Addison County Economic Report: Region sees opportunities, with obstacles

Kids playing with bubbles at a Vergennes Day event
Photo: The Addison County Chamber of Commerce is having a busy summer. Along with preparing for festivals in Vergennes and Bristol, the chamber is launching the Middlebury Car Show and Fall Festival in October. Shown are photos from Vergennes Day last year. Courtesy photo.

As the economy attempts to speed ahead post-pandemic, a lack of housing, workers, and childcare restrict economic activity

by Olga Peters, Vermont Business Magazine 

According to several economic development specialists, Addison County’s economy is performing well. The county has much to be excited about, such as Amtrak’s Ethan Allen Express extended rail service running to Middlebury and Vergennes in July.

Top of Fred Kenney’s list is the county’s economic diversity.

According to the executive director of the Addison County Economic Development Corp (ACEDC), the county’s economic diversity makes it resilient. The mix of small businesses, manufacturers, nonprofits, and institutions such as Middlebury College means that the county isn’t reliant on a single industry.

Yet, a shortage of workers, affordable housing, and quality childcare remain the preverbal stone in the economy’s shoe.

“I'm sure you're hearing this from everybody because it impacts everybody. We've got labor shortage issues. We have serious housing shortage issues here, and they're all complicated by what remains of the pandemic,” added Phil Summers, executive director of the Addison County Chamber of Commerce.

These shortages are a common theme for Vermont as a whole. This raises the question, can local efforts make a dent, or does the state need to do more?

“Workforce, however, is not necessarily a county issue. In fact, none of these are necessarily county issues,” said Adam Lougee, executive director of the Addison County Regional Planning Commission.

A Positive Economy

Fred Kenney described the Addison County economy as positive.  Along with its healthy mix of businesses, Kenney said that many of the county’s companies are locally owned. This means that most of the money raised and spent in Addison County stays in Addison County.

“We have less of a chance of somebody somewhere else making a decision about whether a business is going to be here or not. We've got local people making that decision,” he said.

Another strength, said Kenney, is that the county has a good amount of available private and public capital supporting its strong entrepreneurial spirit.

But he is also realistic. The county’s labor shortages and supply chain issues appear to limit businesses’ ability to expand.

According to Kenney, several businesses want to grow but can't find the people to work additional shifts.

He said that a lack of readily available commercial space is also an issue in Addison County. the county has few turnkey mezzanine level, 4,000 to 8,000 square foot spaces. This size is often the next step for businesses ready to move from their garage or basement.

“There's a couple of projects coming online down the road that will help alleviate some of these problems,” he said.

The ACEDC is working on a few development projects to bring large businesses to the area.

For example, Eco Global is considering moving its headquarters and manufacturing facility to Middlebury. The ACEDC received $30,000 from the USDA to conduct a feasibility study.

Eco Global, based in Chelsea, diverts single-use plastic film and flexible packaging from landfill and converts them into a product called Ekopolimer(TM).

“That'll be quite a big project for Middlebury if it happens,” he said.

The ACEDC recently helped Otter Creek Childcare Center apply for grant funding for a significant expansion that it’s undertaking with Middlebury College.

While all these projects are good news for the county, Kenney feels impatient.

“All of those projects will take a while before they can alleviate some of the pressing needs in the county,” he said.

Kenney said an in-depth overhaul of the state’s permitting processes, such as Act 250, could speed up development and help everyone in Vermont.

Read the full report at Vermont Business Magazine