Marketing initiative to focus on regional growth in Rutland County

By Karen D. Lorentz

Rutland County faces a serious population decline that has already begun. The county lost over 1,000 residents between 2010 and 2013 when the estimated population was 60,622 (further reading on VT population). The projection from a 2013 study is that by 2020 it will be 60,791 if the economy is growing. If the economy stalls, however, projections are the population will fall to 58,494, a 5.1 percent decline from 2010, noted Lyle Jepson, executive director of the Rutland Economic Development Corporation (REDC).

While the 50-65 age group is growing throughout the county, the 0-29 age cohort is declining rapidly, he said. The decline is not so much one of losing households as it is fewer children, i.e., families are smaller now. So there is a need to attract younger people and more families to the region, both to increase the workforce and to preserve the schools and other institutions and businesses that produce a vibrant economy.

The impacts of a decline in young families can be seen in rural Shrewsbury. The modern Shrewsbury Mountain School, which offers great facilities and a solid elementary education, saw an addition built to accommodate 120 pupils in 1988 when the population of school children was growing. Today the student population numbers in the 70s or low 80s, resulting in a higher per pupil cost. Many schools face similar trends.

In addition to schools, declining populations can impact property values, a town’s tax base, the ability of local retailers and restaurants to stay in business, employment opportunities, employers and employees as well as the state’s tax base and ability to fund services and projects, Jepson noted.

A number of towns have already begun to see decreases, including Rutland City. This is not a new phenomenon for the region or state. Population declines were experienced in the last two centuries and are occurring now with the exception of Chittenden County, which is growing.

Recently, the Regional Marketing Initiative has taken on this challenge and hopes to reverse trends along with their wide-ranging effects.

The Rutland Economic Development Corporation and the Rutland Regional Chamber of Commerce (RRCC) have joined forces with other partners including Castleton University, the City of Rutland, many towns, and the business community to develop a Regional Marketing Initiative to benefit the entire area.

A steering committee was formed and is composed of members from REDC and RRCC boards along with municipal, business, and Rutland Young Professionals representatives. The 15-member steering committee oversees three subcommittees: workforce, quality of life, and the Killington Valley.

“It is a real collaboration with lots of partners contributing to the success of this campaign,” commented Mary Cohen, the Chamber’s executive director.

She noted the region-wide promotional initiative had its roots in the various towns and people who wanted to promote the mountain and cross-county biking available in the region from the Slate Valley Trails, Gateways to Brandon, Castleton Rail Trails, Pine Hill Park in Rutland, Green Mountain Trails in Pittsfield and the Killington Resort, which has invested millions to become a mountain bike destination.

The group sees the potential to become the Biking Capital of the East, which it expects will be a major regional draw.

Both Cohen and Jepson noted that the initiative is a long-term effort with expectations of seeing results of a larger population and more vibrant economy over the next five to 10 years.

Jepson explained that the workforce committee broke into two subcommittees with one focused on high school students, addressing education and skill development so students will be ready to work and able to match employer needs. The other subcommittee focuses on college and university students and connecting them with business and industry through internships and work experiences.

The goal is to encourage some 3,000 students at the four colleges in Rutland County to stay in Vermont.

Jepson noted there are currently 80 to 100 jobs open in Rutland County that pay $43,000 or more on REDC’s website (rutlandeconomy.com). He added that General Electric has hiring plans for 50 people now and several hundred in the next 5 to 6 years as baby boomers retire. Pay there ranges from $19.05 to $23.77 an hour, he said. Westminster Crackers is looking to hire 20 to 25 people at the Howe Center location, he added, noting, “Businesses are willing to train people.”

Cohen observed that on any given day Rutland Regional Medical Center will have 100 jobs listed on its website. “They’re not all medical positions,” she said, mentioning IT, human resources, marketing, and other departments. “Businesses of all sizes need workers throughout the region,” she added.

Both Cohen and Jepson noted that staffing all available positions would be a boon to the local business economy and to the real estate market with far reaching impacts for property values and the tax base. While housing sales have picked up this year, there is a healthy supply of homes in the region and very reasonable prices. In comparison to Burlington and out-of-state cities, people can pay half the prices and taxes for comparable homes, they noted.

The quality of life committee is comprised of representatives from towns, schools, newspapers, police, and others who share information about assets— services, attractions, opportunities—so that they can be touted in the marketing campaign being developed, Cohen said. Getting the word out that “we live in one of the most extraordinary places in the world with clean air, no traffic, outdoor adventures, and extraordinary views” can help increase the population, Cohen stated.

The Killington Valley initiative constitutes the third leg of the Regional Initiative. The committee’s focus is on tourism and outdoor adventures. Promoting the many lakes, bike trails, swimming holes, boating, skiing and other recreational opportunities will help attract people to live and work here as well as visit, Cohen said. Visitors may eventually move here or their children may decide to live here because they enjoyed vacations so tourism can help to increase the population, too, she noted.

The Killington Valley branding of the region was chosen to capitalize on the largest draw to the region, Killington Mountain. As the state’s second highest
peak, it offers the highest lift-served skiing in Vermont and the resort leads the East in both size and skier visits.
“The choice of the Killington Valley was excellent branding for the whole region because Killington has worldwide name recognition. When I tell people I’m from Vermont and they ask where and I say Killington, they automatically know where and they know what Killington means even if they are not skiers,” noted Tao Smith, head of Killington Mountain School, an independent ski academy.

Noting the appeal of the region, Smith said parents of KMS students from Chile are thinking of relocating to the area and some already have second homes or have moved here. He noted the resort’s ability to bring 30,000 people to the region for two days for the Women’s World Cup and added that millions watched the events on television all over the world, observing that leveraging the Killington brand makes good sense.

Collaboration efforts
“REDC and the Chamber are working very closely now and we combined our marketing efforts” — the Chamber leads efforts on marketing and REDC on policy, but both groups serve on both committees,” Cohen said. Jepson said that members of the joint policy committee will share concerns with the new Act 250 study commission in September. The commission is looking at the permitting process which many feel takes too long, is too costly, inhibits business development and prevents growth. “We need some growth to protect our tax base and to preserve our schools and keep them within our communities with local control,” Jepson noted.

Collaborative efforts include Cohen and Jepson making presentations to town boards and citizens throughout the county. They discuss population decline as well as efforts to reverse it and the benefits of doing so. They also request participation via funding and/or serving on a committee. The latter is  important so the initiative better represent that community and can also so someone can report back to their community on what is happening with the marketing initiative, Cohen said.

They also ask for supporting donations of  $1/person but stress that this is “not pay to play, we want all involved” and are seeking help either or both ways.

Other collaborative efforts include Chrispin White, director of the Center for Community Engagement at Castleton University, who works with internships and community service, working half time in Rutland at the CU campus in the
Opera House and the other half on the main campus.

Castleton has a database of 15,330 alumni with around half having stayed in Vermont.

“REDC and Castleton push out messages to alumni about jobs available and encourage them to check out the career opportunities page as part of banishing the myth of no jobs here,” Jepson said.

In another collaborative effort, REDC and Rutland Young Professionals co-locate in the Opera House so as to encourage and support the Young Professionals program.

Funding for marketing efforts
The Rutland City Board of Aldermen designated $100,000 to be used over two years from the Zamias Impact Fund to support the Regional Marketing Initiative. Many businesses helped raise another $100,000 with contributions of:  $10,000 from Green Mountain Power, Rutland Regional Medical Center, Carpenter and Costin, Casella Waste Management, Foley Family Businesses, Heritage Family Credit Union, REDC, and RRCC. The Mountain Times is contributing  $12,000 through in-kind advertising, and Castleton University is donating $5,000, Velco, $3,000, and the Russell Corporation, $1,000.

Funds are covering costs for the research and development of a digital marketing campaign, which includes messaging (content) and videography (30-second videos for TV and social media). Mondo Mediaworks out of Brattleboro is currently creating this campaign, which will have a large social media component.

Funds will also pay for television advertising in the Rutland Region (Comcast), Vermont (NBC Network), and Boston and Hartford markets.

Jepson noted that while the campaign targets the Millennial group which has the most potential to increase the county’s population, it also focuses on seasoned professionals who have more time to spend outdoors and might retire here.

Hopes are that getting a compelling message out that Rutland County is a great place to live and work will reverse the population decline over time and bolster the economy by retaining and attracting new families.

Community response
Comments on the Regional Marketing Initiative range from, “I had no idea about the scope and that it is more than just slogans” to wholehearted support.

Killington Resort President and GM Mike Solimano commented, “Killington Resort supports the Killington Valley Initiative because having stronger, more vibrant communities surrounding our resort makes us stronger. The Killington Valley offers some of the best outdoor recreation in the country and having one entity representing all of our recreational assets as a means of marketing the region as not just a great place to visit but ultimately call home helps support our resort-wide initiatives.” ​

Mike Napolitano, who grew up in Rutland, became a snowboarder, and now owns Awesome Graphics with his wife Tami, commented, “I am behind these efforts 1,000 percent. I believe this move is critical for growth and prosperity. It’s a good idea to get the word out on our community and the region and why people should consider it a place to move to, open businesses, and raise families. We need more people and this is one great way to help that cause. I do love a win-win!”

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