Essex Rotarians engaged in a lively discussion with Gov. Phil Scott last week at the club’s weekly meeting, largely focused on economic development both specific to Essex and statewide.
Each year, the Rotary invites the governor to speak, president Sharon Dettenrieder said. The Colchester-Milton Rotary also attends.
“We’re interested in his points of view about economic development [for Essex] and especially retaining young people,” Dettenrieder added.
Scott relied heavily on the two topics throughout his half-hour speech. His three main talking points were affordability, growing the economy and helping those in need. If a proposal doesn’t align with one of those goals, it’s not worthwhile, he told the crowd.
In his 119th event since taking office, Scott said talking with grassroots
organizations like the Rotary is helpful for gaining support.
He spoke of three numbers that keep him awake at night: Six, three and one. Everyday, he said, there are six fewer people in the workforce, three fewer children in the kindergarten through 12th-grade education system and one baby born to an addicted mother.
Vermont’s population, he added, remains stagnant at 650,000. Losing young people to other states is part of this trend, he noted.
The governor, as he has since the campaign trail, spoke of investing in early childhood education. Higher education, including trade schools, also needs a boost, he added.
Discussion then led to the recent proposal to combine Vermont’s Lottery Commission and the Department of Liquor Control.
The idea is to have one commissioner head the two groups. According to Scott, the merger’s structure would save the state about half a million dollars.
Earlier this month, the proposal was sent back for further study on what long-term implementations would entail.
Questions from the crowd soon brought the conversation back to keeping youth in state. A gentleman nearing retirement asked if Vermont is losing folks from older generations as well.
Vermont is losing the most affluent people to states like Florida, Scott responded, because of high taxes.
“Anything we can do to keep people here to be part of the system, I think is going to be advantageous,” he said.
One Rotarian said Essex isn’t attempting to compete with Burlington for the college-graduate crowd. Instead, Essex is built more on a family foundation. The man said quality of life and safety ratings are reasons people return to the Green Mountain State.
A strong focus on growing the economy is vital in reversing this trend, Scott said, repeatedly mentioning Essex Jct.’s military contractor, Revision.
Fewer taxes on people with military benefits and Social Security benefits is one option for growth, he told the Rotarians. The latter would occur over two or three stages, amounting to about $30 million in savings. Halting tax on military benefits would save about $5 million, he said.
Scott recognized residents need more confidence in the economy. As a business owner, he said he understands the tendency to hunker down when financial trends aren’t optimistic. If confidence levels were to rise, then so would the direction of Vermont’s economy, he added.
Developing a better relationship with Canada is one way of accomplishing economic goals, as is marketing Vermont’s attractive qualities, Scott said.
While the state’s tourism agency is small, Scott believes other agencies should take part in social media marketing, a forum for organizations to think outside the box in doing business, he said.
The crowd’s next question was about affordable housing. One Rotarian said he wished Scott would reconsider the idea for a $2-per-night occupancy tax on hotel visits.
Scott provided alternatives to the tax, noting a $35 million Housing Revenue Bond currently under consideration, as well closing the Southeast State Correctional Facility in Windsor, a $3 million annual cost he called “inefficient.”
But being realistic is important, Scott said.
“We can do things differently,” he said. “We can improve, and we can have a much different Vermont if we just start pulling in the right direction.”