Town celebrates opening of Island Pond Woodworkers

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(Host) Two hundred people joined a group of former Ethan Allen workers this weekend to celebrate the opening of an employee-owned furniture plant in Island Pond. The new business is a modest beginning in an effort to replace the jobs lost when Ethan Allen closed its doors 18 months ago.

VPR’s Steve Zind reports:

(Zind) The street signs in Island Pond hint at the industries that once sustained the town: Creamery Street, Railroad Street, Mill Street. When the Ethan Allen furniture factory closed, Island Pond lost it’s only remaining industry. One hundred and twenty people lost their jobs in an area with a high unemployment rate and a low per capita income.

A year and a half later, 12 of the lost manufacturing jobs have returned. Island Pond Woodworkers has opened for business at the edge of the village: in an as yet spotless plant full of new machinery.

(Sound from the ribbon cutting ceremony) “Ready? Get set! Three, two, on – cut it!” (Sound of cheering.)

(Zind) It was clear from the long list of thank you’s at the weekend ribbon cutting, that the new business took shape like a jigsaw puzzle. Local officials and businesses, state agencies, politicians and non-profit groups all provided pieces.

At the heart of the effort is a small group of former Ethan Allen workers who own the new business. Barbara Testut worked at Ethan Allen for 27 years. She’s one of the owner-employees of Island Pond Woodworkers.

(Testut) “It’s just out of this world. It’s absolutely wonderful. A dream come true.”

(Zind) Testut says there’s been no shortage of interested customers for the hardwood furniture the plant is turning out. The company says it’s committed to environmentally friendly practices, using sustainably harvested wood and water based finishes.

Two hundred people – including the governor, a senator and a congressman – descended on this remote town Saturday. It may seem an extravagant way to mark the creation of twelve jobs. But home grown businesses like this are seen as one way to keep manufacturing jobs from leaving Vermont.

Island Pond Woodworkers also symbolizes a rebirth for the community. Joel Cope is a town administrator. Cope says the new business is inspiring other projects in Island Pond.

(Cope) “Even with 12, the impact of the plant on the psychological framework here in Island Pond is just wonderful. It’s the talk of the town!”

(Zind) Now that it’s up and running the business must survive. Don Jamison is with the Vermont Employee Ownership Center, which had a hand in the project.

(Jamison) “I was asking one of my mentors, ‘When do we pop the champagne?’ And he said, ‘When the company breaks even.’ We expect that to be in a year and a half or so. So there’s a long way to go.”

(Zind) The largest of Island Pond Woodworkers earliest customers are colleges: Middlebury, Dartmouth and the University of Vermont have all ordered furniture. The company says it plans to add more employee owners in the future and produce its own line of hardwood furniture.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind in Island Pond.

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