Shelburne Selectboard Member
On Sept. 24 at the new Pierson Library, we held an economic development forum to address persistent concerns raised by the community regarding the business climate and economic development in Shelburne. The topic of economic development was identified by the selectboard as a priority concern at its annual retreat in April. We decided to focus our discussion on business retention following several well-regarded economic development-related visioning sessions hosted by the Shelburne Business and Professional Association last fall. We would like to share a few key takeaways from the event and propose some ideas for how we might progress this initiative in the short term to make some tangible (and long overdue) headway.
We note two concerns frequently raised by residents when this topic is discussed: (1) the need to improve economic development, growth and business retention in town and (2) the need to preserve Shelburne’s distinctive small-town, rural character. We view these as complementary and compatible goals. In fact, if we do not recognize the need to achieve these parallel outcomes, we risk jeopardizing both. Economic development is the resource that makes it possible for Shelburne to achieve the kind of community that we desire in the long term; it provides the necessary tax base for municipal infrastructure investments (consider the looming multimillion-dollar wastewater facility upgrades), it funds our roads, recreation department, town offices and other services and amenities that we all experience and value in our day-to-day lives as Shelburne residents. Without a comprehensive, coherent and proactive approach to economic development in Shelburne, we risk having the kind of undesirable and haphazard development and growth that will undermine Shelburne’s distinctive character: think Dollar Stores and fast food chains. We have a recently adopted new Town Plan that speaks to the kind of sustainable economic vitality that exemplifies our community ideals. We need first to ensure that existing town processes and mechanisms (planning and zoning office and town boards and committees involved with development review and planning) are both structured appropriately and optimized to solicit the necessary feedback from all stakeholders in the process. But we need to go beyond that and recognize that much more work is needed.
We need to start by addressing an image problem. Several business owners at the forum expressed a common theme: Shelburne doesn’t seem to want economic growth. “Business is bad” and “economic growth hurts us” were seen as common attitudes in town. “Zoning hinders development” and our “permitting processes are overly restrictive” was another common theme. Whether perceived or real, we need to change this perception and make it clear to all that Shelburne is open for business.
A concept that we discussed at length during the panel discussion is to create a dedicated economic development position in town. Such an office or individual (e.g. economic development director) would be tasked with business recruitment and retention; identifying, targeting and recruiting potential businesses; fitting businesses to locations; shepherding businesses through the permitting process and promoting Shelburne’s economic opportunities with marketing support and related resources. This role would have the added benefits of changing negative perceptions by proactively engaging with the business community and helping to navigate zoning and permitting barriers and processes. The return on investment of a concerted, sustained and focused effort by a professional seems obvious, and we plan to immediately begin a feasibility analysis of such an approach.
Other topics were addressed included:
- Addressing affordable housing needs. This is a systemic, region-wide issue, but Shelburne, together with the town’s housing subcommittee, can continue to find creative ways to make affordable housing available.
- Addressing workforce shortages. This is also systemic and regional, but we might find ways to partner with regional schools and businesses to promote local training and vocational/apprenticeship programs to develop a talent pool for local jobs.
- Addressing child care needs. Finding childcare is challenging and tapping into this need attracts the right demographic to the area. Can we find ways to alleviate this shortage?
Tapping into community development block grants was discussed, as well as “green zoning” and other kinds of incentive programs to attract businesses that further our goals. We intend to further explore and vet these related initiatives in future community forums. One of the most important takeaways from the evening is that Shelburne has at its disposal all the resources and capacity to both envision and achieve the kind of economic development growth that we want. We are committed as a board to begin to implement the steps necessary to do this and welcome your suggestions and ideas to help us achieve these goals.