How to bring growth to rural Vermont has been one of the most repeated political themes of the last half century. It continues because progress has remained elusive. Rural Vermont continues to fall into itself like an abandoned barn left to nature’s corrosive ways.

We also have the nation’s lowest fertility rate and we continue to see a dwindling of the number of students in our schools. We have an inordinate number of small towns, some of which practically exist in name only. Politicians talk about the desire to change things, but actual change has always been beyond our grasp.

It’s the tired song of rural America and Vermont’s not alone. But it’s also beginning to draw attention from a younger generation looking for quieter, safer places to live. Many are returning to their hometowns, anxious to find ways to discover the reward of giving back or contributing. Many seek the personal anchor that returning to one’s roots provides.

This hope has been talked about before, but it was always something that began as a sputter and died. The call of the city and all its happenings continued to overwhelm. The jobs were plentiful, they paid well, and the busyness was intoxicating.

The thinking now is that Covid is prompting people to reassess. Working remotely has advantages that today’s young generations find appealing. It is a more sustainable lifestyle. It’s better for the planet [yes, they actually care.] It allows people to save more money. It gives those who do seek quieter climes to become involved in their local communities.

That this is even something we can seriously ponder comes courtesy of technology that heretofore didn’t exist. People don’t have to quit their jobs to move here. They can keep their city jobs and live where they would like.

So how does Vermont fit into that hopeful narrative?

That’s the challenge. The opportunity to address it will fall to those tasked with figuring out how to use the $1.3 billion in stimulus money to the best of Vermont’s long-term interests.

No matter the approach nothing happens unless we obligate the necessary money to extend broadband to Vermont’s hinterlands. We’ve talked about this need before, but it was never approached seriously because it was prohibitively expensive.

The stimulus money has changed our potential. If properly thought out and judiciously approached we should be able to connect the greatest share of our rural population in comparatively short order.

That’s step one and it needs to be built out to include as many partners as possible. This week’s announcement of the partnership between Green Mountain Power and Vermont Electric Cooperative to address bringing broadband to rural areas is an example.

Step two involves strengthening what we already have. We have, for example, 12 regional development corporations serving each of the state’s geographic regions. The group receives a little over a million dollars each year, roughly $100,000 each. Pennies. Many of these RDCs have numerous requests for land or buildings in which to house potential clients. The RDCs don’t have the money to buy the land or the buildings. We lose the customers to places that do. And we lose the jobs, the spin-off growth and the tax revenue along with it. That’s ridiculous.

A budget needs to be put together to address these missed opportunities and the RDCs would seem an obvious candidate for the stimulus money if, as stated earlier, our goal is to push growth into places other than Chittenden County.

Step three: Just as there are 12 RDCs in Vermont, there are 12 Community College of Vermont campuses. How can the two be paired to address the workforce challenges hindering growth in all 14 counties?

If we commit to bringing broadband to our rural areas, if our RDCs are properly funded, if our community colleges are amped up to help provide workplace learning to the 40 percent of our high school graduates who do not go on to college, and if the state grants more flexibility to the Tax Increment Financing district to draw more funding into our rural towns, then we might just have something to sell to those who want to come back home, or to those who are looking for a quieter, better place to live.

by Emerson Lynn

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