The City as Incubator
Vermont Energy Investment Corporation (VEIC) and City Market are good examples of what offering technical assistance can produce.
In 1986, the late Blair Hamilton and his wife, Beth Sachs, approached City Hall to discuss their idea to start a nonprofit corporation, Vermont Energy Investment Corporation. Their plan was to make buildings more energy efficient and reduce the community’s dependence on fuel.
Since the idea was consistent with all six principles in the “Jobs & People” plan, Burlington began providing technical assistance to VEIC and continued to do so over 12 years. The assistance included helping to develop a network of supporters among other local nonprofit and governmental organizations. With a small seed grant from the city, the supporters raised more than $15,000 in start-up money at a fundraiser in the Hamilton-Sachs home.
Twenty-eight years later, VEIC has more than 320 employees and fills 50,000 square feet of a building that had been left behind by a large defense contractor. Moreover, VEIC has helped to save customers the equivalent of 120 megawatts of electrical consumption since 2000.
Experience with VEIC, among others, taught the city that to create jobs and build a sustainable economy, it should consider making its partnerships with nonprofits the norm and not the exception. Nonprofits actually have the potential to create jobs, and they can be extra valuable to local governments because their public mission and goals are often consistent with the ones in a municipality’s strategic plan.
City Market, another example of the value of local ownership, is Burlington’s only downtown supermarket. Despite early resistance to the idea of a cooperative, it became over the course of 12 years an award-winning anchor for the entire downtown shopping area. Today it is hard to fathom the original hostility. In addition to the large supermarket operator that hired protesters to express opposition, there were residents who were convinced that coops only sell in bulk, some who were worried a coop wouldn’t carry popular brands, and others who were opposed to a coop selling brands at all. Patient educational efforts eventually succeeded in countering all the misinformation.
Today the 9,000-member food cooperative strengthens the entire economic base of Burlington by attracting 1.5 million separate visits annually and employing more than 210 people, mostly from the neighborhood. It also provides an outlet for local food producers to sell their products, and that encourages the development of more agricultural jobs in nearby rural areas.
The support for agriculture provided by City Market helped Burlington meet a food-security goal it had embraced in 1993 as part of its “Jobs & People III” document—to grow 10 percent of the produce consumed in Burlington.
Other initiatives that were key to the development of a sustainable economy in the city included developing small-business incubator space in an industrial area, supporting efforts to transform existing companies into employee-owned companies, and creating business associations interested in understanding and supporting sustainable development. Together, Burlington’s strategies and the networks they fostered created an irrepressible demand for an increasingly sustainable business climate that continues to build upon itself.
Although the objectives of the long-term strategic economic plan evolved over the decades, the six principles remained the same. By embracing them and implementing long-term strategies, the goal of economic self-sufficiency was achieved even beyond what was envisioned 30 years ago. As of this writing, the city of Burlington had the fourth-lowest unemployment rate in the nation and the second-lowest foreclosure rate. It had been named one of the “Top 10 Cities for the Next Decade” by Kiplinger and “The Happiest Small City in the U.S.” by Gallup. Such recognition tops a solid foundation of more than five dozen similar accolades over the past 15 years, which reference the city’s low crime rates, its residents’ overall health, and its desirability as a place to raise children.
Bruce Seifer, coauthor of the book Sustainable Communities: Creating a Durable Local Economy, worked for the City of Burlington, Vermont, in economic development for 29 years. Contact him at Bseifer@burlingtontelecom.net.