Vermont spent $2 million to bring hundreds of workers here. It's about to give out millions more
Joe Viets was living in a big city in Colorado, working as a nurse, when he decided it was time for a change.
“It was kind of a shock to everybody when I came to work and said, ‘OK, I made the decision, I’m moving to Vermont.’ Then, of course, everybody’s like, ‘What’s in Vermont?’”
His fiancée, Alison, grew up in Montpelier and had always wanted to move back to the state. They were excited about living in a quieter area, with fewer lines.
His friends at work didn’t get it though. They started Googling reasons to move to Vermont. Somebody found an article about places that will pay you to move there, and Vermont was on the list.
The state program gives working people grants of up to $7,500 to move to the state.
Viets didn’t think about it again until he had already bought a house in Bethel, in Orange County, and started working at a nearby hospital.
When he looked into it though, he realized he qualified. So he submitted an application and some follow up paperwork. A couple weeks later, he got a check in the mail — for over $7,000.
Viets said the money helped pay for work on the house. But it had no impact on his choice to move here.
“No one has ever said that $5,000 or $10,000 is the sole reason people move. But it is a reason. And it is an attraction to them to consider Vermont.”Sen. Michael Sirotkin
About half of the grant recipients said the incentive program was not an important part of their decision to relocate. That’s according to a study commissioned by the Legislature, which surveyed more than 80 people who received relocation grants in 2019 and 2020.
The state auditor has also questioned the value of the program in the past, saying at best it’s a minor incentive, and at worst a gift to someone who would have moved here anyway.
Proponents are well aware of this criticism.
“No one has ever said that $5,000 or $10,000 is the sole reason people move,” said state Sen. Michael Sirotkin. “But it is a reason. And it is an attraction to them to consider Vermont.”
Sirotkin has supported the incentive program since its early days. He said that regardless of how much the money factors into someone’s decision to relocate here, if it helps at all, it’s worth it.
That’s because Vermont is desperate for workers. There’s something like three jobs open for every person looking for work, according to the most recent data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s even with all the people who moved here during the pandemic.
“We're a long way from ever closing the door on anybody here,” said Sirotkin.
More from VPR: How are people who moved to Vermont during the pandemic doing now?
For most of its history, Vermont has been trying to attract people to the state. There was a short-lived, largely unsuccessful program to lure Swedish farmers here in the late 1800s.
Then, in the 1940s, the state launched a glossy photo magazine called Vermont Life, essentially to promote itself.
“The idea was to put Vermont’s best foot forward and try to attract visitors and, if possible, residents to the state,” said Tom Slayton, who was an editor there for more than 20 years.
During his tenure, Slayton was a state employee, as was the rest of the staff. He said the magazine did well. At its peak, the state printed nearly 100,000 copies an issue.
“It was not a hard sell,” he said. “The belief was that Vermont is a pretty nice place. And all you have to do is let people know about it, and they’ll be attracted to it.”
Vermont Life folded in 2018 after years of declining circulation. That was the same year lawmakers approved the state’s relocation grant program — a marketing campaign with some of the same goals.
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At the time though, the program was pretty left-field. There wasn't buy-in right away.
“It was so, so hard,” said Joan Goldstein, the Commissioner of Economic Development. “Our department had historically only worked with businesses. We don’t usually work with individuals, so that was a huge departure. This was like, OK, how do we do this?”
At the time, there were hardly any other states or municipalities in the country offering cash as an incentive for people to relocate.
Once the governor signed the bill though, interest in the program sort of blew up. It got publicity all over the world.
“We had a billion impressions,” Goldstein said. “When they tracked all the marketing. And it was like, ‘A billion? We don't get a billion anything.’”
"The belief was that Vermont is a pretty nice place. And all you have to do is let people know about it, and they’ll be attracted to it.”Tom Slayton, former editor of Vermont Life magazine
Since then, lots of places have emulated the idea of paying people to relocate.
It’s still early days to gauge whether these programs result in more people moving and what retention is like, according to Kenan Fikri. He’s the research director at the Economic Innovation Group in Washington D.C. and studies these incentive programs.
“They represent a new frontier in local economic development, and a transition from chasing companies to trying to attract the workforce that you need to thrive in the modern economy,” he said.
So far, in Vermont, just over 400 new residents and their families have received grants to move to the state.
Every year, the program is oversubscribed — by a lot, said Goldstein. The state gives out grants until they run out of money. That already happened this year.
This week, the governor signed legislation to continue funding the program with just over $3 million.
“That $7,500 for the relocating worker grant was significant. It was enough for me to focus on Vermont.”Matthew Kapitan, Tinmouth
While it’s not addressing big issues like the state’s housing stock or lack of child care, supporters say for a relatively small investment, the grants can make a difference.
That was true for Matthew Kapitan. He works in I.T. and was looking to relocate from Wisconsin.
“That $7,500 for the relocating worker grant was significant,” Kapitan said. “It was enough for me to focus on Vermont.”
He ended up moving to Tinmouth in Rutland County this year. It’s a small community of about 600 people — and the same town where he grew up.
Above all though, Kapitan said his decision to move back came down to finding a home.
While he was visiting Tinmouth last year, he ran into some childhood friends who were selling their house. They asked if he wanted to buy it.
“I’m sure I would have jumped at this opportunity with or without this program,” he said.
In the process of moving, he learned his house would have high-speed internet – he thinks some of the fastest in the country.
“It really is amazing,” Kapitan said. “I think they should be broadcasting that, and advertising that, right alongside this program.”
Lexi Krupp is a corps member for Report for America, a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues and regions.
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