By Stephanie Choate
October 31, 2013
A panel of Williston leaders provided a pulse for the economic status of the town at a community forum Monday night.
The forum was one of dozens the advocacy group Campaign for Vermont has hosted around the state, intended to brainstorm ideas for “a stronger economy where everyone is secure and can prosper,” a press release about the forum states. Campaign for Vermont “advocates for common sense, non-partisan solutions that promote economic opportunity and improves the quality of life for current and future generations of Vermonters,” according to its website.
According to Bruce Lisman, who heads Campaign for Vermont, the forums are intended to listen to Vermonters’ points of view, challenges they face and aspirations for the future of the state.
Four community representatives—New England federal Credit Union President and CEO John Dwyer, Town Manager Rick McGuire, Chittenden South Supervisory Union Superintendent Elaine Pinckney and Williston Area Business Association representative Sue Duke—formed the panel. The Williston Area Business Association, known as WABA, is owned by Williston Publishing and Promotions, which also owns the Observer.
A handful of community members and Campaign for Vermont staffers attended the forum.
McGuire said Williston has seen substantial change since he began as the town manager 15 years ago. He isolated several challenges the town faces moving forward—infrastructure, diversity and education.
“All three of these challenges that Williston faces, and the region faces as well, are important to the economic health of the area,” McGuire said.
McGuire singled out three pressing infrastructure demands in Williston—an effective stormwater system that also protects the environment, the ever-growing need for more wastewater capacity and transportation improvements to support Williston’s growing population.
Diversity—in culture, age, income levels and other factors—is somewhat lacking in Williston, like much of the state.
“Studies have shown cultural diversity actually is directly linked to economic health,” McGuire said.
He added that diversity in business is important.
“It’s important to have a wide range of the types of businesses, not just big boxes,” he said. “All these things help strengthen the community for the future.”
Though Dwyer said Vermont—like all states—was impacted by the financial crisis of 2008, he said it did not see the highs and lows of many states in 2008, and has a low rate of delinquency and foreclosure.
Still, the state has seen economic changes.
“We have gone through a real historic change in mortgage rates in the last five years,” Dwyer said.
Many people are opting for shorter loans—a 15-year loan instead of a 30-year loan, for example. Ten-year mortgages have grown in popularity, something that Dwyer said was very uncommon five years ago.
“Not only in Vermont, but across the country, we’ve really seen the consumer become more conservative,” he said.
In the same vein, consumers are putting extra money back into their homes, rather than springing for, say, a boat.
Along with her work with WABA, Duke works as an ad representative at Williston Publishing, meaning she directly interacts with local businesses daily.
Like homeowners and consumers, some business owners have become more conservative, she said, stopping to more closely evaluate the way they run their businesses.
“The pattern we’ve seen are people becoming smarter with their choices,” she said.
Duke added that there are valuable resources for business owners in the state, but small businesses may already be so stretched that no one has time to research them, and organizations don’t always have the marketing dollars to promote what they can offer.
Still, Duke said Vermonters are a resilient bunch.
“Over the past year, there’s definitely been a marked improvement in people’s general feeling,” Duke said. “A lot of people are saying, ‘I can’t wait for everyone else, meaning Washington, to make the situation better, I’ve got to figure out here what I can do.’”
CSSU—the largest supervisory union in the state—focuses on providing a “seamless” education with a single mission statement for all schools. That ensures that schools benefit from work others are doing, and students are in the same place when they reach high school, Pinckney said.
Pinckney said there have been two major shifts in education in the last 15 years. The first was a shift in how a school determines whether it is providing a quality education—not necessarily how well a teacher is performing his or her role, but how well students are learning.
The second shift is to a focus on what’s known as the common core.
“Let’s determine what all kids need to know and be able to do and let’s make sure everyone does that,” Pinckney described.
“It is important to have a common vision,” she said, adding that that vision should be a pre-K to grade 12 vision.
“I do think we’re in a better place educationally than we were 20 years ago,” she said.