Category Archives: Business

About That Amazing Art Installation…

“Oh, great!” was my initial reaction to news of a massive art installation planned for the Essex Experience, a rather depressing retail sprawl just off Route 2A and Highway 289. The project, named Babaroosa, is inspired by the insanely successful Meow Wolf multisensory environments in Santa Fe, Denver, and Las Vegas.

Creators Teresa and Robert Davis promise “a labyrinth of over 60 rooms intricately woven through a 20,000 square foot complex.” It might sound like an artistic fever dream, but it’s got some serious money behind it. They’ve secured $7.25 million in loans from the Vermont Economic Development Authority and the Vermont State Employees Credit Union. Essex Experience owner Peter Edelmann will contribute $5 million in real estate, about which more below. The Davises are raising nearly $11 million in investor equity.

I’m looking forward to a visit if it comes to pass. However… the location is a terrible place to put a major tourist attraction.

The Davises foresee a half million visitors a year. Seems like a stretch, but Meow Wolf has become an entertainment phenomenon in a few short years. Let’s take their word for it.

The most popular tourist attraction in Vermont is the Ben & Jerry’s factory on Route 100 in Waterbury.with 350,000 visitors per year. It contributes substantially to the horrendous traffic on Route 100, but at least it’s only a short hop from the interstate.

The Essex Experience is six miles north of I-89 Exit 12. Doesn’t sound like much, but those six miles include the sprawling mallage just off the freeway, the busy US-2/2A intersection, a crawl into Essex, the Five Corners junction, and another crawl to 289. Virtually all of it is two-lane road. It takes 15-20 minutes to make the trip if traffic is unusually light.

I know because I made the trip in 16 minutes on Monday morning at about 10:00 a.m. Rush hour was over, and retail traffic had yet to pick up. Still, traffic moved consistently below the speed limit — which varied from 25 to 40 mph.

The Davises are talking about nearly doubling traffic along that route. Yikes.

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“Some Call You the Elite. I Call You My Base.”

It was one of the signal moments of the George W. Bush presidency. The leader of all Americans yukking it up with the rich and powerful, making sport over his assiduous cosseting of The Ruling Class.

Well, it’s looking more and more like Gov. Phil Scott’s heart is in the same place.

On Thursday, Commerce Secretary Lindsay Kurrle sent a memo to the Vermont business community on the subject of the pandemic. I guess she’s proud of it, because her agency also released it to the press. I’m not sure she should be; the memo is a glimpse into the real priorities of the Scott administration, and helps explain his refusal to consider any steps that might interrupt the flow of commerce.

Kurrle’s memo urges businesses to take steps to limit the further spread of the virus. This indicates that despite its public optimism, the administration is seriously worried about the next phase of the pandemic.

The most telling line in the entire thing: “Should we see an influx of positive test results, it could impact your ability to operate.”

Not “it could spread suffering and even death among Vermonters.” Not “it is likely to take an outsized toll on the most vulnerable among us.” Nope. The big concern is that businesses might have to limit operations or even shut down. Oh, the humanity!

Kurrle begins with obsequious praise for business leaders who “stepped up” in the face of the coronavirus. She wrote of “your sacrifices” — not those of front-line workers or the suddenly unemployed or the vulnerable elderly, but the real heroes of the pandemic: our bosses. “You rose above fear and frustration and acted without knowing when you would open your doors again,” Kurrle wrote. “Thank you for all you have done for our state.”

Gag me with a spoon.

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The Bloated Corpse of Bruce Lisman’s Political Career Emerges From the Stygian Depths, Emits a Gas Bubble, Sinks Back Into the Murk From Whence It Came

Oh wait, sorry, that’s Swamp Thing

Once upon a time, there was a retired Wall Street executive named Bruce Lisman*. After his investment firm cratered in the Collapse of 2008, he moved to Vermont and turned his attention to politics. (He should have checked with Rich Tarrant or Jack McMullen on how that tends to work out.) First, he launched a putatively nonpartisan advocacy group called Campaign for Vermont Prosperity. It was usually referred to as “Campaign for Vermont” in an apparent effort to camouflage Lisman’s pro-business agenda.

*Who may or may not have been thoroughly skewered in the movie “The Big Short.”

CFV accomplished little besides spending a goodly portion of Lisman’s fortune. It put out the occasional paper, held sparsely-attended policy forums, did a bit of lobbying, and paid some college students to show the CFV flag at public events. (I dubbed them “Lisketeers.”) There was precious little grass in CFV’s roots.

A few years later, Lisman made the seemingly inevitable run for governor. He spent heavily on his campaign but ran into a buzzsaw named Lt. Gov. Phil Scott, who beat him in the Republican primary by 21 percentage points.

That was the end of Lisman’s political aspirations. He stopped bankrolling CFV, which somehow continued to exist as a center-right, pro-business advocacy group. Some well-meaning people are involved in CFV, but honestly, itbarely makes a ripple in Vermont politics. Whenever CFV does something, I find myself asking “Oh, are you still here?”

CFV’s website is laden with position papers and press releases dated from 2014 and 2015. It does occasionally burp out some new content, as it did last week with a “New Report on Pension Issues.” And though I run the risk of killing a gnat with an elephant gun, I feel compelled to expose this piece of half-assed propaganda. You know, just in case someone takes it seriously.

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So Much Horse Hockey in Such a Small Paddock

Honestly, I wouldn’t expect our area Chambers of Commerce to do anything but support GlobalFoundries in its bid to operate its own utility, thus sidestepping the Global Warming Solutions Act and other state rules and regulations. The Chambers are on the side of business, after all, and any threat to GF’s presence in Essex Junction is a threat to the region’s economy as a whole — including the Chambers’ constituencies. But this toxic little opinion piece from the Vermont and Lake Champlain Chambers plus the Greater Burlington Industrial Corporation is an exercise in desperation and deception.

The thesis, as stated in the headline above, is that GlobalFoundries “will help combat climate change.” Huh. So exempting GF from the GWSA will help us fight climate change? Do tell.

In order to prove this unlikely theory, Cioffi et al. proceed to put their thumbs on the scale at every opportunity, spinning out unlikely scenarios full of conditional clauses while offering no evidence whatsoever that the deal will be a blow against climate change.

Let’s run through the deceptions, shall we?

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I Realize We Can’t Be First All the Time, But Can We Please Be First a Little More Often?

Ah, Vermont, home of Bernie, cradle of progressivism, always in the vanguard of positive change.

Or so we like to believe.

In reality, more often than not we lag behind other jurisdictions. And I’ve got not one, not two, but three examples to share.

First, we are now officially behind the Biden administration on the right to repair — which allows consumers to act as if they own the stuff they buy. Second and third, the state of Maine has enacted two bills that put Vermont in the shade. Maine has imposed a virtual ban on the use of PFAS chemicals (so-called “forever chemicals”), the compounds that have created a huge mess in the Bennington area. Also, Maine has passed “extended product responsibility” legislation that makes manufacturers responsible for the ultimate fate of their product packaging.

So why are we behind in these areas? Well, all three touch on corporate interests. Our lawmakers tend to wither and fade when exposed to testimony from the business community. Besides, these are exactly the kinds of bills that Gov. Scott frequently vetoes over vague concerns about competitiveness or costs.

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Some Rich Guy is Buying Up Southeast Vermont

Until today, I’d never heard of Paul (nee Pavel) Belogour, a native of Belarus who’s made a fortune in international investing and related software. Now, he’s the incoming owner of three newspapers in southern Vermont: the Brattleboro Reformer, Bennington Banner, and Manchester Journal. The big prizes are the Reformer and Banner, the only two daily newspapers south of Rutland.

This is either a really good thing or a really bad thing. When an oligarch swoops in and buys media outlets, it may be out of a true sense of obligation to support journalism. The owner’s deep pockets can counter the effects of the news business’ decline. Or it might just be a matter of collecting trophies and buying influence with little regard to the health of the publications. On the rich-guy scale, this purchase amounts to spare change.

Oh, and his native country is a corrupt dictatorship which ranks… let’s see… 158th on Reporters Without Borders’ ranking of 180 countries. RWB noted that Belarus is “the most dangerous country in Europe for media personnel.” Let’s hope Mr. Belogour doesn’t practice his homeland’s approach to the press.

The Reformer and Banner have been circling the drain for some time. How they’ve survived the pandemic on top of all that, I have no idea. But it’s not surprising that Massachusetts-based New England Newspapers, which bought the papers a few years back with an eye toward enhancing the bare-bones operations, has now decided to sell out.

There is another dimension to this. Belogour has been buying up properties in southeast Vermont at a rapid clip. He’s well on his way to becoming a real economic force in the region. And now he’s going to control the daily newspaper? That’s troubling.

So let’s look at the available Google trail on Mr. Belogour, shall we?

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Call Dr. Levine, We’ve Got a Full-Fledged Stupidemic On Our Hands

Well, geez. I already had enough material for another edition of the Veepie Awards on Friday, and then the weekend brought a fresh outbreak of The Stupid. So before any more cases are diagnosed, let’s roll out our second-ever awards for Outstanding Stupidity On Public Display…

The We’ve Always Done It This Way, and We’re Going to Keep Doing It This Way Until the Sun is a Cold, Dark Husk Award goes to House leadership for continuing the barnacle-encrusted tradition of appointing one Republican to a committee chairship, no matter how small the Republican caucus. This time it may just bite ’em in the butt. And, more painfully, bite unemployed Vermonters with children.

As reported by VTDigger’s James Finn, the House Commerce and Economic Development Committee is likely to eliminate an additional $50-per-week to unemployment benefits for jobless Vermonters with children, included by the Senate in a bill addressing UI benefits and the unemployment trust fund. This is the committee with the obligatory token Republican chair, Rep. Michael Marcotte. He told Finn that he’s skeptical about the parental bonus, and his committee may strip it from the bill.

We don’t know how other Commerce members feel, because none are quoted in the article. But the chair sets the committee agenda, and has the power to block anything they choose. Heck of a time for a Republican to occupy that seat.

I get the desire for bipartisanship, or at least the plausible appearance of same. I could understand giving a chairship or two to a minority if there’s a close partisan split in the House. But why give away a leadership post to a party that can barely win one-third of available seats? Republicans know it’s a token gesture. It doesn’t stop them from feeling abused and ignored by the majority. It accomplishes nothing. Or, in this case, less than nothing.

After the jump: Stupid Bar Tricks, Art Malappreciation, and a comms guy makes a dumb comms mistake.

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We’re In a Housing Crisis, Aren’t We?

Anyone who can climb the hill gets a house!

Yeah, I think we are.

Two items in the news:

First, from VTDigger’s Erin Petenko, sales of Vermont homes to out-of-staters reached historic levels last year, presumably driven by the pandemic, and

Second, from Seven Days‘ Anne Wallace Allen, the home building industry has given up on large swaths of Vermont and concentrated its activity in high-flying Chittenden County.

We had a big affordable-housing problem back when we thought coronavirus was something you caught from a tainted beer. It’s gotten worse since then, and the trends are all in the wrong direction.

That $37 million affordable housing bond we proudly enacted in the pre-Covid days of 2017 looks like a drop in the bucket. And Sen. Michael Sirotkin’s proposal for an even bigger Housing Bond 2.0, which has languished in the Legislature for the past two years*, is looking more and more vital.

*Thanks in no small part to the opposition of Treasurer Beth Pearce, whose aversion to public debt rivals the Scroogiest of conservatives.

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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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