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My Vermont: The Documentary

06/09/08 6:00PM By Steve Delaney
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VPR examines the challenges that lie ahead for Vermont in this special 30-minute documentary. Host Steve Delaney explores how Vermont's identity is changing, and what needs to be done to retain the state's character in the future. And we look at some of the challenges that lie ahead, as the My Vermont project concludes.

 

My Vermont

 

(Steve Delaney) What makes Vermont what is it? For weeks, ordinary Vermonters have been describing that elusive something.

(Patti Minichiello) "My Vermont is resilient. My Vermont will not swallow its middle class."

(Dawna Neron) "It's not perfect, but it just may be as perfect as it gets."

(Delaney) Different, better, unique. We love hearing those mystique-building thoughts, but do they gloss over a harsher reality?

(Bill Schubart) "I think that sometimes we get smug in our belief that we do community better, we do this better, we do that better. We're different, and we're unique but we're not better, and if we believe that, then we get trapped."

(Delaney) We will explore Vermont's identity now and in the future, and get some insights into what choices may shape our future when our My Vermont program continues, after the news and weather.

(Delaney) Good evening, I'm Steve Delaney. Tonight VPR's My Vermont project concludes by exploring what we are today, and how we'll meet future challenges in a way that preserves the Vermont difference.

A few years ago a football coach became famous for saying of his winning opponents, "They are who we thought they were."

Are we Vermonters who we think we are, and is our state really what many of us say it is? Listen to some of the many VPR listeners who have addressed the subject "My Vermont", starting with Josh Van Houten of Richmond.

(Van Houten) "It's been said that Vermont is what America used to be, and that in Vermont we live life in the slow lane. Both those statements are true, and I wouldn't have it any other way."

(Delaney) Patti Minichiello of Rutland:

(Minichiello) "My Vermont will never look like New Jersey or Long Island, but it will in the future, I hope, attract more people under thirty, offer them jobs that pay well and decent choices for affordable housing. My Vermont is resilient. My Vermont will not swallow up its middle class."

(Delaney) The challenge for those who would guide Vermont's future, is to make those visions true, or keep them true, even though there are significant obstacles in the economy, in housing, in jobs, in strengthening our families, and in preserving a traditional lifestyle.

For most of us, Vermont is not Bob Newhart's TV Bed & Breakfast of the Eighties, nor is it the bucolic paradise reflected in the works of Norman Rockwell, Robert Frost and Grandma Moses. Indeed there are thoughtful Vermonters who believe we are far too invested in an idyllic vision of Vermont.

(Willem Lange) "There's some question as to whether Vermont, as we would like to think it existed, ever really did."

(Delaney) Willem Lange is a contractor, storyteller, and VPR commentator.

(Lange) "You know, the old mythology of the general store, and the old-timers out front making wise sayings, and I guess it did exist to some extent, and as the farmers disappear, there'll be less of it. 01:15 Yeah, they're the key. There's something about that aroma you know in the springtime when the manure goes out in the fields, that is forever Vermont. And (if) we lose that, we'll have lost something important, perhaps the thing that makes Vermont different from everybody else."

(Art Woolf) "I think we tend to believe the Vermont mystique too much, that we are so different, that everybody in the world wants to come here if they could."

(Delaney) Economist Art Woolf is a partner in Northern Economic Consulting in Westford.

(Art Woolf) "I think we tend to believe, more than people who live in other states, this myth about Vermont being so different and so unique and so special. Vermont for most of its history has been a place where people wanted to leave. And ultimately that's the acid test as to whether some place is worth living in, is, are people moving in or moving out? And for the last five years more people have been moving out of Vermont than moving in, and that's the long-term future of the state."

(Delaney) Art Woolf and others believe that if the number of working age Vermonters shrinks in an aging population, employers will be unable to find enough workers here, and will expand elsewhere.

(Bill Schubart) "I cannot envisage in my lifetime, or in our children's lifetimes, a 200-acre industrial complex in Vermont."

(Delaney) Vermont entrepreneur Bill Schubart is one of the state's most thoughtful business leaders, and he thinks Vermont's economic lies in another direction.

(Schubart) "I think middle-sized companies, like Ben and Jerry's, and like Gardner's Supply and many, many others that employ anywhere from eighty to four or five hundred people, and fit comfortably into the landscape, the community and the ethos, that is our future."

(Delaney) Paul Costello of the Council on Rural Development has led a two-year effort to reach out to Vermonters and pull in their visions of Vermont's future. His group has been looking at hopes and fears alike, and one common thread in the responses is a deep worry over educating the kind of work force the state will need.

(Costello) "Everywhere we go people concentrate on education as a keystone to Vermont's future. People are concerned about the costs of education, but they're much more concerned about the quality of education and it's importance in ensuring that we have a civil culture, a culture where young people are committed to the future, and committed to participating in democratic institutions and volunteering and community life and all those things."

(Delaney) "I'm interested in whether as a general rule, you have found whether, Vermonters, with all the multiplicity of things that they're concerned about to be optimistic or generally wary of the future?"

(Costello) "I think that generally there's an optimism around the sense of Vermont values, you know one of the first things that we ask is do we still have common values, what are Vermont values in our time. And Vermonters praise the independence of Vermont people, they across the board bring up the word dedication to community, and volunteerism and willingness to work together. They think that that gives us a particular strength as a people, and probably other states have this feeling too, but it's something that's kind of a universal."

(Delaney) However, it's not entirely unanimous. Kate Cadreact is a farmer's daughter, a farmer's wife, and a registered nurse. In her My Vermont essay, Cadreact says she believes the reality of Vermont reflects an ever-widening gap between newcomers with money and long-time Vermonters who are finding their incomes no longer stretch to cover the costs of living here.

(Cadreact) "My over-riding concern is that only the highly paid and wealthy individuals will have adequate housing, heat, nutritional food and the privilege of serving the community. Their children will attend private schools while public schools suffer budget defeats. Their children will attend college, while it will be more and more difficult for the average Vermont student to pay for college. The average worker will not be at the table of plenty when the cost of living here escalates. We will become more and more marginalized."

(Delaney) Businessman Bill Schubart thinks the slow gentrification of Vermont is subtle, because the trouble is not unemployment

(Bill Schubart) "My own perception is that while unemployment in Vermont is relatively low, under-employment is pretty ferocious; I mean there's a ton of eight to twelve dollar-an-hour jobs. But the jobs that are up in the, you know, fifty to eighty thousand dollar range, are a problem."

(Delaney) Storyteller Willem Lange thinks that there's nothing essentially wrong with the vision of Vermont that some outsiders have; that the state is a giant theme park, where they can visit an earlier, simpler America.

(Lange) "People do come here to see the trees and the mountains, and that's a great idea, it's even better if they go home again, you know, I don't want to say that to them but if you settle here, you're destroying in a sense what you came here to see."

(Delaney) What many visitors come here to see is the traditional vista of small towns surrounded by working landscapes? A ski slope is a working landscape, and in a Killington meeting on the town's future, residents' comments centered on the ski industry.

"I think the partnership between Killington Town, the Killington Ski report and Killington business is the foundation of what we're talking about."

(Delaney) But in Killington, where the ski resort's owners have made changes, it's hard to reach consensus on whether the town is moving in the right direction.

"I don't think the mountain experience has improved, but they have succeeded tremendously in decreasing the number of skiers coming to Killington, and that's a problem for all business owners."

(Delaney) But for most Vermonters, working landscape means pastures with cows in them.

One of the state's farm planners says that image of rural Vermont may be a diminishing reality.

(Louise Calderwood) "...I see buildings going up repeatedly to look like barns, that are never going to be used for agriculture in any manner. I think our image of Vermont as our tidy villages and our green landscapes coming right up to the edge of those landscapes is being challenged.

(Delaney) Louise Calderwood of Greensboro is a former Deputy Secretary of Agriculture who's been farming for twenty years in a state where dairy farms are now down to eleven hundred.

(Calderwood) "I don't predict a die-off of the family farm, I do predict, that we will continue to see a development of very small farms who are very close to their consumers, with processing on farm, or processing at some of the processing centers that we're seeing pop up around the state.

(Delaney) For agriculture to thrive as a vital part of the Vermont economy, Bill Schubart thinks more farmers must borrow some know-how from the cheese and maple sectors in marketing the powerful "Made in Vermont" label.

(Schubart) "We're going to have to look at agriculture. On the value added side, the quality of cheeses and dairy products that we produce is internationally recognized. And we're going to have to export and sell those. We're going to have to do the same with wood products."

(Delaney) Wood products are a traditional sector of the Vermont economy, a sector facing the growing challenge of posted forest lands. That's a challenge for hunters and hikers as well.

(Willem Lange) "No Trespassing" signs. They're going up everywhere. And I think that's because of a clash of values between people who move in here and buy up valuable property, and people who've been here forever. But uh, posted land to me is anathema. But that is changing the face of Vermont, no doubt about it. The no trespassing is inimical to our original values, our ancestral values.

(Delaney) Pat Parenteau teaches environmental law at the Vermont Law School. He says preserving the traditional Vermont is not just about the land, but about the water as well, and that Lake Champlain is as much at risk from complacent politics as it is from pollution.

(Parenteau) "This is simply a reality that we don't have the kind of political leadership right now in Vermont, to step up to the plate, and say we are going to do what's necessary to clean up the lake, we love our dairy farms, we just had a nice conversation about how farming is the landscape vignette of Vermont, but you know Vermont isn't just a painting, it's a living system and if we don't maintain the living components of the system then I don't know if we're actually preserving Vermont, the full idea of Vermont. And if we're not going to expect dairy farmers to pay for the clean up of the manure that comes off of those dairy farms, then we're going to have to find creative financing mechanisms to do that. But one way or the other, you don't get to clean up Lake Champlain by merely wishing that it will happen, you have to make investments, you have to make tough decisions, you have to set standards, and then you have to enforce those standards, or it simply isn't going to happen."

(Delaney) Vermonters are talking about some of the issues that are in play almost every year, and one of those is the acquisition of electric power. The state's main sources of power may not last another decade. Central Vermont Public Service CEO Bob Young sees a very different power grid in the next twenty or thirty years

(Young) "I could see a scenario where you have a lot more small community generation hooking up residential communities, where there's a lot more micro turbine generation, a lot more solar, so the dependence, the sort of historical dependence on huge transmission distribution systems is significantly different than what it is today."

(Delaney) Michael Dworkin is the energy expert at the Vermont Law School. He says the very grid itself will have to change.

(Dworkin) "I think we'll have a smart grid. We'll have one that takes advantage of digital controls to match supply and demand. And that means the ability to control demand will be as important as the ability to control supply. And the end use, efficiencies and end-use generation is going to be played off against centralization better than they have before. And if we don't get that, we're going to be in for a very rough century."

(Delaney) When VPR examined in depth the challenges facing the state, the issue of updating the infrastructure emerged over and over, as experts talked about enhancing the networks of transport and communications that make things work. For Don Mayer, whose business is in the Mad River Valley, that complex of connections means finding ways to move things... not just goods and materials, but ideas as well.

(Mayer) "I think some of the issues in more rural areas revolve around transportation, getting a sufficient number of employees to a place to do the work at that site. I think we also have to look at our telecommunications infrastructure, if we're looking at what we're going to be like 25 years, ten years from now. We need to really follow through on bringing broadband to every nook and cranny in the state, and to bring cellular service to every nook and cranny in the state, so that our entrepreneurial businesses, whether they're in the Northeast Kingdom or in the Mad River Valley, or anywhere in the state, have access to the technology that is going to enable them to grow their business."

(Delaney) Every year the legislature spends hundreds of hours debating how to lower the costs of health care. Doctor Mark Novotny of the Southwestern Vermont Medical Center in Bennington, says the lawmakers should embrace radical steps, if they want true change.

(Novotny) "To truly reduce costs, you've got to fundamentally change the entire payment system so that all patients are paid under the model that we're looking at here, I'm sorry all physicians are paid, and all patients have access to the kinds of information and training that we're experimenting with here so that the costs overall can come down, on the estimates, but the estimates are that we could probably save 30 percent on health care costs if we had a global reorganization of the resources."

(Mark Fisher) "The opportunities are tremendous."

(Delaney) Doctor Mark Fisher teaches at the Dartmouth Medical School

(Fisher) "I think even if you look within Vermont the differences in practices across communities, if we figured it out... if we came to a different payment system that started to reward us for improving health and keeping people out of the hospital, and keeping people out of specialists offices, through better primary care and better patient information, we might be able to reduce the number of specialists we needed to train in the future, or recruit to Vermont, we might be able to close some hospital beds. Those are the places where the real savings are going to come from.

(Delaney) No exploration of Vermont's future can exclude a look at the increasing medical, social and economic pressure on families, who often have few resources to cope with those pressures.

Beth Merrill directs the education program at the Vermont Achievement Center, a family services agency in Rutland. She says non-profits are being forced by declining revenues, to cut vital family programs.

(Merrill) "So they end an after-school program because they don't have any money left. But then there's no community resources to have an after-school program. So then the parents have no place for their kids to go, so they, the kids, have no place after school to be. Then they have sometimes not-so-great influences."

(Delaney) Beth Merrill's colleague Rosie Piontek is a child care specialist. She says family stresses are on the rise.

(Piontek) "I think for our child care support services office, we see families sometime struggling with the decision of, do I pay for child care, should I pay rent, or should I buy food? And those are some real questions and it's unfortunate, but I think some of those might get even harder for families, but I think their needs are increasing."

(Delaney) As always in social service programming decisions, the question is, "can we afford to do the things that we ought to be doing?"

Piontek says money can be used as a stumbling block to real progress. Beth Merrill agrees and says it's not entirely about dollars.

(Merrill) "The biggest resource that Rutland's lacking is people to take an interest in kids. And going outside and playing basketball for an hour in a group of kids to keep them from hanging out in the back to smoke cigarettes, doesn't cost anything. And people's time actually does cost something, but what it costs is what they get back in return, which is the gift of knowing that they've given a kid some self-esteem, and actually a family some self-esteem, because in the long run it's worth it."

(Delaney) Paul Costello of the Center for Rural Development says there is a sense of apprehension over the future among the people he speaks to.

(Costello) "There's a strong sense that we're at a turning point. That the energy situation, the global situation, the affordability challenge, they're all signals. We're at a crossroads where our behavior, potentially, as consumers is going to need to change, our way of looking at ourselves as communities is going to change. One of the things we see at the council on Rural Development is the tremendous interest in communities in pulling together as a full community, partly because they tend to see that in modern life we tend to go our own way. They might not have the same places to rub elbows that they did 50 years ago. So we tend to build communities within our communities that don't necessarily intersect as often as people would like to see them. So I think there's apprehension that we could be losing things."

(Delaney) "Has this exercise over the past couple years buoyed up your own optimism?"

(Costello) "Well it has. We went recently to the work camp of the department of corrections up in St. Johnsbury, and had a fascinating discussion with a group of about 25 incarcerated young men. We asked them what their values were, and you never know what you're going to hear, but in this setting, they didn't talk about environmental degradation and the loss of community, they talked about substance abuse and it was moving because what they were really saying was, yes we want to live the good life, yes we have common values, but that gets interrupted. I thought that was fascinating because they say the same things around their values as the business leaders or community members in any other town in Vermont."

(Delaney) There are so many choices, so many questions exposed, and so few obvious answers. So how do we keep families intact and healthy? How do we treat forest land? How much do we tax ourselves for education? Can Vermont still afford Vermonters? How do we move our economy forward without destroying our traditions

Those questions almost always become politicized. And what might urge political figures in Vermont to be bolder? Political analyst Eric Davis has been studying Vermont politicians for years at Middlebury College, and he says it depends on whether there is a strongly Democratic House and Senate after the next election.

(Eric Davis) "... then, I believe, what you would see in the relatively short term, is the Legislature passing bills that would expand the state's involvement in health care, for example, expand Catamount Health, regulate the utilities, especially Vermont Yankee, more vigorously than has been the case in the past, make some adjustment in the tax system that may result in increases for those in the higher brackets.

But if the economy is still struggling in 2009 & 10, I think even a strongly Democratic Legislature would think carefully before raising taxes and expanding regulations."

(Delaney) Whether complete control of the legislature under one party would change things or not, economist Art Woolf is convinced that pressure from the grass roots works wonders on public officials.

(Art Woolf) "When some of these issues begin to hit home, people are going to begin to demand solutions, and we're going to have to have policy-makers and legislators and governors that start to address those issues, and we're going to have to have a true debate on what we want the future of Vermont to look like. And I think we will ultimately come to the right decision.

(Delaney) What the right decision will be, we don't yet know. What we do know is that with Vermonters in huge numbers saying "I want my Vermont to be the special place that our mystique says it is", we have already begun that true debate on our future that Art Woolf and others say we need.

For Vermont Public Radio, I'm Steve Delaney.

Note: This program was produced by Steve Delaney and Melody Bodette. The technical director was Chris Albertine. The Executive Producer was John Van Hoesen. We had assistance from the VPR News Staff.

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