significant obstacles in the economy, in housing, in jobs, in strengthening
our families, and in preserving a traditional lifestyle.

most of us, Vermont is not Bob Newhart’s TV Bed & Breakfast of the
Eighties, nor is it the bucolic paradise reflected in the works of Norman
Rockwell, Robert Frost and Grandma Moses. Indeed there are thoughtful
Vermonters who believe we are far too invested in an idyllic vision of Vermont.

"There’s some question as to whether Vermont, as we would
like to think it existed, ever really did."

(Delaney) Willem
Lange is a contractor, storyteller, and VPR commentator.

(Lange) "You
know, the old mythology of the general store, and the old-timers out front
making wise sayings, and I guess it did exist to some extent, and as the
farmers disappear, there’ll be less of it.
01:15 Yeah,
they’re the key. There’s something about that aroma you know in the springtime
when the manure goes out in the fields, that is forever
Vermont. And (if) we
lose that, we’ll have lost something important, perhaps the thing that makes
Vermont different
from everybody else."

"I think we tend to believe the Vermont mystique too
much, that we are so different, that everybody in the world wants to come here
if they could.

(Delaney) Economist Art Woolf is a partner in Northern
Economic Consulting in Westford.

"I think we tend to believe, more than people
who live in other states, this myth about
Vermont being so
different and so unique and so special.
Vermont for most of
its history has been a place where people wanted to leave. And ultimately
that’s the acid test as to whether some place is worth living in, is, are people
moving in or moving out? And for the last five years more people have been
moving out of
Vermont than moving
in, and that’s the long-term future of the state."

Woolf and others believe that if the number of working age Vermonters shrinks
in an aging population, employers will be unable to find enough workers here,
and will expand elsewhere.

Schubart) "I cannot envisage in my lifetime, or in our children’s lifetimes, a
200-acre industrial complex in

(Delaney) Vermont entrepreneur Bill Schubart is one of the state’s most
thoughtful business leaders, and he thinks Vermont’s economic lies in another direction.

(Schubart) "I
think middle-sized companies, like Ben and Jerry’s, and like Gardner’s Supply
and many, many others that employ anywhere from eighty to four or five hundred
people, and fit comfortably into the landscape, the community and the ethos,
that is our future."

(Delaney) Paul Costello of the Council on Rural
Development has led a two-year effort to reach out to Vermonters and pull in
their visions of Vermont’s future. His group has been looking at hopes and
fears alike, and one common thread in the responses is a deep worry over
educating the kind of work force the state will need.

(Costello) "Everywhere we go people concentrate on
education as a keystone to
Vermont‘s future. People are concerned about the costs of
education, but they’re much more concerned about the quality of education and
it’s importance in ensuring that we have a civil culture, a culture where young
people are committed to the future, and committed to participating in
democratic institutions and volunteering and community life and all those

(Delaney) "I’m interested in whether as a general rule,
you have found whether, Vermonters, with all the multiplicity of things that
they’re concerned about to be optimistic or generally wary of the future?"

(Costello) "I think that generally there’s an optimism
around the sense of Vermont values, you know one of the first things that we
ask is do we still have common values, what are Vermont values in our
time. And Vermonters praise the
independence of
Vermont people, they
across the board bring up the word dedication to community, and volunteerism
and willingness to work together. They think that that gives us a particular
strength as a people, and probably other states have this feeling too, but it’s
something that’s kind of a universal."

(Delaney) However,
it’s not entirely unanimous. Kate Cadreact is a farmer’s daughter, a farmer’s
wife, and a registered nurse. In her My Vermont essay, Cadreact says she
believes the reality of Vermont
reflects an ever-widening gap between newcomers with money and long-time
Vermonters who are finding their incomes no longer stretch to cover the costs
of living here.

(Cadreact) "My over-riding concern is that only the
highly paid and wealthy individuals will have adequate housing, heat,
nutritional food and the privilege of serving the community. Their children
will attend private schools while public schools suffer budget defeats. Their
children will attend college, while it will be more and more difficult for the
Vermont student to
pay for college. The average worker will not be at the table of plenty when the
cost of living here escalates. We will become more and more marginalized."

(Delaney) Businessman Bill Schubart thinks the slow
gentrification of Vermont is subtle, because the trouble is not unemployment

Schubart) "My own perception is that while unemployment in Vermont is
relatively low, under-employment is pretty ferocious; I mean there’s a ton of
eight to twelve dollar-an-hour jobs. But
the jobs that are up in the, you know, fifty to eighty thousand dollar range,
are a problem."

(Delaney) Storyteller
Willem Lange thinks that there’s nothing essentially wrong with the vision of Vermont that some outsiders have; that the state is a giant
theme park, where they can visit an earlier, simpler America.

"People do come here to see the
trees and the mountains, and that’s a great idea, it’s even better if they go
home again, you know, I don’t want to say that to them but if you settle here,
you’re destroying in a sense what you came here to see."

(Delaney) What
many visitors come here to see is the traditional vista of small towns
surrounded by working landscapes? A ski slope is a working landscape, and in a
Killington meeting on the town’s future, residents’ comments centered on the
ski industry.

"I think the partnership between Killington Town, the Killington
Ski report and Killington business is the foundation of what we’re talking

(Delaney) But in Killington, where the ski resort’s
owners have made changes, it’s hard to reach consensus on whether the town is
moving in the right direction.

"I don’t think the mountain experience
has improved, but they have succeeded tremendously in decreasing the number of
skiers coming to Killington, and that’s a problem for all business owners."

(Delaney) But
for most Vermonters, working landscape means pastures with cows in them.

of the state’s farm planners says that image of rural Vermont may be a diminishing reality.

Calderwood) "…I see buildings going up
repeatedly to look like barns, that are never going to be used for agriculture
in any manner. I think our image of
Vermont as our tidy
villages and our green landscapes coming right up to the edge of those
landscapes is being challenged.

Louise Calderwood of Greensboro is a former Deputy Secretary of Agriculture who’s
been farming for twenty years in a state where dairy farms are now down to
eleven hundred.

(Calderwood) "I don’t predict a die-off of the family farm, I do predict, that we will continue to
see a development of very small farms who are very close to their consumers,
with processing on farm, or processing at some of the processing centers that
we’re seeing pop up around the state.

(Delaney) For
agriculture to thrive as a vital part of the Vermont economy, Bill Schubart thinks more farmers must borrow
some know-how from the cheese and maple sectors in marketing the powerful "Made
in Vermont" label.

(Schubart) "We’re going to have to look at agriculture.
On the value added side, the quality of cheeses and dairy products that we
produce is internationally recognized. And we’re going to have to export and
sell those. We’re going to have to do the same with wood products."

(Delaney) Wood
products are a traditional sector of the Vermont economy, a sector facing the growing challenge of
posted forest lands. That’s a challenge for hunters and hikers as well.

Lange) "No Trespassing" signs. They’re going up
everywhere. And I think that’s because of a clash of values between people who
move in here and buy up valuable property, and people who’ve been here forever.
But uh, posted land to me is anathema. But that is changing the face of
Vermont, no doubt
about it. The no trespassing is inimical to our original values, our ancestral

(Delaney) Pat
Parenteau teaches environmental law at the Vermont Law School. He says preserving the traditional Vermont is not just about the land, but about the water as
well, and that Lake Champlain is as much at risk from complacent politics as it is
from pollution.

(Parenteau) "This
is simply a reality that we don’t have the kind of political leadership right
now in Vermont, to step up to the plate, and say we are going to do what’s
necessary to clean up the lake, we love our dairy farms, we just had a nice
conversation about how farming is the landscape vignette of Vermont, but you
know Vermont isn’t just a painting, it’s a living system and if we don’t
maintain the living components of the system then I don’t know if we’re
actually preserving Vermont, the full idea of Vermont. And if we’re not going to expect dairy
farmers to pay for the clean up of the manure that comes off of those dairy
farms, then we’re going to have to find creative financing mechanisms to do
that. But one way or the other, you
don’t get to clean up Lake Champlain by merely wishing that it will happen, you
have to make investments, you have to make tough decisions, you have to set
standards, and then you have to enforce those standards, or it simply isn’t
going to happen."

(Delaney) Vermonters are talking about some of the
issues that are in play almost every year, and one of those is the acquisition
of electric power. The state’s main sources of power may not last another
decade. Central Vermont Public Service CEO Bob Young sees a very different
power grid in the next twenty or thirty years

"I could see a scenario where you have a lot more small community
generation hooking up residential communities, where there’s a lot more micro
turbine generation, a lot more solar, so the dependence, the sort of historical
dependence on huge transmission distribution systems is significantly different
than what it is today."

(Delaney) Michael Dworkin is the energy expert at the Vermont Law School. He says the very grid itself will have to change.

(Dworkin) "I
think we’ll have a smart grid. We’ll have one that takes advantage of digital
controls to match supply and demand. And that means the ability to control
demand will be as important as the ability to control supply. And the end use,
efficiencies and end-use generation is going to be played off against
centralization better than they have before. And if we don’t get that, we’re
going to be in for a very rough century."

(Delaney) When
VPR examined in depth the challenges facing the state, the issue of updating
the infrastructure emerged over and over, as experts talked about enhancing the
networks of transport and communications that make things work. For Don Mayer,
whose business is in the Mad River Valley, that complex of connections means finding ways to
move things… not just goods and materials, but ideas as well.

"I think some of the issues in more rural areas revolve around
transportation, getting a sufficient number of employees to a place to do the
work at that site. I think we also have
to look at our telecommunications infrastructure, if we’re looking at what
we’re going to be like 25 years, ten years from now. We need to really follow
through on bringing broadband to every nook and cranny in the state, and to bring cellular service to every nook
and cranny in the state, so that our entrepreneurial businesses, whether
they’re in the Northeast Kingdom or in the Mad River Valley, or anywhere in the
state, have access to the technology that is going to enable them to grow their

(Delaney) Every
year the legislature spends hundreds of hours debating how to lower the costs
of health care. Doctor Mark Novotny of the Southwestern Vermont Medical Center in Bennington, says the lawmakers should embrace radical steps, if
they want true change.

(Novotny) "To truly reduce costs, you’ve got to
fundamentally change the entire payment system so that all patients are paid
under the model that we’re looking at here, I’m sorry all physicians are paid,
and all patients have access to the kinds of information and training that
we’re experimenting with here so that the costs overall can come down, on the
estimates, but the estimates are that we could probably save 30 percent on
health care costs if we had a global reorganization of the resources."

Fisher) "The opportunities are tremendous."

(Delaney) Doctor
Mark Fisher teaches at the Dartmouth Medical School

(Fisher) "I
think even if you look within Vermont the differences in practices across
communities, if we figured it out… if we came to a different payment system
that started to reward us for improving health and keeping people out of the
hospital, and keeping people out of specialists offices, through better primary
care and better patient information, we might be able to reduce the number of
specialists we needed to train in the future, or recruit to Vermont, we might
be able to close some hospital beds. Those are the places where the real savings are
going to come from.

(Delaney) No exploration of Vermont’s future can exclude a look at the increasing medical,
social and economic pressure on families, who often have few resources to cope
with those pressures.

Merrill directs the education program at the Vermont Achievement Center, a family services agency in Rutland. She says non-profits are being forced by declining
revenues, to cut vital family programs.

(Merrill) "So
they end an after-school program because they don’t have any money left. But
then there’s no community resources to have
an after-school program. So then the parents have no place for their kids
to go, so they, the kids, have no place after school to be. Then they have
sometimes not-so-great influences.

(Delaney) Beth Merrill’s colleague Rosie Piontek is a
child care specialist. She says family stresses are on the rise.

(Piontek) "I
think for our child care support services office, we see families sometime
struggling with the decision of, do I pay for child care, should I pay rent, or
should I buy food? And those are some real questions and it’s unfortunate, but
I think some of those might get even harder for families, but I think their
needs are increasing."

(Delaney) As
always in social service programming decisions, the question is, "can we afford
to do the things that we ought to be doing?"

says money can be used as a stumbling block to real progress. Beth Merrill
agrees and says it’s not entirely about dollars.

(Merrill) "The biggest resource that Rutland‘s lacking is
people to take an interest in kids. And
going outside and playing basketball for an hour in a group of kids to keep
them from hanging out in the back to smoke cigarettes, doesn’t cost anything. And people’s time actually does cost
something, but what it costs is what they get back in return, which is the gift
of knowing that they’ve given a kid some self-esteem, and actually a family
some self-esteem, because in the long run it’s worth it."

(Delaney) Paul
Costello of the Center for Rural Development says there is a sense of apprehension
over the future among the people he speaks to.

(Costello) "There’s a strong sense
that we’re at a turning point. That the energy situation, the global situation,
the affordability challenge, they’re all signals. We’re at a crossroads where our behavior,
potentially, as consumers is going to need to change, our way of looking at
ourselves as communities is going to change. One of the things we see at the council on
Rural Development is the tremendous interest in communities in pulling together as a full community, partly
because they tend to see that in modern life we tend to go our own way. They
might not have the same places to rub elbows that they did 50 years ago. So we
tend to build communities within our communities that don’t necessarily
intersect as often as people would like to see them. So I think there’s apprehension that we could
be losing things."

(Delaney) "Has this exercise over the
past couple years buoyed up your own optimism?"

(Costello) "Well it has. We went
recently to the work camp of the department of corrections up in St. Johnsbury,
and had a fascinating discussion with a group of about 25 incarcerated young
men. We asked them what their values were, and you never know what you’re going
to hear, but in this setting, they didn’t talk about environmental degradation
and the loss of community, they talked about substance abuse and it was moving
because what they were really saying was, yes we want to live the good life,
yes we have common values, but that gets interrupted. I thought that was fascinating because they
say the same things around their values as the business leaders or community
members in any other town in

(Delaney) There
are so many choices, so many questions exposed, and so few obvious answers. So how
do we keep families intact and healthy? How do we treat forest land? How much
do we tax ourselves for education? Can Vermont still afford Vermonters? How do we move our economy
forward without destroying our traditions

questions almost always become politicized. And what might urge political
figures in Vermont to be bolder? Political analyst Eric Davis has been
studying Vermont politicians for years at Middlebury College, and he says it depends on whether there is a strongly
Democratic House and Senate after the next election.

… then, I believe, what you
would see in the relatively short term, is the Legislature passing bills that
would expand the state’s involvement in health care, for example, expand
Catamount Health, regulate the utilities, especially Vermont Yankee, more
vigorously than has been the case in the past, make some adjustment in the tax
system that may result in increases for those in the higher brackets.

But if the economy is still struggling
in 2009 & 10, I think even a strongly Democratic Legislature would think
carefully before raising taxes and expanding regulations."

(Delaney) Whether
complete control of the legislature under one party would change things or not,
economist Art Woolf is convinced that pressure from the grass roots works
wonders on public officials.

When some of these issues
begin to hit home, people are going to begin to demand solutions, and we’re
going to have to have policy-makers and legislators and governors that start to
address those issues, and we’re going to have to have a true debate on what we
want the future of Vermont to look like.
And I think we will ultimately come to the right decision.

(Delaney) What
the right decision will be, we don’t yet know. What we do know is that with
Vermonters in huge numbers saying "I want my Vermont to be the special place that our mystique says it is",
we have already begun that true debate on our future that Art Woolf and others
say we need.

Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Delaney.

This program was produced by
Steve Delaney and Melody Bodette. The technical director was Chris Albertine.
The Executive Producer was John Van Hoesen. We had assistance from the VPR News

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