By Lyle Jepson
Vermonters can no longer ask their economic development organizations to work in isolation and still expect success for our communities and our businesses.
Over the last year, the Rutland region has proved that a common vision and a common direction – forged through persistence and hard work – can rapidly transform a community.
In my role as Executive Director of Rutland Economic Development Corporation (REDC), I have learned that collaboration and attitude are the two most important tools we have to encourage economic growth in our region. Working together helps foster trust, builds stronger relationships, helps us work faster and more efficiently, and gives us the confidence to set ambitious goals.
Working together means sharing resources and supporting each other. It means opening ourselves up to unexpected partnerships. It means encouraging each other to risk trying something new. Most of all, it means seeking out and welcoming anyone who has a vision for how we can make our local economy stronger.
Castleton University President Dave Wolk is one source of such vision. Under his leadership, Castleton University invested in the purchase and repurposing of Spartan Arena and in the construction of the first student housing and three art galleries in downtown Rutland. The Castleton Polling Institute, Center for Schools, Center for Entrepreneurial Programs, and Center for Community Engagement – including internship programs and work-based learning that connects students directly with local businesses – share storefront office space on Merchants Row at the Castleton Downtown offices.
These investments (and those planned for the future, such as the upcoming construction of the Spartan Dome) directly enhance our region’s ability to attract and retain the workforce we need for our continued economic recovery. They demonstrate that higher education can help drive a robust local and regional economy. Most of all, they demonstrate that Castleton University’s success is deeply tied to success of the Rutland region – and vice versa.
Because of Castleton’s leadership in economic development, REDC created an innovative model for economic development by approaching Castleton University with an offer to collaborate by co-locating REDC and Castleton’s Center for Entrepreneurship. Castleton and REDC staff members now share Castleton’s storefront offices, blurring the lines between education and economic development.
The partnership between REDC and Castleton is an example of philosophy of change in action, but it is only one example. Regional coordination among REDC and the Rutland Region Chamber of Commerce, Downtown Rutland Partnership, Rutland Redevelopment Authority, and Rutland Regional Planning Commission is another cornerstone of our strategy. The leaders of all these organizations meet regularly to share information and work toward common goals.
One such goal is to create a strong regional brand that celebrates the entire Rutland region as the most collaborative, friendly, and innovative place in Vermont to live, work, play and grow a business.
The warm welcome that visitors receive when they visit the Chamber or Castleton Downtown on Merchants Row, the I Love Rutland campaign, the streamlined business permitting portal recently released by the Rutland Redevelopment Authority, the enthusiasm of the grassroots volunteers who are building the Killington Valley adventure brand, and the recruiting program that Rutland Young Professionals offers to new workers in town are all examples of how our actions build momentum for change. Because of this momentum and alignment, REDC and the Chamber launched a comprehensive, well-funded, and completely unprecedented regional marketing strategy in just a few months.
We credit this speedy response to the vision, commitment, and energy of our many partners, including the business owners and managers who shared with us their concerns about our region’s ability to attract and retain skilled workers. They helped us understand the urgency of our need to market our region, and let us know that they would support a significant investment in creating change. They said, “Yes, we will make our county – and all of our communities – economically strong.”
Forging a common direction demands a clear vision of how things might be different tomorrow, and it demands leadership, investment, and yes, some risk.
I urge you to welcome opportunities that allow those working for Vermont’s future to align our work more closely.
Governor Scott’s proposal to bring labor and commerce together under one agency, the Agency of Economic Opportunity, with common goals and shared leadership, is in the spirit of collaboration that has brought the Rutland region success. We applaud the Governor’s willingness to imagine how Vermont’s future might be brighter, and our economy stronger, if we consciously set out to unite our efforts.
We believe that working together, with a can-do attitude, is the key to our future success.
Lyle Jepson is dean of Entrepreneurial Programs at Castleton University and executive director for Rutland Economic Development Corporation, and is a former technical center director and high school principal.