Photo by Caleb Kenna

Photo by Caleb Kenna

A Roadmap for a Resilient Rutland County

By Dr. Michael Shank

Published: September 20, 2020

Protecting our infrastructure – physical, economic and social – from shocks to the system should be everyone’s priority. It’s compromised by increasingly extreme weather, extreme economic hardship and extreme ideologies. Committing to a repair and reinvestment strategy, then, should be on everyone’s agenda as the shocks aren’t going away. We’ll see harder rains, heavier winds and frequent flooding. We’ll see more pandemics and more unemployment. We’ll see more partisanship. And if we’re not careful, it’ll further erode our infrastructure, and most importantly, our faith in each other. This work, then, must be front and center for us. It’s what I’m thinking about constantly in my daily work with major cities around the world that are prioritizing resilience. Now, we must prioritize this, too.

First, a focus on physical infrastructure.

On buildings, bridges, railways and roads, we’re currently getting a “C” Grade from the American Society of Civil Engineers for our crumbling infrastructure. Let’s aim higher. Let’s equip our transportation departments, as one example, with the resources they need to repair and rebuild so that we’re “A” Grade and resilient to worsening weather, torrential rains (which have increased over 70% in the last few decades), higher winds and more frequent flooding.

On energy infrastructure – that powers our heat and electricity – we’re currently consuming more than three times the energy we produce. That’s not sustainable. Let’s flip those numbers and achieve energy independence by locally producing more than three times the energy we consume, becoming an energy exporter to neighboring states, and decentralizing the grid for even greater resilience during extreme weather.

On communications infrastructure, roughly one-quarter of Vermont, and many households in Rutland County, don’t have access to high-speed internet. If we’re going to be the friendliest place to live, work and play, we need to be able to deliver on that promise and technology is paramount. Let’s ensure 100% of Rutland County has access to high-speed internet. At the Rutland Regional Planning Commission, where I serve as Vice-Chair, this is a priority for us as we help build out the Otter Creek Communications Union District, on which the Town of Brandon is leading.

On transportation, we’ve increased our emissions in Vermont over the past two decades, which means more pollution in the air and unhealthy particulates in our lungs. Let’s protect the health of Rutland County residents by electrifying our cars and trucks (and our emitting buildings as well) and powering them with locally-produced clean energy instead. We’ll save lives that way. So will prioritizing public transport that’s more convenient, low-cost and electric.

On housing, an unsustainable 15 percent of Rutland County households pay 50% or more of their income on a place to live, which means they’re at high risk of housing instability, eviction, foreclosure and homelessness. Let’s reduce that risk to zero and invest in permanently supported housing, rental and loan assistance, incentives for landlords to retrofit old housing stock, health and safety improvements, and weatherization to lower energy bills. This is the most economically efficient path forward. We also owe it Vermont communities to replace the roughly $58 million that should’ve gone to affordable housing over the last 10 years, via the Vermont Housing & Conservation Board, but didn’t due to multiple legislatures and administrations using that money for other purposes. Imagine how that money could help Vermonters find an affordable home now.

On aging infrastructure, another round of federal stimulus funding for Vermont’s aging water and sewer systems will be essential (and a quick way to create jobs and get people back to work). Rutland County could benefit from Vermont’s Brownfield Initiative, a state program that financially supports the productive reuse of abandoned or underutilized sites due to contamination. Note that Burlington, St. Albans, Richmond, Springfield and Bellows Falls are getting the funding now. Let’s prioritize Rutland County and revitalize buildings, pipes and sites that are eligible for Brownfield assistance from the state. This much-needed attention to Rutland is long overdue.

Second, a focus on economic infrastructure.

On local businesses in the downtown core, Rutland County is currently under-represented in Vermont’s 2020 Comprehensive Economic Development (CED) Strategy. Only Chittenden County, Northeast VT, East Central VT and Windham County have regional CEDs. While there’s a Rutland strategy in the works at the Rutland Regional Planning Commission, let’s make sure we have all hands on deck to make it successful, including the Chamber and Economic Development of the Rutland Region. Let’s also make sure that the Downtown Rutland Partnership, as another example, is fully benefiting from the Agency of Commerce and Community Development’s Better Place Program, which helps communities, during COVID-19 and beyond, reconfigure their streets, parking areas and spaces. The recent effort to get funds for keeping Rutland Center Street’s new look and feel – adding permanent ‘parklets’ for businesses and wider sidewalks – is exactly what’s needed.

On small business start-ups and innovation hubs
, while the state’s Small Business Development Center and workforce Training Program robustly serve Northwest counties (e.g. Chittenden, Franklin and Grand Isle) they thinly cover Southwest Counties (e.g. Rutland and Bennington) due to lack of demand. Let’s change these numbers and support our local innovators with statewide and national resources. The northwest has just over two times the population of the southwest but gets seven times the grant agreements, over five times the employees trained, and five times the monies awarded. If we had the demand, we could better balance these scales. Let’s also make sure Rutland City and Town are benefiting from the state’s Business Management Coaching (as they’re presently not on its current or recent client list). We need to take full advantage of Vermont’s training and coaching programs.

On workforce and skills development, Vermont students are leaving the state, unable to afford higher education (we’re one of the lowest investors nationwide in higher education), and coming up short on transferrable and employable skills. By building a new academic partnership between the Community College of Vermont, Vermont Technical College and Vermont’s Technical Centers, where high school students can simultaneously earn a full year’s worth of college credit while in a tech program, we can keep college costs low, keep our students here, and get our students employed with local businesses. Let’s extend the state’s Real Careers program to 2030 (the state recently ended the program in Rutland despite its success), which includes interview preparation, financial literacy, workers’ rights, pre-employability skills, and field trips to local employers. Our students desperately need this support, as well as transferable skills that the Agency of Education is starting to prioritize but will need to ramp up with resources, support and training to be successful. Gainfully employed alumni make our colleges attractive. We have to fully fund Vermont’s future if we want one.

On wage growth and livable wages, over 10% of Rutland County lives in poverty and current wage growth in Rutland is insufficient to survive and thrive, secure affordable housing and healthcare, send kids to college, and be food secure. A $10.96 hourly wage for a family of three, which is Vermont’s floor, is the annual salary equivalent of living at the US federal poverty line. That’s a problem. It’ll be hard for Rutland to become resilient under these conditions. We need to double wage growth, enable livable wages and halve the poverty rate to put our entire community on a path towards success not instability.

On local food systems and food security, COVID-19 shows the necessity of local food sovereignty and regenerative food systems, as well as the value of hubs like the Vermont Farmers Food Center. Let’s produce more than we consume and become a net exporter to the big cities south and east of Rutland. According to the Agency of Agriculture, nearly $23 million is needed annually to ensure Vermont farmers have the marketing support, product research and development, educational opportunities, infrastructure investments, and workforce development to meet the growing needs of the sector. This is doable. We’ve increased our food-related economic output and employment over the last decade by roughly $4 billion, or 48% growth, with an increase of 6,529 jobs, or 11% growth. We can continue this growth by setting up new distribution to and marketing in New York City and Boston for the quintessential Vermont farm products. This is how we make sure our farming community is resilient to future shocks.

Third, a focus on social infrastructure.

On healthcare, childcare, and senior care, we have much work to do to make it affordable and accessible to all. Fourteen percent of adults in the Rutland area, for example, don’t have a personal healthcare provider. Eleven percent of Rutland adults didn’t visit a doctor due to cost. Nine percent of adults in the Rutland area don’t have health insurance. That makes us extremely vulnerable to the next shock. Let’s boost access and affordability to high-quality care, halve those aforementioned numbers, expand access to professional caregivers to support aging in place, and add childcare to employee benefits. COVID-19 is making clear that we need to think outside the box on these fronts in order to make Rutland healthier as a whole.

On training of the next generation of leaders, we know senior leadership roles across Vermont’s public and private sectors are approaching or nearing retirement age. Let’s make sure we transition seamlessly. Let’s create a Mentor Corps to pass the baton on town and city leadership and departmental expertise (e.g. transportation, water, sewer, housing, etc.), as well as a Service Corps, similar to the federal government’s Civilian Conservation Corps (which made valuable contributions to forest management and flood control, for example), to help Rutland recover post-COVID, rebuild and be resilient going forward. The transition is coming. Let’s be prepared.

On equity and inclusion, it should trouble us all that Vermont has one of the most racially disparate home ownership rates in America and that communities of color are stopped, searched and arrested disproportionately, which are just two examples of inequality in our state. “Liberty and justice for all”, as the pledge of allegiance implores, encourages work on this front if we want all communities to feel welcomed and afforded equal access and opportunity. We first need to repair past harm while ramping up assistance to balance the scales of justice. That’ll first require resources, and awareness raising, training, oversight, accountability and monitoring mechanisms to make sure it happens. But if we do it, then we’re stronger, more united, as a community.

On civil discourse and social capital, we know that politics are becoming more divisive and social media more antagonistic. Let’s not let this unravel further. Too much is at stake to continue to tear at each other like this. By creating space for healthy conflict resolution, setting up constructive dialogue mechanisms across Rutland forums and institutions – so that it’s all hands on deck, as it’s the only way it’ll work – and by hosting regular Rutland roundtables to sustain and mediate healthy dialogue, we can rise above the rhetoric and find a new way to coexist and tackle conflict. If we fail to do this, we’ll slowly undermine the remaining fabric that keeps our community together.

All of this above may sound like a heavy lift. But this work is nothing compared to what clean up could look like after the next shock hits us. Building a resilient Rutland County now is essential for avoiding the kind of devastation that we could easily see after the next hurricane, flood, pandemic, recession, or politically divisive attack. Our infrastructure is everything. And it’s not just physical infrastructure, it is our economic and social infrastructure as well. They’re equally important and they equally deserve our immediate attention, repair, resources and reinvestment. Let’s do this. A resilient Rutland makes us Vermont Strong. The time is now.