Chittenden County Economic Report: Connecting people to the economy

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Open Streets project, Burlington. Photo Courtesy Burlington.

Chittenden County comes through the pandemic strong while workforce and housing challenges persist

by Olga Peters, Vermont Business Magazine Chittenden County has been the envy, for better or worse, of the rest of the state for decades. COVID is about as defeated there as anywhere in the nation, or even in the world, and the economy is bouncing back. But there’s still that big hole in the ground in Burlington that just won’t go away. But still…

“There is a perception that one thing that’s nice about Burlington is that it’s so close to Vermont,” said Brian Pine.

Pine is the new Director of the City of Burlington’s Community & Economic Development Office (CEDO).

“But we are all connected,” he continued. “Even though there is a feeling that Burlington is a place that has all the jobs, and all the resources, and all the economic activity.”

When looking at economic data, Chittenden County often has the most positive economic outlook compared to the rest of the state.

According to the US Census Bureau’s Quick Fact data for Chittenden County, in 2019, the population grew 4.6 percent since the 2010 census. The median household income was $73,647.

Meanwhile, the US Census Bureau’s data for Vermont shows the state’s population overall dropped 0.3 percent. The household median income for the state was less than in Chittenden County.

Yet, as Pine pointed out, the county also struggles with labor and housing shortages, a common issue across the state.

Housing is more expensive in Chittenden County, according to the Census data. The median gross rent in the county is $1,252 compared to a state median of $985. Median property values are also higher in the county than in the state.

These property values are 2019 numbers, however, and do not reflect the pandemic housing market.

According to the April 2021 market report from the Northwestern Vermont Board of Realtors, the median price for a single-family home has increased to $355,000.

CityPlace

Construction stopped on the massive redevelopment of the downtown Burlington mall after the entire center section was demolished in the summer of 2018.

Because of financing and a still-changing world of retail and office space created by remote shopping and remote working, the entire project has been re-shaped and scaled back.

But whatever is coming next has not begun largely because of two legal cases from vastly different points of view.

Developer Don Sinex told VBM earlier this spring that the redesigned, $160 million project will include 426 apartments, 45,000 square feet of retail and 422 parking spaces for a total of 700,000 square feet.

Photo: In August 2018 the demolition of the old mall was completed and nothing but legal wrangling, COVID and a sea-change in the economy have happened since. To the right is 100 Bank Street. The owners of that building have also taken legal action against the City of Burlington and the CityPlace developers. VBM Photo.

Gone is the vast commercial office space that would have been occupied largely by the University of Vermont Medical Center. A possible hotel also has been removed from the plans.

Instead of the original 14-story proposal, the new building will rise nine stories.

The new concept relies much more heavily on the housing component.

The original design was valued at $225 million and 1.2 million square feet. The retail and office space have been substantially scaled back.

The new design includes 45,000 square feet of street level retail and a garage with 422 parking spots.

Sinex said he needs to begin construction by September 21 so the city still qualifies for $8 million to $10 million in TIF (tax increment financing) for public infrastructure improvements.

Because of the delay in getting the project built, Sinex agreed to pay the city between $300,000 to $450,000 in lost tax revenue.

The ultimate financing, which initially held up the project, is still not entirely solved, but that is not the issue at the moment. The issue is two legal actions.

But opponents represented by Burlington attorney John Franco believe the new plans still lack adequate parking. When the original project was proposed, opponents reached a settlement with Sinex for 960 parking spaces.

Franco told VBM in March that while 960 spaces are no longer needed, the 422 spaces are not adequate.

He argued that Sinex was obligated to come back and renegotiate the agreement.

He also pointed out that when Sinex demolished the parking garage it left the city with fewer downtown parking spaces.   

Franco said the project’s redesign makes sense but more parking is needed. Instead of litigating this in perpetuity, he would prefer a final settlement, but will use the courts in the interim

Sinex and the city disagree with Franco’s legal assessment of the parking issue, but that’s not their only problem.

In an unexpected move in early June, Erik Hoekstra and Larry Williams of Redstone, who own the tower at 100 Bank Street adjacent to CityPlace site, sued Sinex and the city.

According to the suit, they sued over their land that’s needed to reconnect Pine Street, over damage to their building, over loss of tenants, and related to that, over a lack of parking availability.

“I’m not waiting another five years,” Sinex told the Burlington Free Press at the time. “I’ll shut down the site and sell it.”

While Sinex was predictably mad as a hornet about another developer challenging his plans, Mayor Miro Weinberger has managed to temper his remarks, if only just.

In hopes of finding a solution and soon, Weinberger is working on a mediated settlement, but in late June he also pushed back with his own legal action.

On June 25,  the City’s legal counsel filed an Opposition to 100 Bank’s Motion for Preliminary Injunction, in Vermont Superior Court in Chittenden County.

Along with it, Weinberger made the following statement:

“This afternoon the City filed a strong opposition to the motion for a preliminary injunction filed against Burlington by 100 Bank, LLC. Despite my surprise and disappointment at this unproductive recent action by 100 Bank, I have made good on my intention to move toward a resolution with all parties involved in the City Place project and have scheduled two mediation sessions in July with the City, Redstone (100 Bank), and the City Place Developers (BTC Mall Associates). It is my hope that Redstone and BTC will engage this mediation process in good faith, that all parties will take a collaborative and productive approach, and that with the City’s leadership — we can quickly reach a resolution that allows this transformative project to move forward for the good of the people of Burlington.”

And, frankly, for the good of the regional economy.

Post-COVID

And like it did for other Vermont communities, the pandemic drove home the reality that communities — in sickness and in health — are connected.

Business owners and municipalities relied on the federal and state emergency COVID relief funding. A network of professional relationships helped the Burlington High School move into the shuttered Macy’s store. A web of agencies and friends helped Birnn Chocolates find new employees.

As Governor Phil Scott lifted the emergency restrictions on mask mandates and in-person gatherings, those working in human service organizations reflected on how the health of the economy and people’s health are linked.

People like Paul Dragon, director of the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity. CVOEO was one of more than 100 organizations in June to urge Governor Phil Scott against removing pandemic protections and returning too quickly to pre-pandemic business-as-usual.

When Dragon looks at the Chittenden County economy, he feels that social issues such as homelessness, food access, and business resiliency are pieces in the same puzzle.

“A community moves forward together, and if one part of the community is not moving, I think the whole community suffers,” Dragon said. “So I think it’s very important for businesses to rally around and try to mitigate hunger and homelessness, and some of the health effects and aesthetics effects of poor environmental stewardship.”

“Because, if they don’t do that, the whole community suffers, and the economy certainly suffers,” he said.

New and Old Challenges

“Businesses have been hit hard, there’s no sugar-coating it,” said Kara Alnasrawi, director of Economic Recovery and the Church Street Marketplace.

When the pandemic broke out, Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger tapped Alnasrawi as director of economic recovery and to head the new Resource & Recovery Center (RRC).

The RRC was available to any Burlingtonian who needed help connecting to resources, she said.

According to Alnasrawi, Weinberger asked her to scale up the business supports offered through the Church Street Marketplace to the entire city.

While most people think of the pedestrian mall when they hear Church Street, Alnasrawi said that the marketplace incorporates multiple roles, for example managing the business improvement district that includes all the businesses along Church and between Pearl and Main Streets.

Photo: Open Streets project, Burlington. Photo Courtesy Burlington.

The RRC helped members of the business community with the federal Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) applications and other grant opportunities. It also arranged outside seating areas, created curbside pickup locations, and offered free HEPA air filters to businesses, she said.

The organization hosted informational webinars, conducted community outreach, deployed city Community Development Block Grant funds, and translated materials into multiple languages, Alnasrawi added.

Alnasrawi hopes for a busy summer and fall tourist season now that the Scott Administration has lifted COVID restrictions. As of June, she was still looking forward to the reopening of the US-Canadian border. The closure hurt the city’s tourist industry more than most people realize, she said.

Alnasrawi called the Burlington High School’s move to the downtown, fabulous.

She echoed Victor Prussack of the Burlington School District when she said that the addition of approximately 1,200 students and staff revitalized the Church Street area.

To the business community, these young people represent potential customers, employees, and interns, she said.

“Synergy with the high school will be a really positive thing,” she said.

The city wants to emerge from the pandemic better and more resilient, Alnasrawi said. Meanwhile, she acknowledged that COVID exacerbated existing challenges such as housing and food insecurity.

“The pandemic hit some communities harder than others,” she said.

For this reason, the RRC hosted events such as block parties across the city to connect with its residents.

The RRC also launched an initiative called equitable access to fun which subsidizes the cost of activities for low-income families like renting a paddleboat on Lake Champlain.

Those activities support a family’s quality of life and are also enriching for children, she said.

A few high points from the pandemic for Alnasrawi are witnessing the tenacity and entrepreneurism of the Burlington community. She feels excited that several remote workers moved to the area.

“I hope that has a long-term positive impact on our economy,” she said.

A sense of renewed optimism continues to grow around the downtown, Alnasrawi said.

“It is nothing short of feeling joyous,” she said.

As part of Burlington’s COVID response, CEDO operated within RCC, said Pine.

According to Brian Pine, Burlington’s economy has a mix of large recession-proof businesses such as the University of Vermont and large manufactures. It also has many small home-grown businesses that keep dollars circulating locally.

As a result, Burlington’s economy remained resilient during COVID, said Pine.

The department is part chamber of commerce and part human services organization, he said. The office oversees multiple programs aimed at addressing the root causes of poverty and workforce development programs.

“We are one community,” he said. “It’s not like we have a human community, and then a jobs community.”

A core piece of the department’s overall economic development strategy is building up local businesses.

CEDO offers services to develop more local entrepreneurship, for example, business planning, accessing gap financing or advocating with financial institutions to purchase equipment.

One sector hit hard was hospitality, and he expects it will take time for those businesses and jobs to recover, Pine said.

An independent effort to advocate for the restaurant industry in the wake of COVID-19 is the Vermont Independent Restaurants (VTIR). Founded in March 2020, the coalition advocated on behalf of restaurants and their employees throughout the pandemic. According to its website, last year the organization negotiated the rooms and meals tax deferment and secured two rounds of state grants.

Photo: Open Streets project, Burlington. Photo Courtesy Burlington.

VTIR has since partnered with the Vermont Chamber of Commerce.

It is also working with the United Way of Northwest Vermont to offer  Working Bridges Resource Coordination. This program connects restaurant workers with resource coordinators who can help with everything from paying back rent, to dependent care, to figuring out medical bills.

Looking ahead to the recovery phase of the pandemic, Pine said that staff is looking at the city’s wealth disparity and what policies could help people who the economy has left behind. For example, job training and homeownership, he added.

This fall, Pine said his office will administer a rental assistance voucher program to serve people experiencing homelessness.

“We here in Burlington are really focused on the fact that the homeownership rate, for instance, for Black residents in Burlington is abysmal, just abysmal,” he said.

“We don’t need to just grow the economy for the sake of growing the economy,” Pine added. “There’s got to be a racial and social justice lens to a real economic development strategy that centers those needs.”

Alnasrawi said the city has plans to launch a public process to gather feedback on how it should invest the federal ARPA funds it will receive.

“It needs to be a thoughtful process, you’re not spending the money, you’re looking to invest it,” she said.

Setting Priorities

The Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity (CVOEO) serves Chittenden, Addison, Franklin, and Grand Isle Counties. It is one of five Community Action Agencies in Vermont.

It offers three statewide housing programs. Across all four counties, the CVOEO serves 21,000 people.

Last winter, at the City of Burlington’s request, CVOEO operated a downtown daytime warming center. According to Dragon, over the winter, the center served close to 500 people across 7,000 visits.

Businesses in the Church Street Marketplace district thanked CVOEO for its work. Dragon views this warming center as a place where people, the economy, and the business community intersect.

“Vermonters, who are out and about, they want to know that the community is caring for people,” he said. “And if you see people out in the street, laying in doorways, or asking for money, that sends a very, very different kind of message.”

A message that is bad for the economy and bad for business, he added.

Last year, the state asked CVOEO to operate an emergency shelter program.

CVOEO opened the shelter at a Holiday Inn located in South Burlington. It was the state’s largest emergency housing shelter. Up to 160 people staying at the hotel at any given time, he said.

At the hotels, residents had their own space, he said.

“So people are able to live in dignity, much more than if they were staying at a congregate shelter setting,” he said.

The shelter closed at the end of June.

The pandemic showed that with proper resources, organizations can house people in welcoming, trauma-informed spaces, that serve three meals a day. All of which helped people improve their lives, Dragon said.

“The state — and I think rightly so — during the pandemic said, ‘you know, we want to make sure people are not in congregate shelter shelters anymore’,” explained Dragon. “And because of the public health crisis, we also want to make sure that people are not living in encampments or are on the street. So they created these hotel relationships all around the state.”

Post-pandemic, however, as the state protections and additional funding recedes, many of the people served through the hotel programs will return to living unhoused.

“We’re kind of going back not quite to the status quo,” he said. “There’ll be a bit of improvement, but probably not the improvement that any of us wanted to see. We would, I think, all hope for something more,” he said.

Dragon said the pandemic also highlighted problems around food delivery and hunger.

“We also learned that the model pre-pandemic for food where you come into a food shelf and get a box of food just doesn’t work anymore,” he said. “We learned that we have to be more mobile, more decentralized, get food out to where people are at.”

At CVOEO’s direct service emergency food provider, Feeding Chittenden, the organization is in the process of instituting an online ordering system at the organization’s food shelves in Chittenden, Addison, and Grand Isle.

People will have the ability to order food and pick it up at the food shelf or have it delivered.

The benefit is that people can choose the food they enjoy, that is culturally appropriate, that meets any medical needs like gluten-free, and that fits into their lifestyle, Dragon said.

For example, not everyone lives in a space with a full kitchen. Offering the delivery option is useful in a rural state where not everyone has access to transportation.

“It’s also just more respectful,” Dragon added. “Some people don’t like to come to a food shelf, and also giving people a box of pre-packaged food without having any customer choice is a real issue.”

According to Hunger Free Vermont, pre-pandemic, one in 10 Vermonters were food insecure.

During the pandemic, a lot of funding and donated food poured through CVOEO on its way to hungry Vermonters. These resources are dwindling along with the state’s emergency order, he said.

“So what does that mean for hunger and nutrition?” he asked.

The state’s workforce issues are a complicated as homelessness and food access, he said.

Dragon has heard from employers who believe people aren’t applying for jobs because they receive extra COVID unemployment benefits from the government.

Childcare, job readiness skills, training, and whether someone can be vaccinated because of other health issues all influence a person’s ability to apply for — and keep — a job, he said.

Last September, the organization hired a racial equity director in part because of the racial health inequities that the pandemic highlighted.

“We really realized that with public health, there are really deep public health disparities that go along with the social and economic disparities by race,” he said.

Dragon views the state’s broadband initiatives as a step towards addressing racial, economic, and social equity.

So much happens online such as applying for essential services or taking classes, he said. Not having to these things really encumbers people’s lives.

“We’re [CVOEO] going to really make a commitment with, or without, the state to make broadband as accessible as possible,” Dragon said.

Yet maintaining the creative solutions Vermont employed during the pandemic, such as using hotels as housing, requires ongoing funding. No single nonprofit or collective can do it. Real change also must happen at the federal and state levels.

“We just can’t do it. It’s like fighting with one hand behind your back because you’ll have an economic system that just doesn’t support your work,” he continued. “Ultimately, the federal government, the state government, and the community have got to make decisions about where they want their priorities.”

More Housing

Charlie Baker said Chittenden County often feels responsible for keeping the state’s economy going.

The Executive Director of the Chittenden County Regional Planning Commission (CCRPC) said that approximately 30 percent of the state’s jobs are in Chittenden County.

Baker said that the economic growth happening in Chittenden County is enough to offset the state’s overall population loss and that’s not good. The state as a whole needs to thrive, he said.

It’s better for the state’s economy, and it’s better for Chittenden County’s economy for other hubs – Bennington, Brattleboro, St. Johnsbury, Hartford – to become as robust as say, Burlington, he added.

Now that the state has lifted its COVID restrictions, Baker is concerned about an increase in evictions. People who have been evicted face multiple hurdles, like blemished rental records. But in a tight housing market, people face finding another affordable place to rent.

In general, a healthy vacancy rate for a community is 5 percent, Baker said. Chittenden County’s is approximately 2.6 percent according to data from CCRPC.

The tight housing market is also affecting employment, he said. Employers have told him that they’ve hired people from outside the area who left again because they couldn’t find housing.

“We desperately need more housing and better housing,” he said.

The CCRPC is a member of the housing initiative Building Homes Together. It launched approximately five years ago with the goal to build 3,500 new housing units across the county over five years.

Baker said there’s a range of housing projects in the works.

Last year, 550 units opened in the county. Most of those units were multiple-family buildings with a handful of single-family homes, he said.

Despite this, demand remains higher than supply.

“We set out to build 3,500 homes and that happened,” he said. “And it still was not enough to really impact our vacancy rate.”

Baker praised legislature and administration for the steps they took this session to address the state’s housing market by investing state and federal money into building more, he said.

Baker said another issue for the towns within the CCRPC area is addressing racial equity.

“We all need to get back to work and grow our own economies and our own places,” he said. “And, of course, there’s also the overlay on equity and how we’re dealing with race and class in Vermont.”

According to the CCRPC’s 2020 annual report, the county’s annual median income varies widely by race.

While most white households earn more than $70,000 a year. Asian households, on average, earn less at $57,532. Black households earn an average of $37,004.

“It’s just depressing as a human being to think about these drastic differences in your community,” he said.

Exciting Signs of a Post-Pandemic County

Overall the county’s economy looks good, said Cathy Davis, executive director of the Lake Champlain Chamber (LCC).

Many businesses pivoted when the pandemic hit and “never missed a beat,” she said. Other sectors, such as construction, were quiet for parts of the pandemic but have ramped back up.

The county’s hospitality, tourism sectors, and event spaces suffered, Davis said. Some of these businesses or events have a ways to go before reaching their pre-COVID levels.

Davis said a few pieces of pre-COVID life are starting to show, for example, the Champlain Valley Fair will happen in August and September this year.

“We’re cautiously optimistic about the summer,” she said.

Lodging bookings are picking up for the summer weekends, she said. It would be nice to see more mid-week and longer weekend bookings.

Davis said, for businesses like hotels that could not change to meet COVID restrictions, federal and state funds kept these businesses alive.

Davis would like the business community, and tourism sector specifically, to receive ongoing federal or state support. She worries that if the industry is down for too long, the county will lose its tourism infrastructure.

This would slow recovery, she said.

“These businesses were shut down even though they didn’t cause this, they were asked to close for public health,” she said.

Davis worries about the local workforce’s ability to fill open positions.

According to the most recent unemployment report from the Vermont Department of Labor, the state’s preliminary unemployment rate for May of 2.9 percent represents a decrease from the previous month.

In comparison, the May unemployment rate for the Burlington-South Burlington labor market was lower at 1.2 percent.

Labor Commissioner Michael Harrington noted that he expects the rate will rise over the summer as more people return to the job hunt.

Despite encouraging numbers from the state, finding enough workers before the pandemic was a challenge. The situation has not improved.

According to Davis, for some Chittenden employers, the lack of workers means turning down new business.

On top of that, workers have moved from one industry to another during the pandemic. For example, unemployed hospitality staff may have taken jobs in manufacturing during the past year. As the hospitality industry reopens, it might have even fewer experienced workers, she said.

“We’re almost in a position right now where I think the recovery will be hampered by the inability to find workers,” she said. “It was acute before, but the level of concern I’m hearing now is really sort of desperate from employers.”

In Davis’ opinion, Vermont’s population has shrunk so much that it can’t fill all the open jobs.

She suspects that even if you combined everyone who stepped out of the workforce during the pandemic with everyone currently looking for work, the county would still lack workers.

Despite her concerns, Davis also feels excited about the county’s future.

Every year, the LCC operates a business accelerator program called LaunchVT. This program works with a cohort of eight entrepreneurs to build and launch their startup businesses.

The most recent LaunchVT held its final pitch night celebration last month.

What struck Davis at the awards ceremony was the entrepreneurs’ excitement. The pandemic didn’t stop them, she said. They were gazing towards a new horizon.

The entrepreneurs’ commitment to their new enterprises left Davis marveling at the creativity and ingenuity joining the local economy.

“It just gets me really excited about what we can accomplish and the kinds of jobs that we can create,” she said. “Because for me, when it comes down to it, it’s about good jobs for Vermonters.”

NorthCountry Credit Union

“The pandemic was a massive disruption for everybody,” Bob Morgan said.

As a credit union, the institution operates as a financial cooperative, explained NorthCountry Credit Union’s chief executive officer. This means the credit union’s and the member’s financial lives are deeply connected.

Early in the pandemic, there was a lot of uncertainty for everybody. These feelings abated a little once the federal and state relief funding started, he said.

PPP served as a “sustaining lifeline” for hundreds of business members until they could resume operations, he said. Stimulus payments to individuals benefited personal banking members, he said.

NorthCountry shifted from in-person to conducting business over the phone or online, Morgan said.

Almost overnight, approximately half of the credit union’s staff switched to remote work, he said.

The credit union found multiple efficiencies with remote work. Morgan suspects many employees will continue working remotely.   

NorthCountry also developed a zero percent COVID loan with a 48-month payback period. The credit union made the loan available to self-employed members as well.

Several members took out these loans in the first few months of the pandemic to “get them over the hump” between the economy effectively shutting down and when other forms of financial support started.

The demand for mortgages is strong and has remained consistent throughout the pandemic, he said.

Overall, the credit union’s assets grew 20 percent in 2020 and have remained consistent into the first quarter of this year, he said.

“That’s a shockingly big number,” Morgan said.

He’s starting to see signs that people are again accessing their savings and checking accounts.

That’s probably a good thing, he said. Spending drives business.

Morgan said that the commercial properties did increase as a percentage of the credit union’s portfolio.

Residential investment properties and real estate portions of the credit union are doing well and are healthy, said Morgan.

He expects to see changes in the commercial property sector since remote work has taken off. He suspects it will take at least five years to see how the demand for office space plays out.

As the pandemic assistance wanes, Morgan said the credit union will monitor its members’ financial health and be prepared to respond to any new crises.

“The health of financial institutions are ultimately a reflection of the health of their customers,” Morgan said. “And if you’re going to make dreams come true for all, you need to stand with your members during the darkest times.”

“I’m especially proud of how this organization really lived and leaned into our mission during the pandemic,” he said.

Continuing to Care for Patients’ Health

“So without any question, the last few months have been an extremely challenging number of months,” said Dr. Stephen Leffler, president, and chief operating officer for the UVM Medical Center (UVMMC).

In a March 8 press release, UVMMC’s parent organization, the UVM Health Network outlined the financial toll COVID-19 took on the organization.

To date, the network has lost $21.3 million since the current fiscal year started on Oct. 1, 2020.

As of the end of January, the organization missed its budget target by $28 million despite receiving emergency COVID funds. This is the second fiscal year in a row that financial challenges have affected the organization.

The situation appears better for the Medical Center.

“Because of federal and state COVID relief dollars, the Medical Center is financially in a good spot right now,” Leffler said. “We are on budget and we are in a good spot right now from a finance perspective.”

During the pandemic, the medical center stopped or delayed elective procedures and care. The intention was good: make sure the facility had extra capacity for COVID-19 patients. The decision, however, cut deep into the center’s finances.

Leffler said that since the spring, the center has returned to its pre-pandemic numbers.

In an average year, the center admits approximately 20,000 people annually and the emergency room census is approximately 60,000 people, Leffler said.

These numbers come with an asterisk.

Patients’ acuity is high, he said. Many of the people seen by emergency department staff had delayed their care during the pandemic.

“We have outstanding primary care, we have case managers who follow the highest risk patients, we have many plans in place to make sure that we are meeting people’s needs where they’re at,” he said.

Still, the hospital sees patients with high medical needs.

The biggest lesson the pandemic taught Leffler was the importance of collaboration.

“I really think what Vermont did better than anyone else in the country, was it worked together,” he said.

The whole state rallied behind the pandemic response from individual households, to local Selectboards, to the state government, he said.

“Vermonters being Vermonters made the decision that they were going to basically take care of their neighbors and do the right things and really try and get through this together as a group,” he added.

Witnessing the supply chain break down during the pandemic served as a sobering lesson on adding duplication.

Going forward, UVMMC is building a deeper supply chain so when one part of the chain falters, the center can still access supplies, Leffler said.

In his opinion, the concept of duplication also holds for the number of hospital beds available statewide. The healthcare system runs pretty “lean” with just enough capacity, staff, hours, and beds. Crises require more than just enough.

“We have about the right number of beds in the state and not much extra,” he said. “Having a little surge capacity is a good thing.”

Staffing is a challenge for UVMMC. The hospital lacked enough nurses before the pandemic, he said.

“We’ve had been relying on some travelers like almost every hospital in the country,” he said. “Our long-term goal is, of course, to hire stable permanent people, and not have to rely on travelers.”

UVMMC has developed a plan to recruit more employees.

“It’s making sure that we’re exploring everywhere to hire people, it’s making sure that our wages are competitive, it’s making sure that we have the right things to be a preferred employer,” he explained.

In June, the hospital planned to hire 93 employees, Leffler said. Unfortunately, more positions remain open across the center such as in the environmental and food services departments.

According to Leffler, he finds it hard to tease out which staffing issues result from the overall struggles most Vermont employers face, and which result from the pandemic.

Now that the pandemic has waned, UVMMC will return to a series of infrastructure projects. For example renovating the emergency department, improving the neonatal intensive care unit, and finding a solution for outpatient surgery at the Fanny Allen Campus, he said.

Portions of the Fanny Allen facility were closed after staff reported dizziness and nausea.

The UVM Health Network is continuing to work on developing a psychiatric inpatient care unit as well.

“We need that, the state of Vermont needs that, our patients need that,” he said.

Leffler said that despite a difficult 15 months, UVMMC staff showed up to care for patients.

“I’m so proud of the people that work here,” he said.

Low Inventory And Quick Sales for RE

“Northwestern Vermont is an awesome place to live, but the housing market is challenging due to its low supply and high demand,” said Jacob Smith.

That day, the realtor was in the middle of organizing a showing in Richmond when he heard that the property was already under contract.

Smith is the president-elect of the Northwest Vermont Board of Realtors. He works with Caldwell Banker, Hickok & Boardman based in Burlington, and is an agent with the Lipkin Audette Team.

He has experience in the residential and new construction markets.

In general, the housing market in Chittenden County is mostly owner-occupied single-family homes and condos. Investment and vacation homes come in second, said Smith.

According to data from the state on the number of homes sold to out-of-state buyers last year, Burlington had 37 sales.

While the highest of such sales in Chittenden County, the number is small, compared to communities such as Dover, Woodstock, and Stowe. Based on Smith’s eight years of experience, he feels COVID is an overarching factor in a hot market but not the primary driver.

COVID didn’t lead to the loss of buyers that many realtors expected. It also contributed to more people looking for homes in the middle- and upper-priced market.

That said, Smith believes the market’s activity is due to low interest rates and low supply or inventory.

“Each property is unique and why someone buys or sells a home is a very personal process,” he said.

It’s one reason Smith enjoys his work but it also makes it tough to draw conclusions.

According to the most recent market report from the Northwestern Vermont Board of Realtors, as of April, realtors had closed on 509 single-family homes compared to 429 two years ago.

Single-family homes spent an average of 52 days on the market so far this year compared to 79 days in 2019. Inventory, too, has decreased from 679 homes on the market in April 2019 compared to 237 in the same month this year, or approximately equivalent to one month’s worth of supply.

The report also lists where the market’s average house sales fall on the housing affordability index. The affordability of a median-priced home is slightly less than in 2019.

When reviewing the report, Smith said that the numbers tell him that low supply is really driving the market.

It’s difficult in Vermont to onboard new housing stock, he said.

On top of that, the rental market, in general, is expensive. If rents were more affordable, perhaps fewer people would decide to become homeowners.

“It’s a bit of the dog chasing its own tail scenario,” he said.

Smith supports zoning and environmental regulations. Yet, these also add to the cost of developing or improving the housing stock.

Add to this that the scale of the market is tough, he said.

Instead of national building companies building hundreds of homes a year, Vermont has mostly mom-and-pop construction companies constructing 10-20 units a year. Even one of the larger firms Smith works with, O’Brien Brothers Agency, Inc, builds around 25 homes in a year.

Chittenden County has a wide spectrum of people who resist development, in Smith’s opinion.

These folks sit everywhere along the political spectrum from deeply conservative to deeply progressive, but they all have reasons for not wanting to see more homes built, he said.

Smith expects it will take another year or two before those who watch the real estate market have enough data to understand any trends created by the pandemic.

“We’re very much in the midst of adjusting to this new world,” he said. “There’s a lot we don’t know yet, but people are certainly buying housing.”

Growth in Winooski

“People like to say that Winooski is the Brooklyn of Burlington, but we don’t really subscribe to that,” said Mayor Kristine Lott.

Winooski has big-city amenities with small-town charm, Lott said.

Photo: Kristine Loft, Mayor of Winooski speaks at a press conference outside of Winooski city hall during an outbreak last summer. Photos Courtesy: Winooski.

Large employers include the school district, Vermont Energy Investment Corporation (VEIC), Biotek, Twincraft, MyWebGrocer, and the Vermont Student Assistant Corporation (VSAC). Vermont Public Television recently relocated to Winooski as well, Lott noted.

The city also trends younger, one of the few Vermont communities that do, she added.

Lott was elected Mayor in 2019. Throughout the pandemic, she has viewed her role as a leader as one of connecting people to resources.

“I’m not the person making all those decisions and driving the vision forward,” she said. “I’m supporting everyone else’s good work to do that.”

Winooski is set to receive approximately $700,000 in direct community allocations through ARPA, she said. The city will also receive additional recovery funds coming through the state.   

Lott said the money will help the city recover funds lost during the pandemic. This could also spur economic development, she said.

Revenues from the one percent local options sales tax approved right before the pandemic, offset other lost revenues such as the rooms and meals tax.

Lott said, the one percent option tax monies totaled 16 percent above the city’s (conservative) projections, she said.

“So that has really been a boon to what we’re seeing come in,” she said.

Lott said the city is moving ahead with a hotel and parking garage project — referred to as either Lot 7 D or Abenaki Garage – despite the uncertainty of the hospitality sector post-COVID.

The project’s timeline is pushed back. Banks are hesitant to fund hotel projects right now, she said.

COVID delayed the timeline for the Main Street Revitalization Project. Staff is working with property owners along the corridor on different aspects of the project such as rights of way, she said.

Photo: Artist rendering of the Main Street revitalization project in Winooski. Photos Courtesy: Winooski.

According to the city’s website, the revitalization project will overhaul Main Street’s infrastructure including adding new water, stormwater, wastewater systems, improving pedestrian and bike amenities, upgrading sidewalks, and moving telecom and cable lines underground.

“Some of the goals of that redesign of the corridor will support the kind of development we’re trying to see — larger buildings, an inviting commercial district along Main Street, more pedestrian-friendly, more bicycle-friendly — so it is good that we already have that online as we are trying to come out of this,” she said.

Improving and expanding its housing stock is big for Winooski.

According to a 2018 memo from its Housing Commission, the city has committed to adding a total of 1,434 new housing units by 2023. These units would provide housing for mostly lower- and middle-income households with a few units geared toward upper-income households.

“There’s still some development moving forward and some housing projects, but we’re finding folks who get section eight vouchers, can’t find apartments here to rent because rents have gone up,” Lott said.

“You know, before, we really had this problem with the missing middle and workforce housing, and now we’re seeing even the low income subsidized housing is getting harder too because nobody will take these vouchers,” she said.

The community has a shortage of housing with two or more bedrooms. This makes finding family housing difficult, she added.

The Champlain Housing Trust breaks ground in July on 25 three-bedroom condominiums which will help with family housing, she said.

COVID also exacerbated the city’s food insecurity issues, she said. According to Lott, the local food shelf tripled the number of families it serves.

Another challenge is connecting residents to services.

Lott said that Winooski has a large population of New Americans who speak English as a second language. Other residents don’t read English or never learned to read, she added.

The city received a grant from the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, or Boston Fed, which the city used to hire an equity director. The director will help identify opportunities to connect with the entire Winooski community, Lott said.

A bright future for South Burlington

South Burlington entered the pandemic on strong footing, said Kevin Dorn.

The City Manager credits this strength to the city’s diversified economy which includes hospitality, small businesses, technology, and some manufacturing.

Of course, as the pandemic stretched from months to a year, the local economy slowed down. So did funding to the municipality, he said.

The municipality eased regulations during the pandemic to support businesses. For example, it reduced restrictions on outdoor dining and relaxed zoning around signage.

As the state has lifted its COVID restrictions, Dorn said he has seen the local economy pick up again.

Too many open jobs and not enough employees, however, is handcuffing many businesses.

“A lot of businesses are looking for employees in the hospitality business, and retail, and even in technology,” he said.

A tight housing market isn’t helping, he added.

Homes are not being built fast enough to keep up with demand or at prices that fit people’s budgets, he said.

Over the past five years, the municipality has collaborated with nonprofit developers to build more affordable housing. Dorn estimates South Burlington has opened the most affordable housing units in the state over the past five years.

The next level of housing the city needs is workforce housing.

“People who are looking for a more modest home, a two or three-bedroom ranch, a little yard, that sort of thing,” he said. “For young families, you just can’t find that here at a price that is affordable for the people who are working in our community.”

As a result, people move out of South Burlington. This effectively drains the community, he said.

Instead of residents who volunteer, shop, and participate in South Burlington’s civic life, the housing crunch has transformed people into commuters who leave, Dorn explained.

“So that’s a problem because now they’re commuting, now they’re burning gas and adding carbon to the atmosphere, and importantly, spending a lot of time on the road when they could be with their family or at work,” he said.

South Burlington is building a new city center on what Dorn describes as an open scrub area along Market Street.

Currently, the municipality is collaborating with private landowners and developers on the project. Market Street has been rebuilt and developers have finished 4,039 units of affordable senior housing.

Senior housing is only one of many projects inside the city center.

Dorn said another 60 units of affordable housing have opened with another 40 units of mixed-income housing under construction.

The fourth project for 135 units has received all its necessary permits and will break ground soon, he said. A fifth project for 50 units has begun the permitting process.

Market-rate housing is going up outside the city center as well, Dorn continued.

“It’s questionable whether or not the market-rate homes are really going to be at a level that’s affordable for a lot of middle-income families,” he said. “But I know that the developers are trying to get to that price point. But we’ll see.”

Municipal infrastructure projects include an upgrade of its traffic light system and a potential $50 million investment to address stormwater issues over the next 25 years, Dorn said.

An exciting business project is the expansion of Beta Technologies to build a manufacturing facility in South Burlington, Dorn said. The new facility is estimated to employ 100 people. It will build electric, vertical takeoff, and landing vehicles, according to Dorn.

Currently, the company has a research facility in South Burlington.

“There are great jobs available here. The city is vibrant, and has a very high quality of life,” said Dorn enthusiastically plugging South Burlington.

Dorn retired at the end of June. Jessie Baker, former city manager for Winooski, took over the role.

“Here we have excellent city services, excellent schools, and we’re happy to be a strong contributing member of the overall Vermont economy,” Dorn continued. “And I think we have a very bright future in front of us.”

 

Slow And Steady Growth in Colchester

In an email, Director of Economic Development Kathi Walker O’Reilly reflected on how the city pulled through the pandemic.

“Colchester has historically had slow and steady growth, but with the pandemic, many of our industries were affected like much of the country,” O’Reilly wrote. “Our direct-to-consumer industries did well while our hospitality and restaurants suffered great losses.”

Photo: Sunrise at Mallet’s Bay. Photo: Cathy Chamberlain Photography.

According to O’Reilly, a variety of businesses call Colchester home from large international companies, to mom and pops, to home-based.

The city quickly adjusted its regulations and zoning to allow restaurants to have outdoor seating to help them expand their ability to serve customers.

Colchester suspended some, and reduced others, of its services during the pandemic. As of June, the municipality had returned to its full slate of services although at reduced levels.

“The Town is still down from pre-pandemic levels. At the height, we were down 25 percent and if you remove the emergency services, we were down 50 percent,” O’Reilly wrote. “Our services have been back even though we are still down in employees.”

Colchester’s residential housing market of single-family, condominiums, and apartment buildings is strong with more units coming on the market.

“Like most communities, Colchester faces housing issues, although we continue to see new stock added,” she wrote.

“We have approximately 10,000 jobs in our community and we also have the same number of residents in the workforce, although not all employed here.”

The office park, Water Tower Hill, still has lots available and some existing buildings have some vacancies, she added.

Like Alnasrawi, Lott, and Dorn, O’Reilly was shameless about her enthusiasm for her city.

“Colchester has many amenities to offer and our gem is Malletts Bay and the Causeway,” she wrote. “Our residents are active and involved, and our business community continues to offer a variety of jobs.”

Photo: Aerial view of the causeway. Photo: Cathy Chamberlain Photography.

“Our diverse commercial sector, as well as our amenities, offer something for everyone,” she wrote.

As Chittenden County continues its pandemic recovery, Cathy Davis hopes the rest of the state will remember the county is one of 14, not an island.

Davis repeated the common quip that Chittenden County, especially its economy, is not like the rest of Vermont.

“We all leaned on each other over the past year, and Chittenden County’s success is Vermont’s success, and Vermont’s success is Chittenden County’s success,” Davis said. “We need the whole state to have a resilient and bustling economy.”

 

Olga Peters is a reporter for The Commons weekly newspaper in Brattleboro and a freelance writer based in Windham County.

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