Tag Archives: Bennington

Five thousand Syrians

Full marks to Governor Shumlin for refusing to succumb to the hysteria gripping so many of his fellows, and keeping the light on for Syrian refugees in Vermont.

“The refugees from Syria are no different than the refugees from anywhere else in the world,” Shumlin told reporters. “I would encourage us to do what Vermont has always done … It’s the spirit of all Vermonters to ensure that when you have folks who are drowning, who are dying in pursuit of freedom, that Vermont does its part.”

At last count, 16 governors had said they would refuse to accept refugees from Syria. Including, shamefully, New Hampshire Democrat Maggie Hassan.

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Makin’ bagels with Captain Obvious

Last Wednesday, Lt. Gov. Phil Scott put in a day behind the counter (and in the kitchen) at the Crazy Russian Girl Bakery in Bennington. It was the latest installment of his ongoing series of publicity stunts, which he calls the Vermont Jobs Tour.

But wait: it’s not just a cheap way to get yourself in the local birdcage liner. “I learn something on every single job,” he says. As an example, he finally figured out the difference between “T” and “t”.

Now we know how often he helps out around the kitchen at home.

While he was there, the distinguished occupier of Vermont’s Bucket of Warm Spit dispensed some deep thoughts about Bennington’s economic woes.

Scott said Bennington has some unique advantages which double as challenges, one being its proximity to New York and Massachusetts. The state as a whole must find a way to compete with New York, which has done a good job of promoting itself, and New Hampshire, which lacks a sales tax, Scott says.

“Would you like some boilerplate with your bagel, sir? We sliced it extra thin today.”

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Know-nothings, kneejerks and NIMBYs: a field guide to the anti-solar brigade

Things is gettin’ a little cray-cray on the anti-renewables front, with signs of truly irrational behavior among those who don’t want solar farms anywhere, anyhow, anytime, anyplace, some of whom appear to harbor delusions that solar energy is our worst ecological nightmare. Others exhibit the more garden-variety strains of obstinate oppositionalism.

We begin down Bennington way, where it’s harvesting season in the nutbar orchard. In Pownal, Fire District No. 2 wants to install a 500-kW solar farm on the land where its pump and wellhead are located. The revenue would cover the cost of the FD’s water system, something local taxpayers have been unwilling to do.

(The array, FYI, would be less than half a square mile. Which, in terms of a sweeping Vermont landscape, simply isn’t that large. Small price to pay for keeping everyone’s fire fees low.)

There were the predictable anti-solar reactions — spoiling the view, affecting property values — but this one takes the cake:

Attendees expressed concern over possible pollution from the array, a risk of fire or explosion, and long-term logistics with the array’s maintenance and decommissioning.

Artist's rendering, proposed Pownal solar array.

Artist’s rendering, proposed Pownal solar array.

Waitwaitwait.

A risk of fire or explosion?

Mmmmmyeah.

There’s plenty of stupid in the rest of the article, but I’ll just stop there. Anyone suggesting spontaneous combustion at a solar array has forfeited all credibility.

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The real lessons of Plasan

Vermont’s pro-business community couldn’t hardly wait to score a cheap political point (and, as usual, soil the state’s reputation) after Plasan’s announcement that it was relocating to Michigan. Decent interval, bah: we’ve got a boilerplate press release ready to go.

Lt. Gov. Phil Scott did the honors for the VTGOP, offering a quick word of sympathy to Plasan’s workforce and then pivoting to the red meat:

This announcement is yet another clear sign that we in Montpelier must put our full focus on not only protecting, but on growing Vermont’s economy and face the reality that we are competing in a regional, national and global marketplace. We cannot continue to blame “forces beyond our control” for our job losses, but turn the mirror back on ourselves and ask ourselves: “What can we do to change the direction of this trend? How can we make Vermont better?”

The best part is Scott’s dismissal of “forces beyond our control,” when Plasan made it abundantly clear that Vermont’s business climate had nothing to do with its decision, and Vermont couldn’t have done anything to change it. But let’s not let a little inconvenient truth get in the way of a stale talking point.

Former Wall Street supremo Bruce Lisman kept it simple; he made time for one self-congratulatory Tweet, with nary a word of sympathy for the workers.

(The link is to WCAX’s story about the Plasan closing.)

Nice, Bruce. Way to show your concern for the common folk.

Okay, so the Usual Suspects reacted in the usual way: grabbing at any available pretext for regurgitating their political cud. (Please chew with your mouths closed.) But there are lessons we can learn from the departure of Plasan and other industries, and things we should bear in mind.

FIrst, let’s re-examine the unique strengths of Vermont. We do have our share of weaknesses, even if you omit the tired bromides of rightist politicos. So why do so many businesses establish themselves here or move here? Why does anybody stay? Why don’t they all move to Michigan or Texas or Mississippi?

Quality of life must be near the top of the list. Our topflight public school system is a draw. We have some very nice cities and small towns, good places to call home. Low rates of violent crime. Abundant recreation. A market small enough that entrepreneurs can gain a foothold before venturing out into the big time. (Ben & Jerry’s would have had a much harder time starting out in a big state with big distribution systems.)

I’m sure there are others. My point is, before we try to tear down Vermont, let’s figure out what we’re good at, do what we can to make it even better, and market the hell out of it.

Okay, so now: what are our weaknesses?

We should certainly review the items on the VTGOP hit list. If there are ways to smooth regulatory pathways without selling our souls, great. If forms or bureaucratic procedures are cumbersome, simplify them. But there’s no way we can compete with bigger states or other countries on things like taxes and incentives. Vermont can’t come anywhere near the packages being offered by New York state, for instance. We can’t be as low-tax as Florida or as development-friendly as Arizona, nor would I want us to be. That’s why our first priority should be identifying and maximizing our strengths.

Beyond the usual GOP talking points, I see three major areas that are drawbacks for Vermont’s business climate. In no particular order:

The high cost of post-high school education. It’s the one thing we consistently hear from business owners (as opposed to their political mouthpieces): “We can’t find enough skilled workers. We can’t fill available jobs.”

The cost of attending our public colleges and universities is absurdly high — especially at the community college level. Governor Shumlin has done some incremental things to nibble away at this problem, but has failed to tackle it in a thorough, systemic way.

Getting around. When Chris Graff wrote his memoir a few years ago, he ranked the top stories in recent Vermont history. His pick for #1: the coming of the interstate freeways. They made it possible to travel and transport goods much more quickly, at least in certain corridors. They brought dramatic change to Vermont — mostly for the good.

But large stretches of Vermont are still remote — or remote enough that it’s a significant competitive disadvantage. The biggest obstacle for places like Bennington and Rutland is the lack of high-speed roadway. The best thing we could do for them is turn U.S. 7 into a freeway. We could also use speedier corridors across central and southern Vermont.

(We pause while liberal readers gasp for breath.)

Also, and just as significantly, we need more public transportation. This is a tough nut to crack in a place with a small, scattered population, but if it was easier to get around Vermont without a car, it’d help convince people to live somewhere besides Chittenden County.

The lack of housing, for purchase and rental. One of the biggest drags on our economy is the aging demographic. What do young families need? Rental properties and small- to mid-sized houses. Just what we don’t have.

This is one area of regulation that needs to be loosened in a targeted way. We need to do more to encourage affordable housing — by which I don’t just mean Section 8 or mobile homes, I mean houses costing less than $250,000 and enough rental stock to keep rents reasonable. I’d like to see an emphasis on in-fill housing in existing cities and towns. I don’t want to open the regulatory door to more suburban sprawl.

Housing affordability touches on a fundamental problem with our 21st Century economy: wage stagnation in the middle and working classes. Part of the problem with affordability is depressed wages, something that’s beyond the scope of this post. But as long as young people are starting their lives with college debt and low salaries, we need to help them find housing that fits their budgets.

So there you have it. My initial prescription for improving Vermont’s business climate. And it has nothing (much) to do with taxation or regulation.

… and a child shall lead them.

About a month ago, a journalism class at Bennington’s Mount Anthony Union High School posted a video on YouTube in which they systematically dismantled the integrity of Fox News “journalist” Jesse Watters. The video’s gotten 370,000 hits, and is well worth watching.

This has received quite a bit of notice outside Vermont, but not much within our borders. Probably something to do with Vermont media’s northern orientation; Bennington is a virtual black hole because it’s far away and not easy to get to.

A while ago, Watters ran a piece on “The O’Reilly Factor” in which he visited Vermont to confirm its reputation as a liberal hotbed. His visit was as pro forma as it could have been; he went to Bennington, the closest town to his NYC base, and did a handful of “man on the street” interviews with questions designed to prove his prefabricated point that Vermont is a haven of the far left. Questions like, “Why do you think the President has allowed terrorists to take over a third of Iraq?” (Pronounced eye-RACK.) His interview subjects were stereotypically flaky young people. (I doubt he considered asking anyone in a business suit to take part.)

Mr. Integrity.

Mr. Integrity.

The MAUHS students compared Watters’ report with the ethical standards of the Society of Professional Journalists, and found him guilty of “too many violations to count” resulting in a “wholesale distortion of truth.” As one student concludes, “By watching Fox News, we have learned buckets about journalism: what to do, and more importantly, what never to do.”

The conclusion isn’t a surprise, but what’s notable is the diligence and thoroughness of these students. Their work is worth noting and celebrating. Fox News didn’t see it that way, naturally; Bill O’Reilly referred to the students as “pinheads.” Stay classy, Loofah Man.

Oh, and just in case you want to stereotype these kids as loony liberals, the same class has taken the New York Times to task for its overheated reporting on drug abuse in Vermont, particularly the Times’ assertion that “the hallways of Mount Anthony Union High School… were littered with bags of heroin.”

Tweaking the noses of the powerful: one of the core functions of real journalism.