Bennington County Economic Report: Optimism’s ripple effect

Photo: Garlic Fest. Courtesy photo.

by Olga Peters, Vermont Business Magazine

Boarded up windows. Piles of dirt. A chain link fence stretching the length of the empty Putnam Hotel at Bennington’s “Four Corners” intersection.

At the heart of Bennington’s downtown, the Putnam Hotel had succumbed to a fate common in rural America. Dying industries, changing demographics, and a struggling economy had stripped the building’s glory leaving it empty and depleted.

Not anymore.

Boarded up windows… piles of dirt… chain link fences. Conditions that might represent blight in other communities, in Bennington signal optimism and revitalization.

In August, the Bennington Redevelopment Group officially broke ground on the $31 million, phase one of the Putnam Block redevelopment project [see sidebar].

Investment in the iconic property is credited with sparking other investment in the town including new infrastructure and new businesses.

The excitement felt in Bennington is echoed by its northern neighbor, Manchester. Known as a retail outlet shopping destination, Manchester is expanding its economy to include sports competitions.

These feelings of optimism and excitement point to a possible transition from a struggling economy to a dynamic one, fueled by fresh energy and new opportunities.

For example, when compared to the state as a whole, the county’s median income, age, and property value all lag behind. Yet, compared to the previous year, the county’s median household income showed a modest increase while Vermont’s declined.

Bill Colvin, assistant director and community development program coordinator at the Bennington County Regional Commission, said this growth trend has remained steady. According to the American Community Survey estimates, also from the US Census Bureau, Colvin said over the past five years, the median income in the county has increased faster than the national rate.

The State of the Commerce Survey conducted by the Bennington Regional Chamber of Commerce also points to business owners’ sense of optimism. Approximately 109 business owners responded to the July survey.

The business owners’ appraisal of their financial health jumped significantly compared to the previous year. Seventy percent of respondents graded their company’s financial health as either A or B this year compared to 63 percent in 2018. When asked if they viewed southwestern Vermont as a good place to do business, 84 percent answered “yes.” This response represented a one percent increase over the previous year.

Still, not all is rosy in the business world. The survey respondents ranked workforce issues, the general business climate, and demographic challenges as the top three factors hurting their businesses.

Finding new ways to find new employees

Workforce, workforce, workforce.

The inability to find qualified workers is a challenge felt by businesses across the state.

Vermont’s unemployment rate of 2.1 percent means that most people who want jobs have them, said Rob Bahny, workforce education and training coordinator at the Southwestern Vermont Career Development Center.

When people think labor shortage, they think big companies and manufacturing, said Matt Harrington, executive director of the Bennington Area Chamber of Commerce.

The county’s tourist-based businesses such as hotels and restaurants also lack workers, he added.

In response to the shortage of workers, organizations across the county have sought to expand the labor pool through internships, apprenticeships, and entrepreneur training.

Mack Molding and The Vermont Country Store are two examples of companies with strong internship programs, according to Colvin and colleague Johnathan Cooper, community and economic development specialist with BCRC.

The area’s health care industry has also responded to the nationwide shortage of nurses and EMS providers with training programs.

Colvin noted that Southwestern Vermont Health Care has created a tuition reimbursement program for nurses. The Bennington Rescue Squad is approximately 18 months into an EMS apprenticeship program [see sidebar].

One spot of excitement is Startup 802, a partnership between the BCRC, Community College of Vermont, the Bennington County Industrial Corporation, and the Lightning Jar, an entrepreneur center and co-working space, said Cooper.

In operation for approximately 18 months, the Startup 802 aims to train the next generation of entrepreneurs.

When people hear the word “entrepreneur” they imagine the bigwigs such as Steve Jobs. But Cooper said Bennington County is home to many small-business owners with the potential to strengthen their businesses.

Cooper said one of the program’s goals is to help students build a “entrepreneurial mindset” they can bring to any type of business.

Each cohort contains approximately six to 12 students. The program recently welcomed its fifth cohort.

“We’re really pretty proud of that,” said Colvin.

Photo: Mack Molding interns. Courtesy photo.

Mack Molding, with facilities in Vermont as well as Connecticut, Massachusetts, North Carolina, and South Carolina, hosts an internship program in its Northern Division.

Photo: President Jeff Somple, Mack Molding. Courtesy photo.

According to Company President Jeff Somple, Mack Molding is growing.

“The fact is, we’re hiring,” he wrote in an email.

Somple wrote that the growth sprouts from “an uptick in electromechanical assemblies such as robots, 3D printers, and Class III medical devices.”

“We filled 100 positions last year, and while a handful went to interns, most went to talented laborers, skilled workers and professionals from within our community or people we attracted to our community,” he continued.

The company hopes to fill another 40 positions.

Mack created its internship program in part because it was “fighting a two-front war of attrition.”

Manufacturing companies, especially in the Northeast, struggle to attract workers for skilled positions. Some workers left the industry for fear of offshoring or automation, he wrote. On another front, not everyone wants to move, or stay, in Vermont.

“We are showing students just how rewarding a career in manufacturing and a life in Vermont can be,” Somple wrote. “We find when we get these talented young people in the door you can see their eyes are opened to a world of exciting technologies and opportunities they didn’t anticipate.”

The company’s internship program started as an informal offering mostly to employees’ families seeking summer work. The company formalized the program in 2011 creating a summer “project-based experience,” according to Somple.

“Today it not only meets our business needs, it allows the students to return to school with tangible experiences they can show prospective employers,” wrote Somple.

While the interns develop their projects, they also attend lunches with senior staff and employees to learn about various aspects of the company. Interns also tour the company’s buildings and practice presentation and interview skills. The summer culminates with the interns presenting their projects.

In 2017, Mack Molding added free gym and golf course memberships to the internship program and for recent college graduates hired by Mack.

“This not only encourages healthy lifestyles, but relationship building with other interns, Mack employees, and community members,” wrote Somple. “It really allows them to see how they could build a life in southern Vermont.”

Photo: Mack Molding employee. Courtesy photo.

Mack has hired 19 interns for full-time positions from its program over the years, wrote Somple.

The interns are the program’s best recruiters.

“Our program is spread primarily by word of mouth, and while we do see clusters from schools such as UVM, RPI, RIT and Union, that is because of students sharing their experience with peers,” he wrote.

According to Somple, Mack’s Machining Manager Dave Hoffman serves as an advisor on the Southwestern Vermont Career Development Center’s (SVCDC) roundtable group to help build a conduit from the school to Mack. A few interns have come to the program through this effort, but most, said Somple, hear about the opportunity through their peers.

The SVCDC is one of 16 career and technical centers in the state. It offers classes and training to high school and adult learners. The school has partnered with multiple businesses to create training programs. In the 2018-2019 school year, the center served more than 200 adults.

The center has also trained incumbent workers through partnerships with local businesses, said Bahny.

For example, the SVCDC partnered with Mack Molding to train 32 employees in Microsoft Excel. The opportunity is affordable too, he added. The training cost Mack less than $5,000, said Bahny.

SVCDC celebrates 50 years this year. The state’s workforce shortage, however, has sparked a new awareness for technical training and adult education issues, said Bahny.

One popular program is the CNC machine operator certificate training. Many of the area’s manufacturers want employees with these skills. The 24-hour course happens over eight classes, two times a week.

“The trick is finding people who want to train,” he said.

Most of the adults attending SVCDC classes are seeking a career change, rather than because they need work, Bahny noted.

Bahny has observed that many of the people who are unemployed have some type of barrier between them and full-time work. Schools and employers may need to find new ways to support these potential workers, he said.

A chicken-and-egg pattern has emerged during the labor shortage that Bahny thinks companies should consider: Companies want workers to show up fully trained.

But, he said, workers don’t want to pay for training before they’re hired.

Bahny suggests companies should revert to “the old days” where they hire first, train second.

The advantage is companies have time to vet employees and discover if they’re a good fit.

“A lot of people can get themselves through a training program and be a terrible employee,” he said. “You can’t train for a good attitude.”

Attracting attention

Colvin said the Putnam Block project has generated excitement across the country. He has fielded multiple calls from interested communities in the Midwest, New York State, and Massachusetts. The multiple-phase, multiple-partner project has entered its first phase. [see sidebar]

Cooper and Colvin outlined a long list of projects happening in Bennington County, including The Mill, a renovated 1764 gristmill in East Arlington reinvented as a maker space for artists. The project is also home to the Old Mill Recording Studio.

Cooper said he has noticed an uptick in people interested in micro hydroelectric power.

The Church Insurance Company of Vermont, part of the Church Pension Group, provides insurance for religious organizations. According to Colvin, the company is worth noting as a business that relocated to Vermont and is going strong.

Colvin said, Church Insurance moved to Bennington from New York City after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. The company is one of many to take advantage of the state’s captive insurance rules.

The state’s Stay to Stay program has also attracted a number of new community members, said Colvin. This program encourages workers stay for the weekend and potentially relocate to Vermont.

Investment leads to reinvention

“By this time next year, there is going to be a lot of new or rehabilitated infrastructure in the [town] center,” said Shannon Barsotti, community development director with the town of Bennington.

She credits the Putnam Block project as the catalyst for a wave of new investment in the downtown. Community members have launched additional projects such as the rehabilitation of the Old Town Garage, a curved-roofed structure from the 1930s which is becoming a new distillery. Three small community parks have also received facelifts.

In Barsotti’s opinion, more people are shopping online rather than on Main Street.

Towns must find new ways to draw people downtown, she said. In Bennington’s case, the new parks are part of a wider community-building exercise to create public gathering spaces.

“People need community,” she said. “Because that’s something you can’t get online.”

Along with the shot of confidence, the Putnam Block has also proven the value of federal Opportunity Zones, she said. Based on census data, these zones exist to spur investment in economically challenged communities. Investors who help fund projects within Opportunity Zones are eligible for tax incentives.

In Barsotti’s opinion, the town’s struggles mirror the challenges of rural America: poverty, opiates, population decline.

Affordable housing is another “huge need” in Bennington, she said. The downtown is an asset that can attract young people and baby boomers who want walkable, vital communities but only if they can find housing, Barsotti said.

The closing of Southern Vermont College in the spring was more of a social and community loss than an economic one, in Barsotti’s experience. When the college closed, the town lost a population of young people from diverse backgrounds who brought vital energy to the town, she said.

New apartments and soccer balls

Manchester is reinventing itself from a town known for its outlet shopping to one that attracts sporting events.

“Sports have done a lot for us,” said Pauline Moore, the town’s economic development coordinator.

The town has even submitted an application to the FIFA organization, to become a host venue for visiting soccer teams to train at during the 2026 FIFA World Cup competition to be held in North America.

The emphasis on sports started approximately three years ago with the creation of a new soccer field.

The community has also redeveloped its skatepark. The local Applejack Stadium plays hosts to competitions and tournaments. Colleges such as Williams College in Massachusetts and Middlebury are regular visitors. The Burr & Burton Academy is in the process of building a new track.

The community has funded the new infrastructure through fundraising and donations, rather than taxpayers, she said.

“The economy is pretty stable,” said Moore, of the area as a whole.

Although, like Bennington, some of Manchester’s business sectors are stronger than others.

Moore characterizes the town’s hospitality industry as performing “really well” while retail is “moving along, very slowly upward.”

Manchester, like its neighbors, struggles with workforce and housing.

Housing is expensive in Manchester, Moore said, partly because of its reliance on tourism, which tends to increase housing costs and price out workers earning minimum. The town has responded by changing its zoning to allow for more mixed-use building in order to encourage housing in the town center.

So far the plan has worked, and several “nice new apartments” have been added to the list of available housing, Moore said.

Moore said that while Manchester has its base of major retail outlets, it also has boutique retail and restaurants.

Northshire Bookstore is one of the local businesses riding the wave of a changing retail market.

Co-owner Chris Morrow feels Manchester is a “dynamic and vital area” with offerings in the arts, a strong education system, and outdoor recreation.

Morrow also feels the pinch of more people shopping online and the challenge of finding workers.

“[The economy] is okay, but not robust,” he said.

In his opinion, Manchester struggles with the same things the country deals with: income inequality, demographic shifts in rural communities, and the growth of internet commerce.

“It’s all interwoven,” he said.

Northshire’s competitive advantage is providing customers experiences they can’t get on the internet, Morrow said.

Morrow took over the store from his parents who opened Northshire in 1976. The company also owns a store in Saratoga Springs, NY.

For example, Northshire offers a subscription service. Each month, subscribers receive a handpicked book. In the spring the store hosts Booktopia, a two-day literary event.

Manchester is Morrow’s hometown. He wants his business to support the community as much as the community supports his business. One example of this is the annual Book Angels program when Northshire gives away between 600 to 700 children’s books.

“We want to make our little corner of the state better any way we can,” he said.

Rolling in the Garlic

The Bennington Regional Chamber of Commerce welcomed over 16,300 visitors Labor Day weekend to the 2019 Southern Vermont Garlic and Herb Festival, smashing the previously recorded record for the festival of 15,000. 

Photo: Garlic Fest. Courtesy photos.

This farmers’ market-style festival is known its cascading rows of 200 plus garlic vendors, kids activities, food trucks, beer & wine garden, and regional live bands. It is considered to be one of the best garlic-themed festivals in the world by Reuters.

The Chamber’s Harrington said, “People come from all over and get to experience what small town pride Bennington has. We love hosting and providing over 200 vendors the opportunity to share their best products with over 16,000 people. Each year we attract people from as far away as Belgium, China, Texas, Alaska, as well as right here in the Tri State area. This past year the Southern Vermont Garlicfest was named “Top 10 All-Time Festival in the State of the Vermont” by the Vermont Chamber for our ten consecutive years of being named a Top 10 Festival in Vermont. We are humbled and honored and want to thank everyone for a safe, fun and stinkin’ good weekend!”

“I think what is also encouraging for our community is that based on our survey that we have attendees fill out, 76 percent say they plan to return to Bennington within the next 12 months in addition to Garlicfest! Garlicfest isn’t a once-a-year economic and marketing phenomenon. It has ripple effects throughout the rest of the year as we introduce that Shires of Vermont charm to the attendees during the festival,” Harrington said.

“Next year is number 25 for us,” he said, “our Silver Anniversary! It will still be Labor Day Weekend, as it always has been. We hope to tweak a few things here and there, have a few more dignitaries here to celebrate with us, but people should continue to expect what has made this Garlicfest so successful – good ol’ fashioned teamwork and Vermont charm.”

Cultivating a regional mindset

Traditionally, the county has told the tale of two shires: Bennington to the south and Manchester in the north.

In Harrington’s view, the biggest threats to Bennington, or Arlington, or Manchester are not Bennington, Arlington, or Manchester. It’s nationwide corporate powerhouses like Amazon or Airbnb.

“The more we fight each other, the less able we are to fight the rest of the world,” Harrington said. “We’re stronger together.”

New initiatives and organizations are creating a more holistic view of the county. For example, the Bennington Regional Chamber of Commerce now serves the entire county. The organization filled the void left by the closure of the Manchester Chamber of Business a few years ago.

Harrington views what he calls “adaptive complex coalitions” as one solution to overcoming some of the county’s contradictory economic situations.

He points to coalitions like the teams behind the Putnam Block or the Arlington Renewal Project. According to its Facebook page, the renewal project is a volunteer-led organization focused on improving the community.

Cooper has also noticed “a trend towards regional innovation.”

“There’s something bubbling in every town” in the county, he said.

Olga Peters is a freelance writer from Windham County.

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