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Patten: Vermont's Two Economies

Vermont has two economies. By most measures, one is doing great while the other struggles. One boasts an unemployment rate of just 2.9% while the other holds at 3.9%. Since the year 2000, one economy’s population grew by 9%, while the other by just 1%.

Of course, the two economies I’m describing are that of Chittenden County and the rest of Vermont. Chittenden County employment numbers have now surpassed their 2007 peak, but the rest of the state still lags behind. Beyond differences in culture, demographics, and other features, the economic differences are notable. To the degree that people traveling outside Chittenden County are often greeted, only partially in jest, with “welcome to Vermont!”

I should disclose that part of my role at the helm of a statewide economic-focused policy think tank, is to track economic indicators, and speak with folks around the state about economic conditions. On these travels, I’ve encountered a paradox in which the state as a whole both strongly resents, and depends on, the economic vitality of Chittenden County.

In some counties, our unemployment numbers stretch as high as 7 percent, most severe in the Northeast Kingdom and the far southern reaches of Vermont – but counties adjacent to Chittenden enjoy a spillover benefit. So while Chittenden County’s success is widely envied, it’s keeping our statewide economy above water.

The challenge is how to proceed toward a stronger statewide economy, while recognizing that what works in Chittenden County may not work elsewhere.

We can start by identifying the strengths in both economies, and learning from each other - because despite what the county-level data suggest, there are bright spots of economic activity throughout Vermont; examples of creative thinking and economic innovation.

We can organize a statewide conversation about Vermont’s 21st century economy - and how to leverage the assets of our two economies to the benefit all.

Chittenden County has a Gigabit internet connection, the fastest commercially available. Stretching that to the rest of Vermont would foster high-tech business and innovation.

Our high functioning and geographically dispersed network of state colleges could help move our high schools toward the goal of a creating an exceptionally skilled workforce.

New and exciting exciting entrepreneurs have begun to carve out a place for Vermont in the artisanal food products market in our rural communities where land is still affordable. Fostering this growth will renew the Vermont brand as one of quality and integrity, second to none.

While the two economies are undeniably different, we find ourselves at a nexus of opportunity, where we might take the best parts of both and create a shared economic future.