VTDIGGER 11/04/20
By Michael Shank 

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Michael Shank of Brandon, who is vice chair of the Rutland Regional Planning Commission and the chair of the Brandon Planning Commission. He was an independent candidate for a Rutland District seat in the Vermont State Senate.

When the Chamber and Economic Development of the Rutland Region announced their new name last month – merging the Rutland Economic Development Corporation and the Rutland Region Chamber of Commerce – they also announced the findings of a summer survey of their 380 members. In that survey on how to best support Rutland County businesses and nonprofits over the next 12 months, the majority of respondents identified as their top priority the need for “regional marketing focused on increasing population and workforce.” This makes much sense and is consistent with their “Real Rutland” campaign goals. A stronger population and workforce will both lower taxes for everyone and boost our economy overall.

In an effort to move that work forward, I launched an online survey last month, distributed via social media to Rutland County residents, to get a better sense of what new businesses and new job skillsets were needed. Why survey the Vermont community? Because the community often knows best where growth should occur, is a representative sample size for gauging existing or potential demand, and a creative space to crowdsource an idea and determine the outlines of where and how growth should occur. It also helps with buy-in when breaking new ground and should be the starting point for any new-business brainstorm.

But first, what’s the end goal here? In conversations with Vermonters, a consensus quickly emerges. One that desires a thriving downtown core, with storefronts occupied, bustling with local and out-of-town consumers, and a workforce gainfully employed and paid for new innovation and industry. This is pretty consistent across Vermont and understandably so; it’s emblematic of the American dream. Getting this vision right, then, and building a campaign around it, will serve to both inspire Rutland County residents while recruiting wider regional interest (per the aforementioned marketing priority).

So, what’s the path toward that goal? Let’s take a lesson from the best (no need to reinvent the wheel). Unilever, one of the most successful and sustainable global companies (the former CEO of which I worked with on various global sustainability initiatives), hosts an innovation hub online where they identify their latest challenges and wants. Unilever explicitly names what it needs to grow its business and then recruits the innovators and solutionaries who can help problem solve. Open innovation marketplaces like this are now common in the private sector.

What if we did the same in Rutland County and throughout other Vermont towns and cities? What if we’d name the businesses that we want in our downtown core and the job skills we need in our community? Then we publish it publicly and market those needs and wants nationally, recruiting the innovators and industries capable of helping us meet those needs? That, in turn, draws new interest and new investment locally, while helping us meet residents’ needs and recruit new Rutlanders, which ultimately helps lower the tax burden for everyone.

In the poll I launched, I asked three simple questions. I first asked, “What kind of new business do you wish would open in your downtown?” Then I asked, “What new job skill would be most beneficial to you right now?” Lastly, I asked, “What do you buy online that you’d buy in town if it was available and affordable?” If we aggregate this interest and find common themes and priority concerns, then we can build the new economy, attract new companies, and scale up the local workforce. So, what did I find?

On the first question, I found a bounty of new ideas for new business in the downtown core. Let me count the ways. A community-operated credit union. A food market. A recreation center. An ice cream parlor. A home goods store. A yard and fabric shop. An arts supply store. A “true” sports bar. A pharmacy. An athleisure clothing store. A local general store (and not where everything is a dollar but where one can buy basics). An affordable men’s and women’s clothing retail store for work and casual wear and plus sizes. A toy store. A gift shop. A place for silk screening. A store for American-made products. A Christmas tree shop. An alternative school that sets up students for success and has a rehabilitation program for helping the underhoused. A place for minigolf, go-karts, batting cages, and laser tag. And wheelchair accessible shopping for all of the above. Now, what if we’d poll the entire community, get consensus on what consumers support, then recruit the businesses regionally and nationally to meet these needs?

On the second question pertaining to job skills, the needs were many and diverse. Respondents asked for training in carpentry, planning, InDesign and Photoshop, heating, ventilation and air conditioning/refrigeration maintenance and repair, marketing, papermaking and cardmaking, advanced computer and office skills, technology and website building and design, ways to grow the mental health field, skills in fixing things (vehicles, home repair, electronics, and more), and skills in securing capital for purchasing and rehabbing empty buildings for low-income housing or women’s homeless shelters. Again, what if we’d survey the entire community, get a sense of where there’s need, then build curriculum based on that? We know that Rutland County is underserved regionally in terms of state-supported workforce development and job skills training. But that’s not because the resources aren’t there. They’re there. It’s up to us to utilize them.

On the third question regarding what Rutlanders would buy in town instead of online, an impressive number noted empathically that they don’t buy online, hate buying online or refuse to buy online, which is a good trend because it’s ultimately better for local businesses and cuts down on emissions when buying local. But those that did mention goods or services, noted everything from quality plus-sized clothing, high-end clothing, teenage clothing, shoes, sheets, bedding, toys, IKEA-type furniture, books, movies, music, pet supplies, arts supplies, craft materials, and more. Now imagine if we met this demand locally. We’d be investing our dollars locally, supporting local businesses and local leaders in our community, and keeping that money in Rutland County versus sending it overseas or to another state.

This is all doable. We just need community input to articulate the vision and set the agenda, new investments in regional and national marketing to meet the demand, and sustained, long-term follow-through to build what we all want – thriving and bustling downtowns with innovative industries and workforces. I see it. We can do this. Now let’s build it.