By Joan Goldstein
Vermont is face-to-face with the opportunity to infuse federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) dollars into transformational projects throughout the state. This is a once in a lifetime moment and the Department of Economic Development is focused on growing the workforce and shoring up a foundation of strong economic activity that will persevere into the future. We know the Covid-19 crisis has exacerbated workforce and housing issues around the state, from our largest to our smallest communities. The need for investment is great. The governor has made several proposals that will set us on a course for success in the long term.
The sharp increase in housing prices and drastic shortage of available units has intensified throughout the duration of the pandemic. As the governor mentioned in his budget address, in mid-January there were only 136 homes for sale that a middle-income family can afford and only five in Chittenden County. What’s more, according to the Tax Department, more than half of Vermont towns have seen their grand list decline or remain stagnant as town and school budgets increase. I’ll repeat that, more than half of our towns are struggling to grow.
Vermonters in these towns who want to ensure their children and staff have the resources they need to thrive will surely face a higher portion of the tax burden unless we can increase the property development or redevelopment to lift the total value of all properties in a town. This is also known as growing the town’s grand list.
The state can encourage investments by helping property owners improve, renovate, and build housing and businesses – projects that both add value to the community and affirm new and existing residents have safe places to live and work. In return, a portion of the increase in property value would be shared with the property owner. The $30 million Grand List Enhancement Program proposed by governor Scott is intended to assist recovery efforts in communities that have been left behind even before the onset of the pandemic and fervent real estate market. It is an extension of the current Capital Investment Program, for which the governor has also asked for an additional $50 million infusion in response to strong demand. Over 100 applications and $90 million in funding requests were received in the current Capital Investment Program with only $10 million available to fund projects. The demand is there from non-profit organizations and for-profit entities to take on projects that will invest in childcare facilities, performing arts venues, food supply chain capacity and hospitality projects, as well as small businesses like cafés and country stores.
While these programs are about growing, recruiting, and investing in capital projects, there are businesses still suffering from the cash constraints caused by the pandemic. To meet the needs of those businesses, the Vermont Economic Development Authority (VEDA) under the governor’s budget will offer a forgivable loan program. This program is designed much like the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) that many Vermonters are already familiar with but will offer more flexibility to better meet the existing needs of local businesses seeking additional working capital.
To secure the future we want, we need to invest now. Each of these initiatives depend on a strong workforce to fully succeed and I’ll continue to share more about efforts being made to help create jobs, fill vacant positions, and bring business and opportunity to all corners of the state.
Joan Goldstein is the commissioner of the Department of Economic Development.