Leaf peeping in the fall at Sugarbush. Photo courtesy Sugarbush.
Challenges and Opportunities Remain in the Pandemic’s Wake
by Joy Choquette, Vermont Business Magazine “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” So starts Charles Dickens’s classic novel, A Tale of Two Cities. Perhaps the same can be said for the current economic outlook in counties throughout the state of Vermont.
Nestled in the heart of Vermont, Washington County is made up of 20 towns including Barre City, Barre Town, Berlin, Cabot, Calais, Duxbury, East Montpelier, Fayston, Marshfield, Middle-sex, Montpelier, Moretown, Northfield, Plainfield, Roxbury, Waitsfield, Warren, Waterbury, Woodbury, and Worcester.
Covering nearly 659 square miles, Washington County is the third largest county in Vermont. With nearly 60,000 residents, the county’s median household income was $64,862, according to the 2020 United States Census.
The per capita income in the county is 109.8% that of the statewide average, according to information from the Vermont Department of Labor. As the third most populous county in the state, Washington County is also the sixth biggest.
Health care and social-aid organizations are the most prominent industries in the county, followed by retail trade. The county also has a high concentration of businesses in the finance and insurance industry, notably 3.8 percentage points higher than the average state share.
The largest employers in the area include Vermont state government, Central Vermont Medical Center, Aspire Living & Learning, National Life Group, and Washington County Mental Health Services.
The county is facing challenges and opportunities coming out of the pandemic. A host of factors play into both. The ability of a business or nonprofit to pivot plays a key role.
A Bird’s-eye View
Jamie Stewart, executive director of Central Vermont Economic Development Corporation in Montpelier, said that like the rest of the state Washington County has dealt with challenges and new opportunities presented by the pandemic.
“This region suffers from the same issues facing all of Vermont,” said Stewart. “We need affordable workforce housing and access to affordable quality child care. There is a pressing need for staffing to support the growth, which means developing a skilled workforce pool. These are all areas that are being discussed and at some level addressed, but to date, it has been too little, too late.”
The county is capitalizing now on the variety of businesses in the area. “Possibly the greatest strength has been the diversity of the types of businesses we see expanding and starting, both by sector and location,” Stewart explained. “It’s not just happening in one community,
but broadly throughout central Vermont.”
He noted, “We have seen considerable growth of small enterprises in rural areas, and the growth of larger operations in our economic centers. We have a significant number of iconic brands (like) Darn Tough, Cabot/Agri-Mark, Vermont Creamery, Caledonia Spirits, etc., that have all seen positive growth in the past several years,” Stewart said. “All indications are this will continue if the external limiting factors can be addressed.”
Post-pandemic, what does Stewart believe the outlook for Washington County will be? He said that the area continues to see significant growth in many of its regional businesses, even during the pandemic. Shifts in the supply chain have resulted in an expanded demand for the granite industry, for example. Likewise, strong regional employers like Darn Tough Vermont, noted Stewart, continue to grow to meet both national and international demand.
Darn Tough Vermont was featured in Runner’s World’s 2021 Gear of the Year review. It was also featured on ABC’s “Made in America” series, a segment featuring how the company gives 100% of its online proceeds to the Vermont Foodbank on Giving Tuesday.
This is just one example of a Washington county business flourishing despite tough times. “While the pandemic hit many of our businesses extremely hard, federal and state support, combined with tenacity and innovative thinking, has created some very resilient operations that will continue to grow and provide quality jobs in the region,” Stewart noted. “Challenges with supply chains, housing, and staffing continue to be the impediments to growth.”
Waterbury is an interesting blend of commerce, social services, and history. It’s also home to Vermont favorites like Ben & Jerry’s and Cold Hollow Cider Mill. Downtown Waterbury has seen a revitalization in recent years, and tourism is an important part of the area’s draw.
One popular store in Waterbury is Bridgeside Books. Located in the Historic District, the small but eclectic bookstore is owned by Katya d’Angelo and Chris Triolo. Though the store has been in business since 2009, the couple bought it in 2020.
Photo: Bridgeside Books owner Katya d’Angelo in Waterbury. Courtesy photo.
d’Angelo stated that the store’s post-pandemic outlook is positive. She believes that it helped the community realize what their communities would look like without small businesses. That has in turn increased local buying.
Additionally, d’Angelo said, “…we saw a greater increase in tourists visiting and shopping here now that people are traveling more. And people started or renewed hobbies during the pandemic — gaming, reading, art and crafting, puzzles — which seems to have continued.”
Challenges do arise, however, in the bookstore industry just as in any other. Most notable is the impossibility of keeping up with a conglomerate like Amazon. When it comes to selling books, d’Angelo noted, Amazon uses these as a loss leader, an impossibility for an independent bookstore.
“It’s hard to impart the information that yes, our book prices are set by the publisher, and we have to sell them at that price to make this store viable, and our margins are some of the lowest in the retail industry,” she noted.
These prices also help to support the intangible things that Bridgeside Books does as a business, d’Angelo explained — from free community events to donations to local fundraisers, employing local people, and volunteering.
Bridgeside Books partnering with other local businesses is something that d’Angelo hopes will continue to grow in the coming months and years.
“We are always eager to find creative ways to partner with other local businesses and organizations,” she said.
Whether that’s through a joint event, a marketing campaign, or something else, d’Angelo is keeping her options open. “We also offer B2B discounts for bulk orders if (employers) want to organize a gift book program for employees or customers; we are happy to make recommendations,” she noted.
Elsewhere in Waterbury, the decision by Keurig Dr Pepper in 2021 to keep its 200 employees working remotely may have caused local businesses to feel the pinch. Likewise, it was disappointing to learn that MTX would not open its doors in the same 18,000-square-foot building that Keurig Dr. Pepper vacated.
The original plan had been for MTX to spearhead a Vermont-based expansion there.
The company, which bills itself as “a global technology consulting firm that enables organizations to modernize through digital transformation,” released a brief statement to Vermont Public recently. It stated that changes in market conditions and company restructuring prevented it from opening an office in Vermont as anticipated.
While a blow to the Waterbury economy — the company was expected to offer 250 new high-paying jobs — another local business celebrates its continued growth.
Ivy Computing, said Stewart, is beginning a construction project at its location that will allow them to significantly expand its operation.
Photo: Ivy Computers staff. Courtesy photo.
“These are high-quality technology jobs accessible to local residents,” he noted. “There are several other planned expansions and new operations looking to locate in the region that we are not able to publicly discuss at this time. We see a steady pattern of growth throughout the region in the coming years.”
Businesses weren’t the only organizations affected by the pandemic and hit hard by changing regulations and normal day-to-day operations. Nonprofits were also challenged greatly.
That was the case for Washington County Mental Health Services. Communications and Development Director, John Caceres weighed in on the challenges — and positive outcomes — of the pandemic thus far.
“We have always expected that the psychological impact of the pandemic would outlast the medical impact,” said Caceres. “Every designated agency is still living that reality as we, like all other mental health providers, have experienced waitlist pressures never seen before.”
That challenge isn’t likely to be remedied soon. It’s expected, Caceres said, that issues born out of the pandemic may last a lifetime for many.
“As 2022 winds down, WCMHS continues to be optimistic in our ability to meet the needs of those we serve and remain steadfast in our commitment to providing innovative solutions to the challenges like workforce shortages and extended waitlists,” Caceres stated.
“WCMHS staff is among the best in the business and has tirelessly risen to the challenge with innovation.” One of the largest issues occurred during shutdowns when counselors could no longer see clients for regular in-person visits.
Caceres said that WCMHS technological infrastructure was a huge asset, allowing the nonprofit to pivot seamlessly to remote work and telehealth services within days. “Now, these are standards that allow us to serve the transportation-challenged or those we serve with mobility issues,” said Caceres. “Additionally, telehealth has mitigated the no-show rate. It may be the only silver lining in an otherwise global crisis.”
Greater compensation for what are typically lower-paying jobs is in the works, Caceres said, along with employing non-traditional private-sector type approaches to staff appreciation.
Other changes have helped streamlined processes. WCMHS has explored further options for group counseling. It also offers a new initiative called “Open Dialogue,” which brings together family and team members of clients simultaneously, reducing the need for ongoing multiple separate meetings.
Taking care of the community is a priority for WCMHS. Caceres said that to facilitate continued healing and health in the post-pandemic world, it has recently launched “Wellness Wednesdays,” a six-week program that offers Washington County residents ear acupuncture and acupressure, massage, Reiki, sound healing, and mindfulness meditation, all free of charge.
Though it has only 8,000 residents, Vermont’s capital city welcomes upwards of 20,000 individuals each day. Many of these are commuters — Montpelier’s largest employers are the state of Vermont government and National Life Group. Others are visitors and tourists.
While the city has a strong “support local business” philosophy, that might change with permanent remote work situations.
Lack of customers hasn’t been a problem for one Montpelier-based business. Birchgrove Baking, located on Elm Street in Montpelier, is co-owned by Jennifer Toce and John Belding. They’ve had the business for the past 14 years, stated Belding, and have not been negatively affected by the pandemic.
“We’re working our butts off,” said Belding. “We’re super busy and full-out all the time.”
Photo: Birchgrove Baking baristas, from left, John, Alan, Lydia and Devandy. Photo courtesy Jennifer Toce.
The bakery, which offers sweet and savory treats at its in-person shop also produces cakes for weddings and other special occasions. Additionally, customers can purchase repackaged pantry items like King Arthur flour, local eggs, coffee beans, butter, and more.
Belding stated that the pandemic allowed Birchgrove Bakery to “reassess our hours and what we’re doing.” Additionally, Belding said, “We’ve streamlined a bit and that’s helped.” The greatest challenge at present? “Not having enough hours in the day to do what we need to do,” Belding stated.
For other business owners — new and existing — in Washington County, what advice might this seasoned bakery owner offer? Belding said that it would be impossible to give useful help because everyone has a different experience based on their own business and its location.
He could tell someone interested in opening a bakery everything he’s learned over the years, Belding said, but they could have a completely different experience. “Everyone’s business is different,” he stated. “Do what you need to do with your business.”
Is it the best of times or the worst? Many factors play into this for businesses and nonprofit organizations in Washington County. One thing is for sure: Times are changing and pivoting, growth, and new ways of doing things in business are a necessity in today’s world.
Joy Choquette is a freelance writer from northwest Vermont.