Category Archives: Business

Parade of the Usual Suspects

On Wednesday morning the House Natural Resources, Fish and Wildlife Committee held a session of Hearing Kabuki, a popular style of performative lawmaking. For the better part of three hours the panel heard from a parade of witnesses, all but one testifying exactly how you’d expect: from a position of naked self-interest. The only exception was Alyssa Hill, an eighth grader from Williston.

She was also the only witness with no financial or professional stake in the issue at hand. Or, to put it another way, the only “real person.” This hearing, as is the case almost every time, was dominated by special interests and paid lobbyists. The usual suspects.

The subject of the hearing was H.175, which would expand Vermont’s beverage container deposit system, a.k.a. the Bottle Bill. The deposit would be raised from five cents per container to 10, and it would apply to a much wider range of drinks: Water, wine, carbonated, uncarbonated. MIlk, dairy and non-dairy alternatives would be exempt. The bill would also increase the “handling fee,” paid to retailers and redemption centers, from four cents per container to five.

This idea has come up before, and it’s been somewhat divisive among lawmakers who prioritize environmental issues. Some want the bill extended to cover beverages that have gained popularity since the original bill took effect in 1973, such as water, iced tea, sports drinks and energy drinks. Others have argued the Bottle Bill is outdated in this era of single-stream recycling.

That argument seems a bit less compelling of late, as the markets for many recycled materials have plummeted. Somehow, that fact never came up in the hearing. There was barely a mention of roadside litter, which was the impetus for the original Bottle Bill.

So, what did come up?

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In Which I Discover the Limits of Phil Scott’s Generosity to Business

Throughout his tenure as Vermont governor, and even more so during the pandemic, Phil Scott has been a friend to the business community. Ever solicitous of their needs, ever willing to step up when a helping hand is required.

But finally, I have identified the boundary of this unending love. It’s at the level of microbusiness — those with five employees or fewer.

This morning, the House Commerce and Economic Development Committee heard testimony about the state’s Microbusiness Development Program and its Covid-19-specific effort called EMBRACE*, which provides advice and grant funding to these smallest of businesses. And one of the things I learned from the testimony was that, in his FY2021 budget, Scott proposed eliminating the program’s funding.

*Economic Micro Business Recovery Assistance for the COVID-19 Epidemic. Must have taken a committee quite a while to come up with that.

The Legislature restored the money. Which turned out to be a very timely thing, because the Covid-19 pandemic pushed many microbusinesses to the brink of disaster. EMBRACE did a lot to keep them alive.

In his FY2022 budget, Scott has proposed to level-fund the program. But in each of the last three years, it has received an extra $100,000 over its base amount. Scott doesn’t want to continue that. And with the pandemic still raging, microbusinesses still need a lot of help.

Meanwhile, Scott’s budget is full of grant programs and tax credits for bigger businesses and favored classes of white-collar workers.

After the jump: Tattoos and Eggplant Parm.

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If Doug Hoffer Issues an Audit in the Forest, Does Anybody Hear?

State Auditor Doug Hoffer, whose work is more honored in the breach than in the observance, has released a report that’s critical of the Vermont Economic Growth Initiative.

(Before he sends me a correction, please note that this report is not a formal “audit,” my whimsical headline notwithstanding.)

The report came out one week ago today. You might well have missed it, because it was pretty much ignored by the Vermont media. As far as I can tell, it wasn’t covered by Seven Days or VTDigger or any of our sadly diminished dailies. (The Vermont Business Journal did post Hoffer’s press release on its website without any actual reportage, but that’s about it.)

Which is kind of sad. Hoffer is the chief watchdog of state government, after all. His reports ought to be newsworthy. But the media ecosystem is so diminished that a lot of stuff falls through the cracks.

I also suspect that Hoffer has gotten a reputation as The Auditor Who Cries Wolf, especially when it comes to economic incentive programs. His skepticism runs counter to the conventional wisdom, which is that these incentives are a valuable tool in the box. And that if the state doesn’t offer incentives, it might lose out to all the other jurisdictions that offer incentives.

That conventional wisdom is treated as gospel by the executive branch and the Legislature. Hoffer always gets a polite hearing before the appropriate House and Senate committees, who then proceed to ignore whatever he has to say. And that’s a shame, because Hoffer is a smart fellow with a real dedication to making government run as efficiently as possible. His work should be taken seriously.

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When Activism Turns Antisocial

My previous post was about the merchants of Burlington’s Church Street Marketplace seeking legislative action to toughen anti-loitering and vagrancy laws — turning misdemeanors into criminal offenses. My point was that their fear and concern are understandable but misplaced. They face an existential crisis thanks to President Trump’s boneheaded handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. But the way forward is not to kick out or lock up the city’s most vulnerable; it’s to address the root causes of homelessness, substance use, mental illness, etc., in common cause with the city government, social service resources and members of the community.

Now we’ve got the inevitable egregious overreaction to the merchants’ pleas for help: a Twitter campaign urging a boycott of the merchants. One Tweeter, who shall go nameless here, warned signees “Get off the list or you’re in for a bad time.” Yeah, threats are always in season. Another pondered doing their shopping on Amazon instead of downtown retailers. The Burlington Tenants Union chimed in with support for the boycott.

Let’s stop for a moment and think about what we’re all — I hope — trying to accomplish: A city that’s compassionate, that tackles its problems in common cause, that seeks solutions that work for all its people.

The merchants are part of the Burlington community. They are taxpayers and employers. And they are currently going through a period of extreme stress. The last thing they need is a boycott. The last thing the entire city needs is a bunch of vacancies on Church Street. That would hurt the tax base and throw Burlingtonians out of work, leaving the city with fewer resources to tackle its problems.

If you won’t listen to me, perhaps you’d listen to your patron saint, Bernie Sanders.

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Panic on Church Street

The Church Street Marketplace (Not Exactly As Illustrated)

The good merchants of Burlington’s Church Street are up in arms over an alleged plague of loitering and related bad behavior. Or, as several dozen of them described their charming streetscape in a letter to Chittenden County state senators, “public intoxication, open drug use, public urination and defecation, public sex acts, aggressive and harassing behavior, commandeering and blocking public thoroughfares, and sleeping or camping in both private and public spaces.”

Ick. Well, I haven’t been on Church Street since the pandemic hit, but that sounds more like my old stomping grounds in Detroit (pictured above) than the crown jewel of Vermont downtowns.

Anyway, they are asking for tougher state laws on various abuses of the common. And their lament drew a quick and caustic response from the progressive Twitterverse. “Bicycles & Books” wrote, “Throwing more cops at a problem is never the solution.” Josh Lisenby added, “Merchants want to lock up the poor.” Mairead Catherine suggested a boycott of the merchants.

And this from Chittenden County State’s Attorney Sarah Fair George:

But actually, I feel quite a bit of sympathy for the merchants. They’re suffering from two consecutive seasons, with no end in sight, of greatly reduced foot traffic on the Marketplace. If the pandemic continues much longer, which it seems certain to do, it’s very likely that one-third or more of those merchants will be out of business within months. A lot of people would suffer, a lot of workers would lose jobs, and Church Street would be in danger of losing the critical mass of merchants it needs to remain vibrant.

The merchants can’t do anything about Covid-19, so they’re looking for anything else that might help. But no, making criminals of the least among us is not the answer.

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Why Planning and Zoning Get Such a Bad Name

As noir as it should be.

This came out a couple weeks ago, but I didn’t want to let it pass completely by.

Earlier this month, Seven Days published a story about a hearing that happened in June about the fate of Burlington’s long-derelict Midtown Motel. Until The Curse of The Pit struck the city, this motel was arguably the biggest eyesore on a generally good-lookin’ downtown.

The Midtown’s been closed for 15 years, and every time I pass it by, I wonder how in hell this thing is still standing. In fact, to give you an idea how long this situation has lingered, Seven Days published one of its “WTF” pieces about the Midtown in 2011 — nine years ago. It was entitled “What’s the deal with Burlington’s Midtown Motel?” (To get the full effect, use your Jerry Seinfeld voice.)

Even then, the Midtown’s survival was a topic of befuddlement. And now, nearly a decade later, Burlington’s Development Review Board has rejected a proposal by the building’s owner to tear it down and create a small parking lot in its place.

A parking lot isn’t the most creative use for the property — but it’s a tremendous improvement over a blighted building that’s way beyond repair. So why the official cold shoulder?

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Way Down In The Hole

[Not Exactly As Illustrated]

Brookfield Asset Management, the alleged developer of Burlington’s infamous hole in the ground, continues to be frustratingly vague about its plans and its timeline for actually building something on the former site of the Burlington Town Center. And folks, this could turn out to be the defining issue in the March 2021 city elections, when incumbent Mayor Miro Weinberger is expected to seek a third term.

And, to craft the ultimate in mixed metaphors, that hole may become a millstone around his neck.

Demolition of the old mall began nearly two years ago. Original developer Don Sinex began boasting of big plans for the site way back in 2014. He tapped out earlier this year, and Brookfield stepped into the void.

(Sorry.)

(Although Sinex’s grand vision for Burlington CityPlace can, for shits and giggles, still be seen on its splashy website. Maybe cityplaceburlington.com been declared a historic monument or summat.)

City leaders are pressing Brookfield for some measure of certainty about its plans. Brookfield has failed to miss planning benchmarks since it took over the property. It presented sketches of a site plan to for the site to city council last month, but many crucial details remain to be filled in.

Weinberger, who was a loud and vocal supporter of Sinex and has now, a little more cautiously, tossed his hat into the Brookfield ring, is sounding a little antsy. Seven Days:

“We are looking for them to do more, quickly, to prove … that, in the end, it’s going to succeed,” Mayor Miro Weinberger said. “We are looking for some further confirmation on that.”

Good luck with that, Mr. Mayor. And good luck running for re-election if the hole is still a hole in early 2021. Which is not terribly farfetched; every step on a project of this scope is going to take time, especially in a micromanaging community like Burlington.

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State business grant gets flushed down the crapper

Bad news from down Bennington way, courtesy of The Banner:

With a two-paragraph note Thursday afternoon, a major Bennington employer for decades — Energizer — confirmed that the local factory will close.

Well, there go some nice manufacturing jobs in a community that’s taken more than its share of body blows. How many jobs is apparently a mystery; Energizer didn’t say, and The Banner couldn’t immediately find out. In 2015, the factory was downsized to an undisclosed extent (companies have learned to conceal the grim details of cutbacks and closings); at the time, per VTDigger, it employed “between 100 and 250 people.”

Sen. Dick Sears of Bennington learned of the plant’s closure — after the fact — in an email from a corporate stooge who offered hollow words of praise for “the years of productive engagement we have had with you and your office.”

That “productive engagement,” by the way, included a Vermont Training Program grant issued in April 2018 — only a year and a half ago. VTP provides taxpayer funds to cover up to 50 percent of training new workers or teaching new skills to existing workers.

I’m not sure, but I’m gonna guess here that Vermont had something a little more… uh, permanent in mind when it gave Energizer those dollars. Instead, the company didn’t even bother to inform state government until after it had publicly announced the plant closure.

Nice.

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Buy Local: It’s not just for pandering anymore

One of the more persistent strains of Philpuckey is his advocacy of Buying Local. He’s made it a regular theme of his Lite-Guvship, memorably captured in a front-page article in the Burlington Free Press last November that featured Phil Scott with his famous “Buy Local — It’s Not Just for Hippies Anymore” slogan.

(Which, first of all, “Buy Local” was never “just for hippies.” And second, it misunderstands the movement. Hippies were less concerned with where they bought their stuff, than with not buying stuff at all. It was an anti-consumption worldview. But hey, it’s just convenient shorthand for “long-haired weirdos”, right?)

“Buy Local” is an attractive pitch for Scott. It’s politically appealing, it reinforces his “real Vermonter” image and his status as a local business owner. It’s no-lose all the way around.

But coming from him, it’s effectively meaningless. Phil Scott may verbally support Buying Local, but if push comes to shove, he’ll opt for expediency. Proof: More than half his campaign’s total expenditures have gone to out-of-state firms and individuals. Latest example: a series of mass media buys since October 20, totaling $85,000, all going to out-of-state companies. That includes:

— $40,000 to D.C.-based Optimus Consulting, which has managed the Scott campaign’s media buys.

— $54,000 to Spectrum Marketing of Manchester, NH for “Media — Postcards.”

— $11,000 to SCM Associates of Dublin, NH, also for “Media — Postcards.”

Perhaps he needed some Washington Big Boys to buy spots on WCAX, but did he really need to go to New Hampshire for direct mail services?

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Exit the Puppet Master

Looks like someone’s gotten the ziggy at Free Press Media. Opening sentence of a story on the Free Press website:

Former Free Press Media President Jim Fogler is returning to his previous role, replacing Al Getler in the top job at the Burlington media company and newspaper.

The bulk of the article recaps Fogler’s career and describes what a great fit he is for the job. Getler, meanwhile? We do not speak of him. The only other reference to the apparently former president and publisher is this:

Getler was hired as president of Free Press Media in January 2015.

Oh well. Easy come, easy go. At least Al will have his ventriloquist sideline to fall back on.

GetlerVentriloquistNo, really. Here’s a screenshot from his sizzle reel.

 

That’s the stuff. Sad to say, you can see his mouth move when his puppets “speak.”

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