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The $10K Giveaway: Can a New Grant Program Help Revive Small Vermont Towns?

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Fair Game is Seven Days’ weekly political column.
SARAH PRIESTAP
  • Sarah Priestap

The word spread far and wide, all across the globe: Vermont was offering people $10,000 to move to the state. Wow, free money!

Ehh, not so fast. In reality, it's a small grant program aimed at a specific category of people: those who move to Vermont and continue to work for employers who are some distance away. And it isn't a cash giveaway but a reimbursement program for expenses related to a move.

As stories elsewhere in this week's Seven Days make clear, Vermont's small towns are crying out for new residents. Out-migration and a falling birth rate have left many with a shrinking or stagnant population, while, at the same time, many employers are constantly looking for workers.

The remote-worker program is a small effort to address a big problem. And while outside media accounts were greatly exaggerated, they did provide a windfall of free publicity.

"We've gotten 1 billion media impressions on the remote-worker program worldwide," Secretary of Commerce Michael Schirling said Monday. "Over 2,500 people are interested in the program."

The vast majority of those people will never get a dollar from the state. The remote-worker program is funded to the tune of $500,000 over the next three years. Which means that if each qualified applicant were to receive the full $10,000, the program would run out of money after enticing a not-so-grand total of 50 new residents.

Seems like a small drop in a great big, possibly leaky, bucket.

That doesn't bother program supporters such as Alexander Beck, workforce and education program specialist for the Brattleboro Development Credit Corporation, an economic development group in southeastern Vermont. "We've already seen people reach out and move here," he said. "Many people heard about the program and got interested in Vermont, even if they didn't qualify for this program."

Those who do make a move could be disappointed by the gap between promise and reality, especially in rural Vermont. "A lot of rural communities do not have modern telecom or internet," said Rep. Charles Kimbell (D-Woodstock), who has deep experience in finance and business. He pointed to two struggling communities within his district that face major obstacles to recovery.

"The town of Plymouth lost its general store and has no community meeting places," Kimbell said. "They're trying to live with it. In the town of Reading, the school is in peril and the general store is struggling. They have a cluster of homes with water and septic problems."

But Schirling paints a sunnier picture. "We have 10 areas where there are [plenty] of jobs," he noted, including not only Burlington but also the likes of Bennington, Springfield and St. Johnsbury. "If you draw a commuter shed around each one, you reach all 251 of our communities."

That's nice. But look at Kimbell's district. Proximity to Woodstock, with its picturesque and vibrant downtown, and the rest of the Upper Valley isn't doing much for the declining communities just down the road. Schirling says it's a matter of identifying each town's unique appeal. David Snedeker, executive director of the Northeast Vermont Development Association, offers an example. "We had a manufacturer in Lyndonville that was having trouble recruiting engineers," he said. "They advertised in mountain biking media, referring to the Kingdom Trails nearby. They had some success."

Sen. Becca Balint (D-Windham), who was one of the legislative sponsors of the remote-worker program, described it as one incremental step. "We need to think about a suite of offerings to entice people to stay or move here," she said.

Schirling believes that the best way forward is to come up with a variety of smaller-scale initiatives, test them out and see which ones are effective. Beck concurs. "It's not 'either/or' but 'yes/and,'" he said. "The more programs, the better."

It's a sadly ironic sort of crisis. Vermont is not seen as a land of opportunity, and yet the state's biggest economic challenge is an inadequate workforce. Jobs are going begging. "Physicians, engineers, retail, tourism, trucking, manufacturing — in every sector, workforce is the No. 1 challenge," said Schirling.

The state faces a real demographic crisis. Our population is aging, and our birth rate has fallen below the numbers required to merely replace retirees, much less fill the workforce gap. Programs such as remote-worker grants and Vermont's Stay to Stay initiative, which offers weekend visitors an extra day to visit potential employers, seem awfully incremental in the face of our challenges.

Big ideas, anyone?

Why, yes, in fact. One with a track record of success.

"A couple years ago, I took a trip to Lewiston, Maine," Snedeker said. "It has one of the youngest demographics in Maine because it took in 8,000 refugees from Somalia." The immigrants have sparked a swell of economic activity and turned around Lewiston's fortunes.

Balint recalled a recent talk given to lawmakers by state economist Tom Kavet. "He said, 'We know how to solve the demographic crisis: an influx of immigrants.'"

Balint then noted the potential worm in the apple. "There are Vermonters who see that as exciting and others who feel discomfited," she said. A proposal to welcome Syrian refugees to Rutland touched off a firestorm that divided the city and ended the political career of the once-popular mayor Chris Louras, who'd promoted the idea.

Also recall the NewVistas saga, reported on page 34 of this week's issue. The planned community, spearheaded by a wealthy Mormon, would have brought significant growth to an area in need of a boost, but local residents feared the consequences.

And that's the hidden obstacle to any idea for growing the economy. Many Vermonters are unwilling to accept too much change, especially when it involves people of a different religion or color. Maybe that's why our political leaders are nibbling around the edges of the problem instead of tackling it head-on.

Pooter and Snatch

The normally sacrosanct Vermont National Guard is getting a big ol' mess of bad publicity, thanks to a recent series of articles published by VTDigger.org. And the Guard, for all its boasting about its ties to the brave and noble Ethan Allen, has responded with something of a hissy fit.

The articles, mostly written by Jasper Craven in a series called "The Flying Fraternity," have spotlighted such alleged activities as widespread sexual harassment and assault, alcohol abuse, fiscal irregularities, misuse of Guard resources, and retaliation against whistleblowers. They've also revealed the boys' club monikers given to a couple of Guard officers: Lt. Col. Christopher "Pooter" Caputo and retired Air Force Col. Thomas Jackman, who was ousted quietly after he used an Air Guard jet to fly to Washington, D.C., for an assignation with his mistress. Jackman reportedly earned the nickname "Snatch" because of his eye for the ladies.

Pooter and Snatch. Old Ethan would be so proud.

The Guard responded by removing Digger from its media contact list.

"They communicated this by email in late September," Digger founder and chief editor Anne Galloway said. "As Jasper started reporting, he got through to people they weren't happy about us contacting." She added that the Guard was also unhappy about Digger's previous reporting on other topics, including the planned deployment of F-35 fighter jets in Vermont.

First Lt. Mikel Arcovitch, spokesperson for the Guard, acknowledged Galloway's account. "I made the recommendation" to remove Digger from the contact list, he said. "The job of the public information officer is to provide information to the public in a non-biased manner. There have been a couple of times when Digger has completely misled their readers ... We felt the professional relationship is a two-way street."

Galloway seems a bit bemused by the situation. "They said we asked pointed questions. That's kind of our job," she noted.

A pesky media outlet may be the least of the Guard's concerns. Gov. Phil Scott has already expressed his deep concerns about the events described in the Digger series, called for the closure of a pilots' bar called the Afterburner Club and announced that current Guard chief, Maj. Gen. Steven Cray, would not seek another term next year. State lawmakers, meanwhile, are preparing to investigate the Guard on a number of fronts.

"I'm certain there will be consequences," said Senate Majority Leader Balint. "There's a lot in that series, and it touches on so much of our work."

Rep. Tom Stevens (D-Waterbury), vice chair of the House Committee on General, Housing and Military Affairs, noted that lawmakers have passed bills in recent years designed to protect those who complain of sexual misconduct. "This series shows there is still a price to pay for reporting this behavior, and that's what we've tried to prevent," he said. "Clearly, we need to see the Guard institute these policies in a meaningful way."

Balint foresees hearings about an array of issues, from fiscal mismanagement to the Guard's treatment of women. "For many of us women, there was a collective heavy sigh," she said. "Really? Are we still there? Nothing has changed?

"We feel weariness and deep frustration," she continued.

The new legislative session is likely to be very uncomfortable for the Guard, which usually enjoys a warm reception in the Statehouse. Its petulant reaction to the Digger series seems to indicate that the Guard's leadership is either in denial, or believes it can ride out the situation with a display of shiny medals.

Media Notes

Changes are afoot in the Seven Days newsroom. The paper has hired three new reporters to replace one already-departed writer and two others who are soon to leave these pages.

Chelsea Edgar, who had been freelancing for our arts and culture desk since September, joined the staff late last month. A Middlebury College graduate, Edgar previously contributed to BuzzFeed and Philadelphia magazine and interned for NPR's "All Things Considered." She replaced Rachel Elizabeth Jones, who departed in October to work for a local artist.

Next we say hello to Derek Brouwer, a Montana journalist who spent the past three years at the alt-weekly Missoula Independent. His job ended abruptly in September when owner Lee Enterprises — which also owns the town's daily paper — shut down the Independent. Brouwer replaces staff writer Mark Davis, who's leaving us after five years to become assistant news director at Vermont Public Radio.*

Finally, as Fair Game readers learned last month, staff writer Alicia Freese is leaving for the adventure of a lifetime: an open-ended trip to Central and South America. Her replacement on our political team, Kevin McCallum, is noteworthy for two things. First, he was part of a team at the Santa Rosa, Calif., Press Democrat that won a 2018 Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the 2017 wildfires that ravaged Sonoma County.

He's been a reporter for some 20 years — but that's not the second notable thing. No, that would be his family's decision to pull up stakes, buy an RV and embark on a months-long, cross-country trek with the idea of finding work in New England. (He grew up in Connecticut, and the Northeast's pull is strong.)

Freese and Davis will leave Seven Days at the end of the year. Brouwer and McCallum join us after the holidays.

*Correction, December 5, 2018: An earlier version of this story misidentified Mark Davis' new title at Vermont Public Radio.

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