Guest editorial: Vermont’s economy needs more investment, innovation

Moving Vermont’s economy forward requires investments in both innovation and infrastructure.
There’s no shortage of innovation in Vermont — we’re fortunate to have legacy industries and cutting-edge entrepreneurs eager to contribute to our economy and provide good jobs. It’s not easy for them, however. Costs are higher here than in many other places. And too many areas of our state lack critical energy and telecommunications infrastructure necessary to compete in the 21st-century economy.
Many of the challenges our employers face also exacerbate the trials of working families. As the cost of living in Vermont continues to rise, Vermonters in the middle struggle to keep pace.
It’s a policy-driven economic cycle — not a temporary trend — that we must break. You can see its impacts in anemic state tax revenue, employment and income data, the decline in our student population and the growing number of working-age Vermonters leaving our beautiful, peaceful state to pursue opportunities elsewhere.
Thankfully, though the hurdles are high, the solutions are well within our reach. As I’ve frequently noted, there is no challenge we cannot meet if we work together.
We should start by focusing on the fundamentals of economic growth like infrastructure. And we must insist that the voice of the majority is heard, and not drowned out by a small faction willing to yell louder, or behave poorly, just to make their point.
The proposed expansion of natural gas service is a good example. This project will bring new infrastructure to communities in Addison County along with the benefits of natural gas, which is substantially cleaner than heating oil or propane.
Reducing emissions from heating homes and businesses will make our air cleaner. It also moves us closer to realizing our carbon reduction goals set when, during my administration, Vermont became the first state to join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative and subsequently enhanced in the state’s comprehensive energy plan.
Speaking of being green, natural gas is more affordable than alternatives. Bringing natural gas to more communities will allow them to save money. For families, those savings can be as much as $2,000 per year or more depending on the type of fuel they are using today. Businesses, municipalities, hospitals and colleges all save too. The farmers of Agri-Mark, for example, expect to save more than $1 million a year when they have access to the pipeline.
And these are only some of the benefits. Testimony from one of Vermont’s most respected economists indicates that extending the choice of natural gas to communities between Chittenden County’s existing system and Middlebury will generate more than $70 million in economic benefit over the next 20 years. This is millions of dollars in energy savings, property taxes and construction employment. The same analysis shows the benefits growing to $191 million over 35 years.
It’s a smart investment. The appeal of a cleaner, more affordable heating source for businesses looking to grow and relocate and the appeal to families looking for a place to live, work and raise their children are important considerations.
Put another way, the range of energy choices in Chittenden and Franklin counties — where they’ve been expanding the natural gas system for nearly 50 years — is one reason that area enjoys more economic stability and growth than other parts of Vermont. Expanding proven economic infrastructure to other areas of Vermont helps to equalize economic opportunity. The northwest part of our state enjoys a substantial competitive advantage — and it shows.
Vermont Gas has reset its approach to the management of this important project. Let’s not forget this is a Vermont-run company that employs many hardworking Vermonters in good-paying jobs and has provided decades of great service to dozens of communities. Though the company has made mistakes, they’ve owned up to them and made changes to ensure they don’t happen again.
Vermont needs to make a similar change. As a state we should focus more on the merits of a project than its politics. While every proposal requires rigorous review, we need to get serious about improving our economy.
Economic infrastructure is essential to a thriving, innovative economy that moves Vermont forward. And moving forward is the only alternative to continuing to fall behind.
— Former Vermont Gov. Jim Douglas

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