As the dramatic revelations in the Northeast Kingdom continue to come to light, Vermonters are left with anger and lost trust.
The most tragic result of losing trust would be to conclude that we must stop all coordinated efforts between business and government. To heal and move forward, we must bring much needed transparency to state government and our campaign finance rules, and invest in proper oversight of projects that involve state advocacy or state property.
I have great hope that the Northeast Kingdom will rise again, stronger than before, because the region’s remarkable qualities endure: a magnificent lake and mountains, incredible architecture, a tradition of entrepreneurship, great schools like Lyndon Institute, proximity to Quebec -- Vermont’s largest trading partner -- and the best beer and cheese in the world. But we need to rethink how we enable economic growth. Sustainable economic development takes hard work, a holistic approach, and long-term vision.
Sustainable economic growth has been the focus of my career. I have helped grow a Vermont-based business to over a hundred employees. In the Clinton administration, I directed Americorps*VISTA, a 6,000 person federal organization devoted to empowering people out of poverty long-term. In the State House, my signature economic legislation was the Land Recycling Act, which eliminated barriers to the cleanup and reuse of abandoned industrial sites. Lasting benefits from that legislation didn’t happen overnight. But today, 20 years later, many formerly toxic and derelict buildings around the state have been transformed into centers of economic activity.
I am acutely aware of the mounting challenges we face. But I also see a path forward for the Northeast Kingdom, and the whole state.
We must take ownership of redeveloping the hole in downtown Newport. Jay Peak and Burke must be transitioned to ownership that can ensure their strong future. And we cannot allow a giant hole to remain in the center of Newport. The state must assume control over the land, engage the community in planning for reuse, and bring in proven developers to rebuild the block. I’ve helped implement development projects in Vermont and nationwide, and have seen what can happen in downtowns like White River Junction when this is done right. But we must act now, devoting state resources as needed. Poor state oversight led to the problem. We have both a practical and an ethical obligation to help fix it.
We must finally deliver reliable broadband and cell service statewide. For our businesses to grow, our entrepreneurs to innovate, and even for our children to do their homework, we must bring reliable internet and cell service to all Vermonters. As a state Senator, I introduced the first Vermont broadband grants to incentivize providers to bring internet to our rural communities. And for the last five years at Google, I’ve led projects to deliver high-speed broadband to communities nationwide. We absolutely can do it here -- and we will. There is new wireless technology that’s perfect for Vermont. And we can make policy changes at the State House to allow faster, less costly installation.
We must create opportunities for our entrepreneurs and graduates. Vermont has incredible institutions of higher education, and downtowns that were once world innovation centers. We can create entrepreneurial “think houses” in these downtowns where the winners of startup competitions live and work together. With mentorship from our colleges and universities, these homegrown innovators will seed their host communities with new businesses. Similarly, we can build on our outstanding high school graduation rate -- one of the best in the country -- by connecting all our 6,400 graduates with mentors to identify career pathways. By investing in technical education, we can give grads access to the skills of modern innovation, such as 3-D printing and computer coding.
We must combat poverty with micro-lending to help people start their own businesses. Micro-financing is one of the most successful and cost-effective of all anti-poverty measures. And the default rates for microfinance loans are among the lowest. With a modest investment, we can leverage federal dollars and help Vermonters launch businesses to fill our downtown storefronts and rebuild a middle class.
We must create jobs for Vermonters and encourage investment in new businesses. I’ve proposed a Green Jobs Initiative that would bring $100M of revenue bond money to weatherize older apartments and save energy. A portion of utility savings would go to tenants, and a portion would go to repaying the bond, allowing us to create jobs while upgrading our older housing stock. I also propose creation of legislation that would allow individuals who achieve capital gains to defer taxes on that windfall by investing in early-stage Vermont businesses, in much the same way they can currently defer capital gains taxes by reinvesting in a home or property.
Our best days are ahead. I have a great love for the Northeast Kingdom, and deep family roots there -- my great-grandfather was the first water and sewer commissioner of Newport. I know that the kingdom’s best days are ahead of us. But the way forward, for the NEK and for all Vermont, is not to rely on promises of massive projects from seemingly magical outside investments. We must do what we have always done best: put in the hard work to build on our long tradition of innovation, and grow our businesses from the ground up. That’s the Vermont way.
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