by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
June 24, 2010
A PETRI DISH FOR INSPIRATION
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- Since 2002, Vermonters have been told - endlessly - that Vermont is bad for business.
At the same time, as a reporter for Vermont Business Magazine, I have never run out of creative and successful entrepreneurs to profile.
So why, if Vermont attracts smart people who come for the beauty of the surroundings, the culture, the strong New England work ethic, the highly-trained and intelligent (if somewhat eccentric) workforce and the sense of independence that real Vermonters have in spades and which the state quickly breeds into its immigrants, do we have a Republican governor, James Douglas, who for six years has been badmouthing the state every chance he gets? And why does his chosen successor, who is an airline pilot and not a business person, Republican Lieutenant Governor Brian Dubie, follow his lead on the campaign trail?
It all harkens back to the 2000 presidential election, when Karl Rove, Dick Cheney, Roger Ailes et al fanned the flames of their forefather's dirty tricks by spreading lies and half-truths until it most people couldn't tell up from down. The two guiding principles were: first, repeat a lie until it somehow becomes the conventional wisdom. (Remember "Iraq has weapons of mass destruction."); and second, divide and conquer - create fear and confusion, blame the opposing party, and win the election.
Douglas, whom most people believed was a nice, experienced, innocuous sort of person, imported these principles and practices to Vermont, where, sadly, they worked. And that's how "Jim Equals Jobs" - another lie - got to be our governor for six years. Now he's retiring and we have a chance to recognize a different reality.
The Republican idea of "good for business" is no minimum wage, no work safety laws, no taxes, no regulations, no unions and not much government.
The alternate view - call it Democratic, Progressive or plain common sense - is to have a stable, educated workforce, livable communities, good schools, a social safety net, interesting things to do with one's leisure time and a bit of disposable income.
If you measure Vermont's business climate by Republican standards, it is a total failure. But if you look at it the other way, you see why Vermont is a great place for entrepreneurs.
In the last 12 months I've profiled: a woman who turned cubes of dried bread into a thriving crouton business; a man who took his father's sophisticated idea of a country store and turned it into the $100 million-a-year operation; a family that started with a tiny Italian restaurant in Burlington and is now selling tomato sauce and frozen meatballs to high-end supermarkets across the country; an immigrant glass designer whose name is synonymous around the world with art glass and whose eponymous company has sales of over $25 million a year; a father and son, both Vermonters, who created a multi-million dollar Vermont real estate empire; an employee-owned trust company (one of the few in the country); a woman who took an idea - outdoor clothing for women - and turned it into an $8 million-a-year company recently sold to a large national marketing chain; and, in the upcoming July issue, a hippie who came to Waitsfield to be a ski bum and ended up creating a sign company and a family dynasty.
That's just one year's worth of profiles. Remember, Vermont is also where Ben & Jerry's Homemade, Seventh Generation, King Arthur Flour, NRG Systems, Magic Hat Beer, Green Mountain Coffee, the Cabot Creamery Cooperative and IDX began. There's a strong new machine-tool industry here - why go to China for precision equipment when you can come to Vermont? In addition, a number of Vermont towns are using the arts to jump-start their economies.
Vermont has never been a good place for the Gordon Gekkos of the world. But it's been a great place for, say, Waitsfield sign-maker Sparky Potter. It's also been a good place for his daughter, rocker Grace Potter of Grace Potter and the Nocturnals, which Rolling Stone called one of the top 10 bands of 2010.
The band already has a sponsorship agreement with Cabot - its tour bus is sometimes wrapped in a Cabot logo and they have cheese tastings at their concerts. Recently Grace teamed up with Lake Champlain Chocolates to create and promote a new chocolate with with pepper flakes and pistachios - Grace Under Fire, it's called.
"Eventually, my vision is to be a taste-maker and for the band to share the flavors of Vermont," Grace told me. "Magic Hat, Ben & Jerry's, Green Mountain Salsa, all the vineyards that are popping up - it's inspiring."
It's time to stop bad-mouthing the state for its imaginary negatives and, like the Nocturnals, start supporting it for the things we love.
"You don't move to Vermont unless you have a do-it-yourself mentality," Grace said. "You want to open a restaurant? Start some kind of technology firm? Work with wind power? These are forward-thinking missions, and Vermont is sort of a petri dish for inspiration and vision. And if those companies grow enough, they can move beyond the borders of Vermont, as we did as a band. But you never stop being from Vermont."
Joyce Marcel (joycemarcel.com) is a journalist and columnist. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.