By Lyle Jepson and Mary Cohen
Imagine a future for Rutland County in which young families move into efficient new homes close to high-paying advanced manufacturing jobs … recent college graduates shop downtown for “first day of work” wardrobes before starting jobs with local companies where they worked as student interns. … construction workers in hardhats renovate and build new commercial space to accommodate growth in our health care and value-added food manufacturing sectors.
These are some of the images people share with us as we travel around Rutland County asking community members and business leaders what they hope our future will bring.
We believe this future is possible and that it can happen right here. But it will not happen by accident.
We agree with those who celebrate Rutland County as a model of how other places in Vermont can create momentum and positive energy by working together. Now we need to leverage this momentum to address the many challenges we face.
Vermont is losing population, and its workforce is shrinking. The Vermont Futures Project estimates that Vermont will need nearly 11,000 new workers each year for the next 15 years to fill job openings created by retirement and out-migration. Rutland County could lose 1.4 percent of its population by 2020 if the economy remains steady, and up to 5.2 percent if the economy stagnates, according to a 2013 Agency of Commerce and Community Development study. Some communities could see even steeper declines: Rutland city could face declines of 4.5 percent to 10.1 percent.
Local business owners and managers already tell us that they have more job opportunities than they can fill. They tell us that they want help finding the talent they need to grow and to operate their businesses efficiently. Our low unemployment rate — approximately 3.1 percent — means that employers will continue to have difficulty replacing the many talented people who are retiring. We cannot let a thin labor pool turn back our economic recovery, or put our tax base, property values, and industries at risk.
We need to reverse this trend by attracting people to our region to live, work and raise their families.
Rutland Economic Development Corporation (REDC) and the Rutland Region Chamber of Commerce are working together on a regional marketing initiative that will improve our economy by growing tourism to our region, increasing the population of growing families and working-age people, and retaining high school and college students.
We launched this initiative in November 2016 by issuing a request for proposals from marketing firms that could help us achieve these goals. We received 52 inquiries from across the country. By the December proposal deadline, 18 firms, including nine Vermont businesses, submitted proposals. Our regional marketing committee was pleased by the quality of the proposals and invited four firms to make in-person presentations to the committee in January. A highly respected and energetic firm has been chosen.
This is urgent work. It must be high-quality, and it must be delivered consistently and professionally, with a substantial budget. We are well on our way: we have raised over $200,000 from businesses and communities around the region, all of which recognize the urgency of our workforce challenges.
We thank the following businesses for donating $10,000 each: Carpenter & Costin, Casella Resource Solutions, Foley Family of Companies, Green Mountain Power, Heritage Family Credit Union, Mountain Times (in-kind), REDC, RRCC, and Rutland Regional Medical Center.
Castleton University, Russell Construction, and VELCO each donated substantial funds as well. Killington Resort, the state of Vermont, and many volunteers from around the county have also devoted funding and time to building a regional tourism brand called Killington Valley.
We thank the Rutland City Board of Aldermen, which granted $100,000 over two years to this effort from the city’s Zamias Fund, and we thank the towns of Fair Haven, Pittsford, and West Rutland, which have put money for this effort into their town budgets.
We ask the voters in Rutland Town, Clarendon, Killington, Mendon, and Middletown Springs to also support the effort on their ballots on Town Meeting day.
We will ask each community in our county for financial support (about one dollar per resident). We visited Proctor, Pawlet and Castleton; we will visit Wells and Middletown Springs soon. We invite towns and community members to participate in the effort through our subcommittee work on tourism, increasing our population, and retaining students. If you don’t see your town’s name on this list, it is because we will be calling you soon. We will need everyone’s help to make this effort sustainable.
The reception we have received during our visits to towns and businesses has been both gracious and positive; we feel a stronger connection with each visit.
We want to hear from you. Please contact us with your questions and ideas at 802-773-2747 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. And please, support this effort on Town Meeting day.
Mary Cohen is executive director of the Rutland Region Chamber of Commerce.
Lyle P. Jepson is dean of Entrepreneurial Programs at Castleton University and executive director of the Rutland Economic Development Corporation.