From Vermont Business Magazine:

In economic terms, Windsor County appears to have little cause for complaint. According to the most recent available state figures, Windsor ranks third among Vermont’s 14 countries in per capita income. In May, the most recent month for which data are available, its unemployment rate, before seasonal adjustment, stood at 2.7%; higher than only Chittenden and Addison counties. Among labor market areas, White River Junction had the state’s lowest rate, at 2.2%.

The impact of a good ski season can be noted in areas focused on winter recreation, such as Woodstock, the county’s shire town.

“People for the most part have said they had a very good year, and a better spring than last year,” Chamber of Commerce director Elizabeth Finlayson said, when asked about the last winter’s tourism. “I think that things are definitely in the upswing.”

In 2015 the town instituted a local-option tax – one percent on rooms, meals and alcohol.

“We’re seeing the economic benefits from that,” Finlayson reported. The town’s Economic Development Commission, the sole beneficiary of the tax, has garnered about $400,000 from it, to help “with some infrastructure and definitely creating a beneficial environment for businesses,” she said.

“They’ve received more money than had been projected in the last quarter of 2016 and the first of ’17,” she added, since economic activity was likewise running ahead of expectations.

EDC member Charlie Kimbell, who also represents Woodstock in the Vermont House of Representatives, described the redevelopment of the village’s East End, along Route 4, as a key focus for the planning money the commission is getting from the tax.

“It’s largely been hanging in a state on non-development for a while,” he described the area, which surrounds what was once Woodstock’s train station.

Ultimately, he anticipated, the area will include high-density housing as well as industrial, retail and recreational sites.

“There’s a lot of movement there, but there’s nothing certain at this point.”

A private party, he reported, is working “on putting their company there, which is based on local agricultural practices and food technology, putting their research facility in the East End.” He declined to give details, since the matter remains in process.

There’s also talk about a microbrewery and a furniture factory, while a coffee roaster, Abracadabra Coffee Company, has just located on a private site adjacent to the East End redevelopment area, he reported.

Three local cheese manufacturers are interested in setting up retail outlets in the area, he said; Hunter and Jessica Melville, principals in one of the three, Vermont Farmstead Cheese, have purchased an old gas station in the area – and their company is working on plans for its development.

Still, Kimbell stressed, “We do have limitations there. Route 4 is not really convenient to the interstate. The types of businesses that are looking for an industrial site right off the interstate aren’t going to look at Woodstock.”

Only one of the parcels under study by the EDC is municipally owned, the rest being private.

“What’s happening now” between private and public players, he said, is “working together as one development. There hasn’t been that coordination in the past, and that is monumental.”

Twenty-five miles south, in Springfield, the report from the Regional Development Commission is just as encouraging

Konrad Prefab, which manufactures lactation stations, established itself last fall in 20,000 square feet of the Robert S Jones Industrial Center, formerly the Jones & Lamson machine tool company’s Plant 2, which the Springfield RDC owns. The entire center, with about 90,000 square feet, is “pretty much full at this point,” RDC executive director Bob Flint told VBM.

In June, he said, his RDC received a $625,000 loan from the Vermont Economic Development Authority to help rehab some 35,000 square feet at Springfield’s former Bryant Grinder plant, which the RDC acquired in 2010. He expected work on the site to begin this fall.

At the Fellows Gear Shaper plant, yet another reminder of Springfield’s industrial past, Trout River Brewing is in its second year of production. Flint offered strategic help for the brewers, who had purchased the enterprise from its original owners in the Northeast Kingdom and moved it to Springfield [see sidebar].

Blake Hill Preserves, which began producing its gourmet jams and marmalades in 2009 in Grafton, moved last October into a new 6,000-square-foot production and retail building owned and built by the RDC at Windsor’s Artisans Park. The enterprise, which began life in the kitchen of owners Vicky Allard and Joe Hanglin, employs about 12 at its new location.

One common theme of VBM’s interview with Flint – and others in the county – was the close cooperation between the commercial and nonprofit sectors, the combining of public and private needs in promising initiatives.

By way of example, Pete Fellows, who manages construction and planning projects for Woodstock-based Two Rivers Ottauquechee Regional Commission, pointed to his organization’s assistance with a new White River Junction redevelopment, dubbed Bridge and Main after its downtown location.

The developer, Hanover, NH-based Bill Bittinger, told VBM that the new four-story block will include 2,000 square feet of commercial space as well as 17 residential units. Construction began in June, with completion expected in January.

The Vermont State Housing Authority will manage the property. Describing the project as “pulling together the strong players in the business,” Bittinger characterized it as furthering “the purpose of the highest import – to address the shortage of housing for people who want to be in the village, who want services nearby.”

That should come as good news in the White River Junction area, where rents are the second highest in the state, after the Burlington area, according to the 2016 Vermont state report of the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

There’s also good news from West Windsor, which, in an interview for this article, Southern Windsor County Regional Planning Commission executive director Tom Kennedy called “a community that has really struggled since the mountain closed.”

In 2015, five years after the privately owned ski area on the town’s Mount Ascutney went bust, the municipality purchased the operation’s 469 acres and added them to the existing town forest. Local activists established the nonprofit Mt Ascutney Outdoors to assume the operating role, and now the resort is slowly returning to life.

Mt Ascutney Outdoors, Kennedy said, is “starting to develop a multi-seasonal facility that includes mountain biking, hiking, and for the last two years they’ve installed a rope tow – and they just got a permit for lighting” for nighttime skiing. The group also purchased an adjoining 2.3-acre parcel that included the base lodge – largely destroyed in a January 2015 fire – and received some $40,000 from the RPC to help demolish it.

“They’re going to be putting up a smaller lodge,” he said.

Elaborating, Mt Ascutney Outdoors board member Glenn Seward said, “We’ve raised enough money to complete what we call Phase 1, which is essentially to get the building up and weather-tight, hopefully this fall.”

He described the current operation as “fundamentally” very similar to a commercial ski area – but run entirely by volunteers.

“At this point we do not charge for activities,” he said, “but as activities develop we will look to charge for certain activities to cover the costs, so we don’t have to rely on donations for operational funding.”

It’s a novel arrangement – a rope tow, no snow-making, free skiing.

“The skiing is great when there’s natural snow,” Seward said. “It is very low-key.”

The first winter, 2015-2016, was as dismal as it was at many another ski area, but this past season the resuscitated ski area proved “very popular,” in his words.

He mentioned snow-shoeing, a tubing park, cross-country skiing and backcountry skiing, in addition to rope-tow skiing and mountain-biking, as keys to the resort’s future.

“If we are fortunate enough to get the tubing facility built this year, we will charge for that… purely to cover expense. Skiing will remain free this winter.”

While the re-emerging recreation area is not itself about making money, he hoped that it would bring people to the area in sufficient numbers to generate an uptick in business at local hotels, restaurants, and other businesses.

In Windsor County’s recreation and hospitality sectors, it’s thus full steam ahead.

“It was a fairly good ski season this year and that helped everyone,” Kennedy put it. “We’re seeing some smaller restaurants open up. There’s one in Cavendish, on the Proctorsville Green, which was a brownfield site. In Springfield there’s Harkness House. They’ve seen their customer base increase. There’s Windsor Station [see sidebar]… Restaurants that have a good business model seem to be strong and thriving.”

Asked if the business picture had any downsides, the Springfield RDC’s Flint didn’t report any major setbacks for local economic activity.

“Knock on wood, it’s been OK,” he said. However, “most of the businesses we deal with, that we speak to, are in a growth phase, and are dealing with the challenges of growth,” he added, alluding a bit obliquely to difficulties in finding qualified workers in a relatively tight labor market.

Kennedy chimed in. Asked if workers were getting hard to find – unemployment in the Springfield labor market area stands at 3.2% before seasonal adjustment – he said, “Yes – depending on the business.”

That statement gets corroboration in discussions with the county’s businesspeople.

Brenan Riehl, president and CEO of Bethel’s GW Plastics said, “There certainly continues to be an ongoing scarcity of workers, but we’re managing to find them.”

His globally active company, which manufactures precision medical equipment, has boosted its local payroll from last year’s 350 to over 425.

“The expansion that we completed last year in Royalton, we’re filling that up pretty quickly. The question will be for us, Where will we expand again? Will it be outside of Vermont?”

“Companies like GW Plastics need skilled workers, but Vermont has to be a sustainable place to live for a skilled work force to live here. If that is not the case going forward, it’s going to be a hard place to keep companies like GW.”

His firm’s Manufacturing Technical Leadership Program, undertaken in cooperation with Vermont Technical College, has proven “transformational for our employees,” he said. Under the program, GW supports tech students at VTC through scholarships and internships.

The company also encourages technical talent already on the payroll to take one course per semester at the college. When they graduate they get a 10 percent increase in pay.

“We’ve been very progressive with workforce development,” Riehl put it. “We’re continuing to invest in Vermont, but we’re concerned about the challenges of doing business in the state going forward.”

At NewsBank in Chester, the situation is not hugely different. Dan Jones, president and CEO of the Florida-based firm, which consolidates news and historical information for researchers, said, “We’re almost always hiring. That’s why we have so many people outside Vermont. We’d have more employees in Vermont if you could find them. Every year it becomes more difficult.”

NewsBank gathers information from 11,000 news sources – print and online – and packages the reportage for academic and library clients who subscribe to the service. It also offers a historical product line, which digitizes archived documents for researchers.

Given the company’s natural emphasis on the credibility of sources, Jones said, the advent of fake news has been “one of the best things that ever happened to us … We vet the sources for our news very, very carefully.”

NewsBank maintains a payroll of 185 in Chester, where the average employee, Jones said, has been there for more than 16 years.

“That says a lot about the quality of people in Vermont. If there’s anything that I wish were different, it’s a larger labor supply.”