Sanders voices concern in Holley Hall

BRISTOL — Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., met with more than 130 Vermonters in Bristol’s Holley Hall last Sunday to discuss a range of issues, from health care to women’s rights. But the bulk of conversation centered on an eroding middle class, a need to raise incomes and a risk of leaving future Americans with a lower standard of living.
Rep. Dave Sharpe, D-Bristol, commended the U.S. senator for his persistence in addressing the country’s socioeconomic disparity.
“I worked on (Sanders’) first campaign in 1972,” said Sharpe. “His message was the same then as it is now. The unfortunate piece is that it needs to be the same.”
Sanders delivered a grave message on Sunday, saying economic inequality is killing America, and the country’s distribution of wealth is more top-heavy than at any period in the country’s history.
“The United States today has the most unequal distribution of wealth and income of any major country on earth,” he said with exasperation, adding that the top 1 percent of America earns more than the bottom 50 percent, and the top 400 wealthiest people in America have more wealth than the bottom 50 percent.
“In my view that’s a moral disaster. It’s an economic disaster. And it’s a political disaster,” said Sanders, who is discouraged by the state of the nation.
But while Sanders painted a picture of a country pulled to its knees by a greedy global trade system that’s pushing wages down, Bristol entrepreneur Kevin Harper gave those at the Sunday morning session a reason to be hopeful. As founder and former owner of cosmetics manufacturer Autumn Harp, current owner of Bristol Bakery and a partner of the Bristol Works business park, Harper was asked to sit on Sanders’ panel to address economic development.
“Manufacturing is not dead in America. It’s not dead in Vermont. And it’s certainly not dead in Bristol,” said Harper. He explained that Autumn Harp was able to keep up with the global cosmetics manufacturing industry from Bristol because it produced high-quality products and ran a business with integrity.
Harper thinks that Vermont’s manufacturing and economic future is bright, but it needs some tweaking.
“We’ve been so good at growing grass. We’ve been so good at (producing) milk. The timber industry has been so good at managing forests, cutting trees and selling logs,” he said. “But what we’re not very good at is adding value to those natural raw materials that we’re famous for having the best in the world.”
Harper drew from the state’s hardwood industry as an example.
“What’s happening now is we’re taking our best logs … shipping them on boats to Europe … where they make the finest furniture in the world that they send back and we buy,” he said.
It doesn’t make any sense, he said. Vermonters should be the ones adding value to the high-quality raw ingredients harvested in Vermont. The key to Vermont’s economic success, said Harper, is to take the state’s world-leading raw materials and create value-added products using energy from renewable sources like wind and solar.
“We’re a smart, hard-working work force,” he said. “If we take value-added manufacturing, add it to our core competencies and add in (renewable) energy, we have a tremendous economic future.”
Reporter Andrew Stein is at [email protected].

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