The Mountain Times

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Multi-pronged approach to economic improvement needed for Rutland region

RUTLAND - A diverse panel of notable Rutland-area business, education and municipal leaders gathered last week, along with area residents, for a brainstorming session held by Campaign for Vermont designed to generate potential solutions to the various challenges currently facing Vermonters, particularly those living and working in Rutland County.

The result: A mix of ideas, all interconnected, which may enable the Rutland area to reduce crime, attract new business, strengthen educational programs, offer more well-paying jobs and ultimately improve its economic landscape.

"Prior to working here, I had bought into the misconception that Rutland was a dangerous place," said Jim Baker, chief of the Rutland City Police Department. "What I found was the exact opposite. I realized Rutland was a special place with great people, multi-generation Rutland families who support each other and are willing to band together and tackle some of the issues that are present."

Baker, one of five panelists at CFV's Rutland community forum, said that the work of the police department, specifically in regards to a recent rise in drug and crime activity, is just one piece of the puzzle in helping Rutland become an economically vibrant community that is attractive to new businesses and able to retain homegrown, educated professionals.

"For example, look at the farmer's market that happens each week," said Baker. "This is a local initiative that energizes the downtown and brings in over a million dollars in revenue each year.   It's just one of the many good things going on in the community that help make the city more attractive. From a police perspective, the expectation is that we provide public safety and a basic sense of security to residents. But that's just one factor in the equation. People want to live where there is quality of life, a good education system, community activities and a strong economy."

Brendan Collins, finance manager for Wilk Paving and owner of Collins Wealth Management, is an example of a homegrown, young professional who chose to return to Rutland after college to start a career despite the economic challenges of working and living in Vermont.

"I fully understand why local kids don't come back to this area after college," said Collins who attended Connecticut College and Harvard University. "It is very difficult to return to Vermont where salaries are often half of what they are for the same position in Boston or New York, while the cost of living is still relatively high."

Collins said that despite these challenges - not to mention student loan debt obstacles - Rutland, and Vermont, has a lot to offer.
"As a young professional just starting out, no one in Rutland had to help me, but they did," he said. "I don't think I would have seen the same level of support elsewhere. I can call up an accountant or lawyer or any type of professional if I have a question - even people I don't know - and they're always so willing to help me. That's one trait - the people - that makes this area unique."

When asked by Campaign for Vermont founder Bruce Lisman what he thought could be done to encourage more local talent to return to Rutland, Collins said that potential student loan forgiveness programs offered by local employers and the state of Vermont would be first and foremost.

Assistant Superintendent of Rutland City Public Schools, Rob Bliss, also served as a panelist at the forum. He echoed Collins' thoughts on student loan forgiveness options and also talked several times about enhancing the area's educational focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) programs.

"I feel it would be of great benefit if our area had a heavier focus on science and math - both at the secondary and collegiate levels," said Bliss. "We've got great resources with colleges like Castleton being so involved in this community, if we could develop more STEM-based partnerships with schools like them that'd be huge."

Bliss, who expressed that Rutland's greatest product is its "kids and its community," said with more of a focus on high-tech jobs and small business development, Rutland could become more attractive to recent graduates and young families looking to settle down. He also said he thought work on projects like the Vermont Western Rail Corridor and Vermont Gas' proposed natural gas pipeline is important to consider when discussing business growth and overall economic development in Rutland.

"Innovation, education and infrastructure to me are three of the most important pillars for supporting economic development in any area and both retaining and attracting residents," Bliss said.

The success of Stafford Technical Center was cited multiple times during the forum and panelists and audience members both questioned whether STC's role could be expanded on in terms of aiding the local economy.

"Stafford Technical Center is a very nimble institution that can tailor its training programs as needed," said one audience member. "I wonder if we couldn't market Rutland to prospective companies and employers as a place where the training infrastructure is in place and can be constantly molded and shaped to fit their needs in terms of producing qualified, well-trained employees. Right now, many businesses outside of Rutland don't see the right workforce here, but Stafford could be the link to developing employees to fit the specific needs of different businesses."

Baker said he also feels STC is a gem for the community, not only in terms of its training opportunities, but also its role in helping to clean up the community and reduce crime.

"Let's face it, there are no more jails being built here in Vermont and we can't arrest our way out of the problems here in terms of crime and drugs," said Baker. "We're taking a holistic approach, and a component like Stafford Technical Center fits very well into that approach. If we're able to connect with troubled youth from tough family situations and get them to buy into programs like the ones at Stafford, it would give them the opportunity to get out of a bad situation. If we can get more local employers to develop co-op programs through Stafford, such as the diesel mechanics program that partnered with Casella Waste, and get these kids into them, that could boost their self esteem, lead them into a career and potentially allow them to make a fundamental change in the direction of their lives."

Baker also said that his department, along with others in the community, is trying to support people in tough situations and help them make progress in terms of getting on the right track, rather than pushing them aside.

Rutland City Mayor Chris Louras also referenced a multi-ingredient recipe that he believes is key to building a prosperous economy in Rutland County.

"We need to be as friendly as possible to businesses - both current and prospective businesses," said Louras. "It's certainly a balancing act in terms of keeping taxes low, but also providing a sound infrastructure (water, sewer etc.), a high level of public safety and a quality community environment that all businesses and residents desire."

Louras also cited current collaboration between the City of Rutland and local property owners in improving blighted properties to make them more attractive to prospective homebuyers, renters and businesses.

"The more we're able to rehab vacant properties, stabilize neighborhoods and strengthen community networks, the easier it will be to break the crime cycle and make Rutland a place where people want to live and work."