By Thomas Greene
Editor’s note: This commentary is by Thomas Christopher Greene, a novelist, founder of Vermont College of Fine Arts, and currently the owner of Hugo’s Bar and Grill in Montpelier.
Governor Scott: I write this as a fan of yours. I’m a progressive Democrat, yet I have voted for you. I admired your leadership of our state through Covid. Having had the opportunity to sit down with you multiple times in small groups and alone, I always found you thoughtful and the rare politician who seemed to be actually listening, rather than wondering what they may say next.
It is in that spirit that I tell you that I am disappointed in the response of your administration to the floods that ravaged our downtowns a few short weeks ago.
In Montpelier, where I have lived for 30 years, we have a downtown that should be the envy of every small city in America. It’s vibrant, full of a diverse range of shops and restaurants, almost exclusively owned by local people.
Each one of these businesses is its own ecosystem: employing local people, buying local products to be sold, and supporting local farms. In the best of times, each one of these small businesses is one minor calamity away from not surviving. These are all small-margin businesses, and they exist, frankly, in most cases, more as a public trust than real profit centers.
On July 10, I watched the river behind my restaurant’s inexorable rise, and I knew we were going to be in trouble. By 1 p.m., we had made the decision to close for the night to keep our people safe. By 6 p.m., prime dinner hours, people were texting me photos of the street in front of the restaurant underwater. From the front porch of my house a few miles away, I watched the rain fall in endless sheets.
We heard the warnings; we stayed glued to the news. And still, two days later, when I was the first person to walk into my restaurant, wearing waders, I was entirely unprepared for the devastation.
Natural disasters, like losing a loved one, have their own arc of grief. Initially, the adrenaline is so high there is almost a feeling of catharsis: We got this. Employees show up unaware of whether or not they are getting paid and get to work. Volunteers arrive and say hand me a shovel. With the ethos of pushing a car out of mud, Vermonters know how to work.
But then reality starts to set in. You see how long the road is in front of you. The work is greater than you imagined. You pay your employees when you have no revenue until you can’t. And then they are gone.
You begin to hear estimates of time, whispered among business owners, around when one might be able to open. Six months. Nine months. A year, if ever. Lifetimes in businesses that rely on daily cash to keep going.
Collectively, we turn our lonely eyes to government. And the irony is, government bears a lot of responsibility here. We’re in a climate crisis caused by government inaction. Rivers used to flood because of ice jams in the spring. Now they flood because of rainstorms in summer.
And what does the federal government do? They offer us, essentially, mortgages: 30-year loans with 4% interest. Last thing small businesses need is more debt. And in the words of one federal official: “This loan will survive your business, a bankruptcy, and even your own death. Your children will be responsible for paying for it. And that’s if you get approved after a lengthy process.”
What he didn’t say was that the federal government makes money off it. Gross.
At least, Governor, based on your announcement this week, Vermont is offering grants. But they are not enough. Businesses need working capital and now. Without a ton of process. A max of 20K with more strings attached than a harp? When most businesses have sustained losses in the hundreds of thousands, if not millions? That’s like attacking a house on fire with a single fire extinguisher: You’re probably still going to lose the house.
Walking through downtown Montpelier yesterday afternoon, I was struck by the silence. Almost nothing is open. Most of the volunteers are gone. Wind blew river dust in swirls across the empty streets. Here and there, a few business owners and contractors were still pulling out walls and floors and piling them on the streets.
There’s a sense of foreboding, like it could be this way a very long time. But it doesn’t have to be.
Do more, Governor. We need you.