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Bennington County Towns Look To Improve Local Economy

Andrew McKeever for VPR
From left, Manchester Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Berta Maginniss, Manchester Select Board Chairman Ivan Beattie and then-Dorset Select Board Chairman Chris Brooks in February.

In Bennington County, concerns are growing about a regional economy that’s only slowly rebounding from the Great Recession.

A new report called the Northshire Economic Development Strategy (NEDS) focuses on how to diversify the economy and attract more younger residents to the towns of Dorset, Manchester and Manchester Village.

The report says a shortage of affordable housing makes it difficult to attract younger workers.

Casper Crouse is a case in point.

He’s a 28-year-old product designer who works at JK Adams, a kitchen and housewares manufacturer and retail store in Dorset.

It’s definitely been pretty difficult,” Crouse says. “When I first moved up here, I stayed in a hotel for a week or so, and looked around, and I really could only find about three specific spots that were potential places I could rent within my budget and everything like that, having to pay student loans – it’s the reality for a lot of kids who are graduating from college now.”

Crouse eventually found an apartment, but he’s still looking for a better place.

John Blatchford, president and CEO of JK Adams, says that one of the biggest issues in the Northshire area’s economy is the difficulty firms like his have in recruiting younger workers.

Blatchford says the cost of housing plays a role, but there are other factors, including social opportunities and career advancement.

"Career development [is] somewhat limited." - John Blatchford, JK Adams president and CEO

“Career development [is] somewhat limited, in that if someone starts to progress and wants to work into a management role and may be looking to make a move from one company to another, there aren’t as many opportunities,” Blatchford says.

The study identifies several strengths, such as good schools and access to four-season outdoor recreational opportunities.

But it also finds problems: In addition to the workforce shortage, there’s a lack of shovel-ready industrial space and an absence of higher education opportunities.

The study also looks for solutions, emphasizing a regional rather than town-by-town approach.

"More and more people are beginning to recognize that we face common challenges, we have limited resources." - Bill Colvin, Bennington County Regional Commission

“It really seems to me that things are coalescing around this idea of regional partnerships – more and more people are beginning to recognize that we face common challenges, we have limited resources,” says Bill Colvin of the Bennington County Regional Commission.

That is what two local chambers of commerce are doing by joining together to form a new entity called The Partnership.

The Partnership is asking 16 towns to chip in $75,000 to support it.

But the proposal suffered a setback during Town Meeting Day, when Manchester's voters narrowly balked at approving their $25,000 share.

The chamber is petitioning for a revote, since Manchester’s contribution is critical to getting the partnership up and running.

Andrew McKeever is the editor of the Manchester Journal.

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