By Adam Federman, VTDigger.org
It’s taken far too long for the BJ’s Wholesale Club in Rutland Town to open its doors, said Kevin Mullin. The nationwide membership-only chain has been held up by permit delays and litigation for more than three years.
So when Mullin shops at a BJ’s in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., not far from where he owns several movie theaters, and sees a lot of Vermont plates, it’s especially frustrating. A longtime county legislator who chairs the Senate Committee on Economic Development, Mullin said his constituents often drive the hour and 45 minutes to Colchester to shop at Costco or to the BJ’s in West Lebanon, N.H.
“This thing should already be open,” Mullin said. “Anyplace else in the country it would be open now.”
It is just one of many unfinished projects that he and Rutland County’s two other state senators, Peg Flory and Brian Collamore — all Republicans — say would benefit the region’s economy.
There’s also the Route 7 upgrade, now in its 18th year, with only one of six sections completed. Passenger rail service from Rutland to Burlington has been discussed for just as long and is still several years from completion.
Businesses such as Omya Vermont, which quarries marble to produce calcium carbonate at its plant in Florence, have struggled to expand because of lagging transportation improvements. According to Rep. Butch Shaw, R-Pittsford, Omya’s trucks make 120 daily trips between a marble quarry in Middlebury and the processing plant in Florence — which hardly improves traffic flow on Route 7. A nearby industrial park in Brandon has been mostly vacant for years.
The delayed infrastructure projects have stymied development and made it difficult for Rutland to attract business.
But, looked at another way, the city and region are poised for a rebound, according to Lyle Jepson, executive director of the Rutland Economic Development Corp. (REDC), referring to such untapped potential as housing stock, jobs that pay well, and recreational pursuits like hiking and skiing.
Improvements have been made — expansion of the runway at Rutland Southern Vermont Regional Airport, for example, has been essential for the industrial park. But more needs to be done, such as increasing hangar space to facilitate freight shipment and international trade, if the airport is to remain competitive, according to some officials.
The city and a local developer also recently agreed on a lease option for a proposed 128-room hotel with conference center and retail space in downtown Rutland.
Downtown retail occupancy rates are at historic highs.
And that passenger rail connection from Rutland to Burlington? With the assistance of a federal grant, it should be a reality in about four years. The train would travel to Burlington only once a day as part of Amtrak’s existing service on the Ethan Allen Express. However, track upgrades would allow Omya to ship more freight by rail instead of truck.
The possibility of rail service from Rutland to Montreal on the Ethan Allen Express is less certain. According to Transportation Secretary Chris Cole, the state is working on establishing service to Montreal on Amtrak’s Vermonter, which runs through White River Junction and Montpelier. That project is awaiting ratification of an agreement between the United States and Canada.
“Let’s get the Vermonter up there first,” Cole said. “And then figure out if it makes sense to have two trains going up to Montreal.”
Mullin and Flory have been in the Vermont Legislature for 17 years, first as members of the House and then the Senate. It was during their freshman term in the House that an amendment to expedite the Route 7 upgrade was passed. Collamore, who came from Detroit to attend Middlebury College in 1968, has been in Vermont ever since. A broadcaster and general manager of several radio stations, he has served in the Senate since 2015.
Collamore sees another challenge facing Rutland. In 1970, the city’s population peaked at just over 19,000. It’s been declining ever since and is now below 16,000, lower than it was in 1930. (In contrast, population in the county as a whole — with the exception of a slight decline over the last decade — has generally increased.) Flory, who just attended her 50th high school reunion at Mount St. Joseph Academy in Rutland, said there were 160 students in her graduating class. Today there are 86 students in the entire school.
Demographic decline is also tied to economic stagnation, said Mullin. While Chittenden County has seen steady growth since the 2008 recession, Rutland has been left behind.
“There’s Chittenden County and then there’s Vermont,” said Flory.
“When you look at the job numbers since the Great Recession,” Mullin said, “Vermont appears to be doing extremely well. But for one of the few times in Vermont history there is a huge geographic disparity.” According to Mullin, on paper Rutland’s unemployment numbers are relatively low, about 4.3 percent, but they don’t include people who have dropped out of the workforce altogether (which is an apples to apples comparison with all other unemployment data). According to the Vermont Department of Labor, the state’s unemployment rate is 3.4 percent, consistently one of the lowest in the country.
It’s not that there aren’t jobs in Rutland, said Jepson. REDC recently launched a career development page on its website with close to 60 listings. It’s posting only livable wage jobs starting at $44,000 to showcase the fact that the region has more to offer than service sector jobs. Currently there are listings from Omya, General Electric, Rutland Regional Medical Center, Rutland Area Farm and Food Link, and many others.
At a minimum, said Jepson, Rutland needs to retain its current population and create an environment and economy that attract students and young families. About 70 percent of Castleton University students are from Vermont, but few stay in the region after graduating. Castleton has made a substantial investment in the city of Rutland and will be inaugurating downtown housing for about 40 students this fall.
REDC, which now has a partnership agreement with the university, hopes the downtown campus can breathe new life into the city.
“We need to have a place where millennials live, work and play,” Jepson said. The only way that will happen is with a substantial investment in local development, education and marketing, he said.
Mullin and Flory said they have focused on economic development since they entered the Legislature in 1999. They and Collamore are running for re-election and supporting Phil Scott for governor. Their top priority, they say: jobs and the economy.
Mullin said he’s introduced legislation aimed at streamlining the permit process and spurring development in the last two sessions but that it hasn’t gone anywhere.
“Once it gets down to finance, anything that costs money to make money gets cut,” Mullin said. “And the reality is, just like anything else, if you want to invest in your economy you have to invest in it for future returns. You can’t just think that you’re going to magically do something for nothing. And that’s a real problem.”
By Adam Federman, VTDigger.org