Op - Ed
February 7, 2019

New jobs, new markets require new leadership

By Emerson Lynn

What passes for economic development in Vermont is largely ineffective and not suited for the 21st century, according to Peter Stromgren and Bill Schubart who co-wrote a recent op-ed that was widely circulated.

They are correct in the sense that what we have – the Vermont Agency of Commerce and Community Development – was not built to do what is necessary, which is to attract new businesses and to create new markets. The agency spends its time and money helping those businesses already here with many business-related tasks spread across a number of state programs.

What Mr. Stromgren and Mr. Schubart suggest is to draw all efforts under one roof and that the group should be a non-governmental agency “with skilled but apolitical leadership, a clear organizational chart, and declared accountability measures and sole responsibility for economic improvement…”

The writers also argue that this new “economic development authority would collaborate with UVM’s various advanced scientific disciplines to help them bring new technologies to market…”

We have made this same argument for years. It has long been apparent that economic development in Vermont is an afterthought. The Agency of Commerce and Community Development carries little to no weight in the Legislature, and hasn’t for as long as we can remember.

The University of Vermont is the largest and most important asset the state has, and its potential as an economic development partner has never been explored, let alone tapped. UVM is a billion-dollar-a-year organization and its intellectual capacity is restricted to within the walls of the school itself. The same can be said of Vermont’s higher education community.

Why?

Because economic development is an expensive, long-term, labor-intensive exercise that requires  a lot of patience. It’s everything a political environment abhors—particularly one designed around a two-year election cycle.

And, in Vermont, economic development has always had a negative ring to it. Like it’s a little bit dirty. We have never put economic development on par with human services, or education, or the environment.

Isn’t that odd, given that a good job is the basis for any definition of prosperity or personal stability?

The Legislature has convened for the new biennium. Ask yourself: what are the issues being considered by the leadership this session? Are any of them focuses on bringing new jobs to Vermont? Any of them focused on creating new markets? Any of them to identify economic development as a priority, with suggestions as to how this effort could be reorganized and funded?

Nope.

The hope – expressed by the two authors – is that our leaders will recognize that today’s needs are more urgent than in the past and that today’s needs cannot be met within the existing system.

They are correct, but it’s a heavy lift.

Any successful effort to create a new economic development paradigm must follow the recognition that there is a problem, that what we have doesn’t work.

That perception does not exist. We are beyond full employment. Anyone who wants a job can find one, which is about as far as the thinking goes.

We’re spending more time focused on the revising of Act 250, the state’s land use law, than we are creating the next wave of new jobs in Vermont.

Mr. Stromgren and Mr. Schubart are right to push the cause, and they are correct in saying it’s an effort that needs to be championed by the governor. If economic development in Vermont continues to be run out of the governor’s office – no matter who sits in the chair – the results will be more of the same.

That won’t work much longer. Tomorrow’s jobs are of a different cast and require different skills. To get them will require a change in approach and a change in partnerships. It will require a different – and yes, apolitical – leadership.

It’s a conversation that needs to happen.

Emerson Lynn is the former publisher of St. Albans Messenger.

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