(Host) Someone once called it Vermont’s Forgotten Kingdom. Southwestern Vermont has long felt slighted by state government. But officials say things have changed and the area is poised to become Vermont’s next big growth region.
As part of our series on southwest issues, Steve Zind examines efforts to boost the Bennington County economy.
(Zind) The Green Mountain Racetrack sits snow covered and abandoned just off Route 7 in Pownal, across the highway from Jimmy Winchester’s deli. Winchester says he’s surprised it’s still front-page news when some one talks about reopening the track:
(Winchester) “Little Williamstown paper, ‘Green Mountain Race Track: Saga goes on.'”
(Zind) Governor Jim Douglas says reopening the track would boost the area’s economy. Referring to the pains taken to bring the Husky Corporation to Chittenden County, Winchester says the state hasn’t made the same effort in Bennington County.
(Winchester) “If you’re Husky, you’re on the fast track. If you’re Green Mountain, you’re on no track.”
(Zind) Winchester’s opinion that the Vermont’s so-called banana belt gets the cold shoulder from state government is a popular one in southwestern Vermont. But Lance Matteson says that view is largely out of date. Matteson heads the Bennington County Industrial Corporation.
(Matteson) “In certain areas we have been hinder-most. But you’ve have to give credit where credit is due. The state has done a lot for us. So let’s be fair. We haven’t been entirely neglected.”
(Zind) Matteson says manufacturing jobs, not race track jobs are key to the area’s economy. He says finishing the Bennington Bypass is central to the region’s economic future. To many, the three-phase highway project is a symbol of state indifference toward southwestern Vermont. After years of controversy and funding problems, construction is underway. But there’s concern the state may not have the financial resolve to complete it.
(Matteson) “We have been left out for many, many decades in making this happen.”
(Zind) Uniquely, southwestern Vermont’s future is also tied to neighboring New York. When Matteson pitches Bennington County to prospective businesses, he touts nearby out of state colleges and the convenience of the Albany Airport.
(Matteson) “We certainly don’t want to secede! At the same time, from a marketing point of view, to position ourselves as part of the New York capitol district economy is not only realistic, but it makes sense.”
(Zind) Last year, a consortium of electronics companies chose Albany as the site of a huge new research center. Matteson says southwestern Vermont can attract industry that will grow up around the center.
Bennington County has been hard hit by the recession. Unemployment is above the state average. Abacus Automation custom builds precision robotics – machines used in assembly lines. A homegrown success story, the company grew from a two person backyard operation to sixty employees. Richard Zens is co-owner of Abacus. He says the recession has cut the company’s workforce in half.
(Zens) “A year ago, this who room was filled with equipment.”
(Zind) Zens says the technical and engineering positions at Abacus are among the highest paying manufacturing jobs in Bennington County. They’re the kind of jobs that have been lost in the recession.
If the town of Bennington is the center of industry in southwestern Vermont, tourism rules the day farther north. A string of ski areas runs along the Green Mountains on the county’s western edge and the skiers flock to Manchester. Chip Watson of the Manchester and Mountains Chamber of Commerce says the tourism industry is holding its own, faring better than some other areas of the state.
In Bennington County wages are below the state median, while housing costs are above the median. Watson says those factors combine to create a serious shortage of affordable housing in Manchester.
(Watson) “A young couple starting off would have a very hard time purchasing a home, purchasing land to build a home. Young people coming to the area to rent would find rental properties limited and the rent would be quite expensive.”
(Zind) For southwestern Vermont’s economy to grow, it will have to overcome the housing shortage, resolve transportation issues and climb out of the current recession.
But with two million people living within an hour of Vermont’s southwest corner, Lance Matteson says the area is poised for significant growth. He says when that happens, there will be a new set of issues to confront.
(Matteson) “We could be another Chittenden County, in effect. Given that potential, it behooves us to think through what kind of growth do we want and don’t we want and what can we learn from the experience of Chittenden County.”
(Zind) For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind in Bennington County.
VPR’s series, Southwest Corner, includes news stories, interviews and commentaries on issues that face the southwestern part of the state.