ST. ALBANS — It’s not a meeting with Lt. Gov. Phil Scott without a few racecar analogies.
Scott, along with the Franklin County Regional Chamber of Commerce (FCRCC), was host for an “Economy Pitch” session Monday at the St. Albans Historical Museum where, the race car driver/politician asked for “quarter-turn” ideas — little adjustments to the vehicle, as it were, of Vermont’s economy.
“We can do better, I believe,” Scott said. He added that in the last legislative biennium, 1,211 bills were introduced, only 20 of which promoted the state’s economy. According to Scott, only four or five of those bills passed.
“I think we need to prioritize,” he said. “I think we can help ourselves out by growing revenue naturally.”
In an effort to be proactive, Scott said, he is in the midst of holding “pitch” sessions across the state in which community members share their ideas for creating a more robust economy. He held a statewide session in Montpelier in January, and he heard from Rutland last week. Scott said he has plans to visit Windham and maybe Lamoille counties soon.
Vermonters, after all, are pretty innovative people.
“People want to be heard and have a lot of great ideas,” said Scott. “I look forward to hearing from everyone of you.”
Before anyone else approached the podium, Scott reminded that the pitches were intended to be positive and trending towards solutions.
“That’s pitch with a ‘p’, not with a ‘b’,” he said.
Those making statements were limited to five minutes. Listening in yesterday’s audience were a handful of Franklin County’s state representatives and two state senators, St. Albans City Mayor Liz Gamache, St. Albans Town Manager Carrie Johnson, and a number of community leaders.
Wint Goodrich, superintendent of the Franklin Northwest Supervisory Union, went first.
“Education is a key economic development tool,” said Goodrich. “Business needs well-educated workers.”
But, added Goodrich, there are urgent challenges facing education including low student numbers and high costs. In addition, each school is unique in their struggles.
“One size doesn’t fit all,” he said.
Goodrich pitched a four-tiered model for the state to make education more affordable. These are:
- having the state negotiate with the National Education Association on healthcare and teacher contracts;
- moving negotiation on services contracts to a regional level;
- doing “right-sizing” of food, mental health and joint transportation services at the supervisory union level;
- and deciding on student programs and educational expenses at the local, school board level.
“It’s a long look at how we create that equity, those opportunities and those benefits,” said Goodrich.
James Ehlers of the Lake Champlain International advocacy group went next.
“My pitch is for a clean water economy,” Ehlers said. He went on to suggest the capturing and converting of phosphorus that enters local watersheds through agricultural practices, wastewater treatment plants and impervious surface development.
This would be possible, he said, by using digester technology and a centrifuge system, which would transform phosphorous into solids that could then be recycled as fertilizer. In addition, the phosphorous could be put into an algae reactor that could create products like livestock feed or bio-plastic.
“All of this is possible and they are working in isolation in different [areas],” said Ehlers.
FCRCC director Dave Southwick read the next pitch, written by local consultant and engineer Sam Ruggiano. Ruggiano had seven suggestions:
- that Scott become Governor;
- that state budget increases be lower than four to five percent;
- that there be smaller, more efficient government;
- that Act 250 Criterion 9(L) – which limits strip development and encourages traditional settlement patterns – be repealed;
- that a proposed bill requiring paid sick leave won’t pass and put pressure on small business owners;
- that the Route 207 extension project, which is currently being held up in the Agency of Natural Resources’ (ANR) Wetlands Program office, be allowed to move forward in St. Albans Town;
- and that an agreement be made over water and sewer allocations between the two St. Albans municipalities.
“This has stopped economic development in the area and it needs to stop now,” wrote Ruggiano. “The St. Albans area could really use some help from legislators and Phil Scott.”
A number of other pitches were made, including:
- Ruth Wallman, of the Lake Champlain Island Economic Development Corporation, said more funds were needed for state tourism, including a new international wine trail through Vermont, New York and Quebec.
- Sandy Lovelette, of the Enosburg Business Association, asked for funds to help support more electrical connections in Lincoln Park, the main venue space in Enosburgh so that large events promoting local business could be held.
- Jonathan Billings and Kristin Hughes, representing the Northwestern Medical Center-housed Healthy Roots Collaborative, asked that the Coordinated Healthy Activity, Motivation and Prevention Programs (CHAMPPS) funding not be cut from the 2015-2016 proposed budget, since it currently runs the Healthy Roots Collaborative and preventative health programs in the county.
- Hope Bockus, of Franklin County Business and Professional Women, suggested a state position be dedicated to encouraging volunteerism in the state, which provides many economic benefits.
- Tawnya Kristen, of the Green Mountain Transit Authority, asked for more public transportation options to keep and attract young skilled workers, to reduce transportation costs, encourage sustainability and provide equal access to training and educational opportunities.
- Tim Smith, of the Franklin County Industrial Development Corporation not only spoke on behalf of the St. Albans Cooperative Creamery Leon Berthiaume general manager for growth in the dairy industry but suggested that recruitment of Canadian businesses, a new welcome center in Swanton, more funding for Small Business Development Center counseling in each county and examination of the Public Service Board’s demand charges on businesses for using peak demand numbers of utilities all be considered.
- Tim Camisa, of Vermont Organic Reclamation, asked that his process of converting manure into high quality organic top soil be supported over methane digesters, which have the potential to pollute the air.
- Mike Curtis, of Union Bank, suggested that five-year cooperative education programs be formed between local businesses and Vermont state colleges.
- Andrew Crossman, an eighth generation Vermonter and employee of pharmaceutical manufacturing company Pfizer, suggested making Vermont the “Innovation State” by encouraging entrepreneurial and innovative thinking through proven training for schools and organizations in both the public and private sectors.
- Southwick read a statement from Kevin Smith and Joanie McGinn, of Kevin Smith’s Sports Connection, asking that an e-fairness act be passed to require online retailers to charge the sales tax for where a purchase is made in an effort to equalize the competition between local and online retailers.
- Richard Speizer, of Superior Ceramic Technology, suggested rebranding Vermont to be more welcoming and competitive for business with better budgeting, a more efficient development permitting process, research and design support and general enthusiasm for business.
Scott ended the session on Monday with a general appreciation for all the ideas put forward, which he spent the meeting jotting down in his notes.
“I think that we could help out – help ourselves out in a lot of ways,” said Scott. “There’s been some ideas today that I think have some merit.”
Those that he mentioned included the Route 207 extension project – which he said he would speak with the Agency of Natural Resources about – as well as workforce development, public transportation, examining the Public Service Board demand charge, repealing Act 250 9(L), investment in tourism and perhaps moving teacher contracts to the state level.
“Keep the ideas coming,” said Scott. “Picking up just two or three ideas at each stop [around the state] can make a huge difference.”