By Guy Page
The Local Support and Community Action Team led by Paul Costello, executive director of Vermont Council on Rural Development, today released its interim report for economic and social recovery. The Action Team was convened in mid-April as part of the Economic Mitigation and Recovery Task Force and charged by Gov. Phil Scott with identifying and replicating regional and community recovery initiatives and gaps in recovery efforts to ensure equitable distribution of resources, especially in rural areas and underserved populations. The report emphasizes six initial recommendations, many already underway and part of the state’s first phases of economic mitigation proposals.
“This first report is the culmination of weeks of incredibly hard work by volunteers from across Vermont with diverse perspectives on how we recover from this pandemic and the ensuing economic and social crisis in a way that does not seek to bring us back to where we were pre-COVID-19, but instead forward towards a more resilient future,” said Costello. “We are a long way from true recovery but we are deeply committed to engaging in our communities to learn how we can replicate and extend innovative local programs and services and also how we fill gaps to make this recovery as equitable as we can for rural and underserved Vermonters.”
The report emphasizes six preliminary recommendations for recovery:
- Ending family homelessness: the opportunity and imperative exists to address and ultimately end family homelessness, so that the experience of homelessness does not traumatize the next generation and add to new cycles of poverty, pain, and need. Investments in rehabbing homes and the development of new affordable housing are key to this work.
- Activate Local Foods to Feed Vermonters: Demand for food assistance has increased significantly since the pandemic hit Vermont and at the same time, restaurants and institutions are closed and Vermont farms are struggling with a limited market for their products. Communities should replicate and expand efforts underway to connect food growers, suppliers and restaurants to families and individuals in need.
- Support Childcare and Youth Programming: Childcare is a critical foundation for families and is key to reopening our economy. To support this essential industry, Restart Grants and other services should be generous and flexible for programs, so they can re-open and once again provide our kids with high-quality affordable care they desperately need in the months and years to come.
- Support Restart Vermont Small Business Loan and Grant Program: Retail, restaurants, hospitality, tourism, lodging, and cultural sectors have been hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic and many organizations in these sectors are facing immediate financial challenges and will not survive the crisis without direct financial assistance. Additionally, minority and Women-Owned Businesses experience disparate access to credit and business lending, and are often shut out of the entrepreneurship networks that help businesses thrive. We must ensure that financial assistance is made available to historically disadvantaged enterprises on an equitable basis.
- Implement a Statewide Buy Local Challenge: As Vermont retailers begin to re-open, the State should promote efforts to encourage patronage of local small businesses. Specifically, the State should implement a program to encourage Vermonters to buy local as much as possible over the coming 12 months and support this initiative with an online platform to help Vermonters track their purchases and support businesses outside of their immediate community.
- Expand Broadband Internet and Mobile Telecommunications Infrastructure: The Brookings Institution estimates that up to 50% of American workers are working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic, and expects that acceptance of telecommuting will persist long after the pandemic subsides. This dramatic shift in work and education culture will present a tremendous opportunity to reverse Vermont’s demographic decline by retaining and attracting a new generation of workers who see value in living in less densely populated areas, and have flexibility to work remotely. The pandemic has demonstrated how the future of healthcare, education, and economic opportunity rely on broadband as an essential utility, and has magnified the ways in which the digital divide further marginalizes disadvantaged and vulnerable populations.
Many of these preliminary recommendations are underway already and efforts are being made to grow and expand initiatives where possible. For example, a group of volunteers from the public and private sector are set to launch a restaurant pilot in Brattleboro modeled after the highly successful ShiftMeals program. Instead of FEMA MREs, restaurants will prepare nourishing meals each week for community members in need. If successful, the group will support expansion efforts across Vermont.
This report is the product of input from thousands of community leaders, state officials and individuals in every corner of Vermont. From the start, the Local Support and Community Action Team committed to learning from businesses, nonprofits, and community members making the process inclusive and open. The Action Team has been expanded to include greater representation from southern Vermont, small business and persons of color. A full list of members can be found below.
Dr. Jude Smith Rachele is new to the group but well known in Vermont for her business and community work on inclusivity, ethics, leadership and governance. “Working with this team is a tremendous honor. Getting to know so many new people who, like me, care so deeply about helping our communities in these challenging times is really uplifting. We want to be sure our work supports economic revitalization as well because we know good jobs are foundational to getting people back on their feet.”
Next steps for the Action Team includes regional meetings to deepen understanding of varying needs across Vermont, support for downtowns and buy local efforts, workforce retention and recruitment to include an effort to encourage urban and suburban resettlement in Vermont and the establishment of metrics to begin to understand and measure recovery progress.
“Vermonters are hardy, we are creative and determined,” added Costello. “We will get through this because we are united in support of each other and in our commitment to making Vermont an even better place to live.”
Read more of Guy Page’s reports. Vermont Daily is sponsored by True North Media.