Buoyed by a new town plan that includes an economic development goal, town officials convened a panel of state and local business leaders that drew an audience filling the new community room at Pierson Library Tuesday, Sept. 24.
Owners of local businesses said it was a rare opportunity to share their opinions. Their frank feedback drove the conversation while the regional and state economic development experts in the group weighed in with suggestions on how to make improvements.
About 50 people attended Tuesday’s forum, which took the place of the Shelburne Selectboard’s regular meeting. Vice Chair Jaime Heins posed a series of questions that elicited candid observations from the business owners, particularly regarding zoning and interactions companies have with town and state government.
“In general, there’s been a culture of ‘no’ in Vermont for economic development and we’ve got to shift it to a culture of ‘yes,’” said Eli Lesser-Goldsmith from Healthy Living Market, who is working on his company’s project to build its first store in Shelburne.
In business for 35 years in South Burlington, Lesser-Goldsmith said he doesn’t think his company has ever been asked by local government for feedback about how government and business work together.
John DuBrul of The Automaster car dealership, agreed.
“Business is almost a bad word around here. … You feel unappreciated as a business,” he said. “The town has had an image problem with zoning for a really long time.”
Matt Cohen, owner of Fiddlehead Brewing Co., is trying to expand his popular brewery, a move that is now caught in a court appeal of its local zoning permit. The nearly two-year process to obtain the permit could be simpler, and the town should look to “make rules that follow common sense,” he said. “This is where we want to be, but every day it’s becoming more and more difficult.”
Tim Williams, owner of Archie’s Grill and The Scoop, said there may be changes in state laws that can help shorten the permitting appeal process.
“It’s too easy for people to oppose a project who are not stakeholders,” he said. “For a developer or a business owner, it becomes too expensive, too frustrating, that they just move on.”
Heins asked the group what can be done to improve the climate for business in the community.
Panel member Don Turner, a state representative and the town manager in Milton, noted that before entering government, he worked as a real estate developer and he relies on that experience now.
“I think it takes a paradigm shift within the government. Government needs to reach out and say to business, ‘We’re here to help you and even if your project doesn’t fit within the zoning, how can we find a path to make your project fit with our zoning and our town plan?’” Turner said.
The two-hour discussion covered a variety of issues that business owners wrestle with, such as finding reliable, qualified employees in a tight labor market, as well as child care and housing for employees.
Cohen pointed out that Fiddlehead manages to attract employees without difficulty, but keeping them is a challenge given the high cost of living locally.
“We pay people quite well. They have benefits. But I know they will never be able to afford a house here in Vermont and that’s very unfortunate,” he said. “It’s a huge challenge. Once we get people, it’s hard to keep them here.”
Despite the challenges, all of the business owners said they consider Shelburne a desirable place to live and do business. The discussion included the state’s efforts to attract new workers from out of state with a $10,000 incentive to relocate and work remotely. That led to additional brainstorming about co-working spaces, including the new Pierson Library, as a place for people to work.
But despite the allure of considering attracting new companies and workers, panel member Frank Cioffi, president of the Greater Burlington Industrial Corp., said it’s important not to overlook the companies and workers already here.
Cioffi explained how his group focuses on about 230 key employers in Chittenden County to support their efforts to generate economic activity.
“Retention is the number one concern – holding on to what you have is 95 percent of what we do in economic development,” he said.
Cioffi said he’s seen a statistic from the state that more than 2,000 Vermont high school graduates do not go on to college or other higher education. That surprised Lesser-Goldsmith, who called it discouraging.
“We’ve promoted higher education but we haven’t promoted the trades,” Lesser-Goldsmith said. “There’s so much opportunity there. Who’s looked for a plumber or an electrician in the last six months? It’s the hardest thing. There’s a ready-made career where you can make great money with very little debt. If we start training people and get them into the workforce, maybe they can buy a house. … It could become a good career path.”
Jon Copans of the Vermont Council on Rural Development suggested that local government and business leaders focus on just a few areas that need attention and work together on improvements.
Catherine Collette, an owner of Burlington Bedrooms, said Tuesday’s forum itself was a welcome step.
“This is a good start,” she said. “I’d like to see more forums to bring in more voices, more businesses.”