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Windham County Aims To Reverse Economic Trends

Concerns about downward economic trends in Windham County have sparked a multi-town campaign to reverse those trends and boost the region’s prosperity.

The coalition behind the effort is called Southeastern Vermont Economic Development Strategies, or SeVEDS. The campaign’s goal is to stop the region’s ongoing loss of population-- especially the loss of young, educated workers.

The SeVEDS group held meetings this week in four Windham County towns, to gather insights on the region’s assets and challenges --and to present the data behind the downward trends.

The group’s consultant is Frank Knott, the founder of Vital Economies Alliance. He says the region needs younger workers to move the economy forward as baby boomers retire.

But Knott says that’s a challenge, because workers can earn higher salaries for comparable jobs in all of the three states that border southern Vermont.

The good news, Knott says, is that many jobs can now be done anywhere, which allows a growing number of workers to live where they choose and telecommute.

“It’s no longer that people follow jobs,” the consultant told a group in Wilmington. “People are going to communities where they want to be. The community that figures out how to be the place young people want to be to launch their families are going to be the communities that win.”

Twenty-nine year old Cullen Neves, a planner in with the Windham Regional Commission, told the group that she and her fiancé are typical.

The couple moved to southern Vermont after graduate school because they love the area, and because Neves had a job offer. Her fiancé hasn’t found a job that fits his qualifications.

“He started looking after I took this job,” Neves says. “And he’s still looking. So he commutes two and a half hours to Boston three or four days a week, and the rest of the time he works from home.”

Neves says many young professionals in the region work at home. Some share rented work space where, Neves says personal interactions can lead to new ideas and business ventures.

But none of that is possible without high speed internet, and residents of Halifax and Marlboro say they’re still waiting for broadband service.

Knott says the way to build prosperity and improve wages is to increase production, so that  more capital flows into the region than goes out.

Wilmington town clerk Susie Houghwout says many second homeowners would love to become fulltime residents -- if they could make a living.

“We need to promote the idea that if you can bring your business or part of your business with you, you may be able to make that transition,” Houghwout says. “It happens occasionally. I just don’t know that we’ve figured out how to promote it or make it happen more often.”

Knott says Vermonters’ tendency to think in terms of separate towns, rather than regions, is a serious obstacle to success.

The SeVEDS group hopes to create a Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy for the region. If the plan is approved by the U.S. Economic Development Agency, it will qualify the region for federal programs that could help Southeastern Vermont find its way back to prosperity.

Susan Keese was VPR's southern Vermont reporter, based at the VPR studio in Manchester at Burr & Burton Academy. After many years as a print journalist and magazine writer, Susan started producing stories for VPR in 2002. From 2007-2009, she worked as a producer, helping to launch the noontime show Vermont Edition. Susan has won numerous journalism awards, including two regional Edward R. Murrow Awards for her reporting on VPR. She wrote a column for the Sunday Rutland Herald and Barre-Montpelier Times Argus. Her work has appeared in Vermont Life, the Boston Globe Magazine, The New York Times and other publications, as well as on NPR.
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