The meeting was the latest step in the Long Term Community Recovery project facilitated by FEMA. Project champions – community members who act as advocates for the projects they helped develop through the process – presented their ideas to representatives of the agencies and organizations that have funding for recovery projects.
The daylong conference included a MOOver tour of the areas directly affected by the flood. Wilmington selectboard member Meg Streeter, one of the two tour leaders, said the tour, planned by FEMA, was eye-opening for some of the participants.
Keynote speaker Jeff Lewis, executive director of the Brattleboro Development Credit Corporation, may also have been an eye-opener for participants. Lewis said that the flood is a major event for local residents, and one that trumps other challenges. “Depending on where you stand, the damage of the flood trumps other conditions equally as powerful and pernicious as the flood itself,” he said. “The immediate damage trumps the long, slow slide in the economy here and in southern Vermont for the last 15 to 20 years.”
Lewis said the economy in Windham County took a discouraging turn in 2003, and he presented graphs indicating a drop in jobs, population, and wages starting in 2003. “But sole proprietorships went up,” he noted. “But the average income of sole proprietorships went down. There were more people working for themselves, and making less.”
Lewis said the explanation was simple. “When the Book Press (in Brattleboro) laid off 700 people in 1999, about half of them put a snow plow on their truck and became an entrepreneur. Their wages went down.”
Lewis said the average wage in Windham County is among the lowest in the state, below the average wage in the Northeast, “painfully” below the average wage in neighboring Massachusetts, and significantly lower than the average wage in the U.S.
“When people tell you it’s hard to make a living here, it is,” he said. “It’s hard to buy a house because the jobs we have don’t pay enough. We have to create better jobs, we have to create better opportunities where people can create more value for others.
Lewis said Windham County had also lost population, so much so that there was a projected shortfall in the labor force of 8,000 people in 2015. “It’s hard to hire. We don’t have people wanting new jobs, we have people in the same job for 25 years, and they’re not going anywhere. So there’s a double whammy of low wages and not enough people to work.”
The makeup of income has also changed, Lewis said, and showed a chart indicating a shift in income from a 1990 US average of 75% from earned income and 25% from other sources such as government payments and investment income, to a 2009 average in Windham County of 56% from earned income and 44% from government payments and investment income. In the Deerfield Valley, Lewis said, it’s even more dramatic. “So what that means is, when you’re a public meeting trying to decide how to invest the town’s scarce resources, only 50% of the people actually work in a business and are thinking about business structure,” he said. “The others are thinking about personal benefits. If we constantly choose to think about what makes us comfortable, we’ll be really comfortable but we’ll be really poor.”
A graphic that Lewis said he found shocking was a map of Wilmington Village showing the number and distribution of buildings that were empty or for sale. “About 40% of the real estate in the village is empty or for sale,” Lewis pointed out. “And it will undoubtedly get worse before it gets better.”
But Lewis said the problem wasn’t unique to Wilmington, in fact, he has asked Renee Galle, who created the map, to produce similar maps for other downtown areas in Windham County. “There are parts of downtown Brattleboro and Bellows Falls that look just like that, but people have lost sight of it because it’s been that way for so long.”
Lewis said the challenges won’t be easy to overcome. “But I’m confident we’re up to it.”
At their board meeting on Wednesday, Wilmington Selectboard members discussed the day’s events. Streeter said it appeared that project champions were “making good contacts” with key decision makers.
Selectboard chair Tom Consolino expressed eagerness to continue the work of the long term recovery process. “I think it’s important that we not let it wither on the vine,” he said.
Streeter suggested a meeting with project champions, and Consolino suggested a series of meetings to help prioritize projects.
Of his discussions during the day, Consolino said Vermont Transportation Secretary Sue Minter was enthusiastic about Wilmington’s application for Downtown Designation. “I thought one of the stumbling blocks was getting a 501c(3), but she said we don’t necessarily need one.”
Consolino said he was meeting with regional commission officials to put together a presentation for Downtown Designation.
Designation under the state’s Downtown program brings benefits such as priority for some state funding, tax benefits, and local options for signage and traffic calming. “We could make the speed limit 10 miles per hour in the village and slow traffic right down,” said Consolino.
“I’m moving,” groaned board member Susan Haughwout.
“Woohoo, more revenue!” joked Streeter.
Haughwout said she met with the USDA and three other agencies. “They all indicated that there is funding for parts of projects, not necessarily the whole thing. They felt confident that there was ample money out there that might be able to jump start projects.”
Town manager Scott Murphy said the people at the meeting appeared to be interested in helping Wilmington. “The grants are open to all, but they were interested in Wilmington and Waterbury,” he said.