Taking Care of Business

The state's top business advocates tackle the issues

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

January 2004

Permit reform. That seems to be the mantra from the business community as well as the administration as we move into Vermont's 2004 legislative session.

Vermont Business Roundtable President Lisa Ventriss and Chairman Tim Mueller.

The issue was cited again and again when Business People-Vermont checked in with staff and key volunteers at the Vermont Business Roundtable, the Vermont Chamber of Commerce and the Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce/Greater Burlington Industrial Corp.While each organization had its own take on the issues, much of what we heard is not new. What might be new is the loud and clear message of a desire to collaborate with other, disparate groups to find solutions to some of the thorny issues.

Vermont Business Roundtable

Appropriately, the Vermont Business Roundtable has taken the broadest perspective. Unlike the chambers of commerce, it is not a lobbying organization. "Historically, the Roundtable has done a lot of research and produces policy papers that we distribute to the Legislature, the executive branch, agency heads, that sort of thing," says Tim Mueller, president of Okemo Mountain and the Roundtable's chairman.

That has changed a bit.Two years ago, when Lisa Ventriss was hired as president, the organization underwent a strategic planning project. "At that time," says Ventriss, "the board came up with a mission statement and a new vision statement, both action-oriented. The important thing to know is that the mission statement goes beyond our research and analysis focus that we have traditionally held. We still see that as a very critical part of the work we do, but collaboration, communication and advocacy are strategies we are actively employing to make our policy work live beyond the report."The Roundtable has identified two broad policy areas, says Ventriss:

  • Improve the public's understanding of the connectedness between infrastructure and economic vitality
  • Improve the business climate in Vermont."

Infrastructure is defined very broadly, says Ventriss. "If I were to try and define it, it's sort of predictable; for example, it's information technology systems like cell towers and broad band access; it's healthy education systems that are producing good students; it's a consistent and simplified permitting process; it's competitive electric rates; it's growth and wages."

"When we talk about business climate," Ventriss says "it's, How can we help improve that attitude toward business, and, again, growth. One of the ways the Roundtable is trying to do that is a project we have called New Models for Commercial and Industrial Growth."New Models is a recent report that grew out of a collaboration between the Business Roundtable and the Vermont Forum on Sprawl. "What we have done," says Ventriss, "is identify the impediments to smart growth, meaning development in existing downtowns or village centers rather than a greenfield.

This project is intended to demonstrate that seemingly disparate groups can come together on issues of common concern and develop some very specific recommendations to ameliorate some public issues.

"This New Models project is intended to highlight to policy makers and the public that if, indeed, we really want development in downtowns say we wanted to convert the K-Mart plaza here in South Burlington rather than go out to Exit 12 in order to do that, we'd have to have some things fall in place; so we've identified a number of recom-mendations, including the need for master permitting and planning in the State of Vermont and increased public investment in transpor-tation infrastructure improvement. These emerged as two key impediments."Regarding permit reform, Ventriss stresses two problems that must be addressed: lack of consistency in the process and excess of process. The Roundtable is currently in phase two of its collaboration with the Forum on Sprawl good news, says Ventriss.

Duane Marsh

Vermont Chamber of Commerce

Duane Marsh came to Vermont from Midland, Mich., last year to become president of the Vermont Chamber of Commerce. The chamber has just put the finishing touches on its Top 10 Economic Development Issues for 2004. The top five are:

  • permit reform
  • ensure a competitive business environment
  • create a state tax policy that retains and encourages business investment
  • reduce energy costs and taxes
  • travel and tourism

According to Kevin O'Donnell, vice president and innkeeper at the Old Tavern at Grafton and chairman of the Vermont Chamber of Commerce board of directors, "Most of the real issues are trying to take away what we call disincentives for business. If we can reduce Workers' Compensation costs; find a way to grapple with the health care cost and I can't go any further and not say this: We understand that this is not going to be an easy thing. We understand there's compromise here; we're willing to do that."

"Near and dear to my heart is a predictable mechanism for funding tourism; when states like New York spend $22 million on the I Love NY campaign, it's really tough." Kevin O'Donnell

That's not something the chamber of commerce has thrown out on the table, but you can't have reform of the health care system and not compromise it's too big an issue. What I hear and want to build on is, I think there's an air of compromise in the state right now; no one political party is going to have a silver bullet for this. You need everybody at the table to come up with a workable solution. We want to be at the table."

One interesting item that appears under the heading on state tax policy is: phase-out of the corporate income tax. "It's not a lot of money in the big scope of things," says O'Donnell, "but you could hang your hat and say, 'Look! As a state, we just repealed the corporate income tax,' and you could rally around something like that. Our view is to really make it easy for business to come here."

"Obviously, our approach would be, rather than an outright elimination, a phase out to soften the blow," adds Marsh.O'Donnell has an interesting take on the collaboration issue. "You have a new chamber president, a new person at the Business Roundtable. There's enough critical mass, and people say that in order for us to get somewhere on this, you can't be steadfast, can't dig your heels in. Because we're not going to get the right solution right out of the box."I'm in the inn business," he adds, "and it's not about fighting with people. You have to listen to what they say, and I live in a small town and I hear it all the time."

Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce/GBIC

The priorities for the chamber and GBIC are:

  • economic development
  • permitting/environment
  • health care
  • tax and fiscal policy
  • transportation/infrastructure
  • education/education finance

Jamie Balliett

"The overall focus under the economic development priority for Vermont," says Jamie Balliett, a shared employee who is director of government affairs for both the Lake Champlain Chamber and Greater Burlington Industrial Corp., "is to have more well-paying jobs; a high quality of life; sustainable economic growth; a well-educated and trained work force, and in order to do that, we're highly supportive of efforts for job creation and retention, which we see as strengthening the economy and enhancing the business climate.

"The second tier is divided into two specific areas: Develop a storm water permit program that improves Vermont's waterways, allows appropriate development to occur and addresses title questions; and reforming the permitting process: making it predictable, efficient and timely, without changing the environmental criteria. We think the criteria are really the core by which Act 250 and other regulatory framework may operate. We're more interested in process."

"First and foremost," says Scott Carpenter, managing partner of the McDonald Financial Group, president of Key Bank and chairman of the chamber's board of directors, "everybody's goal across the state is job retention, which includes allowing employers a good environment to keep and add to their employee bases. It's nice to have another big manufacturer come in, but that might not be in the realm of reality, so we need to foster the 'creative economy,' as folks are calling it nowadays."

The creative economy, says Carpenter, identifies and recruits niche businesses, an area where Vermont can become more competitive in attracting a good labor force and retaining employees who might leave one organization, yet have the ability to stay in Vermont.

"I think the legislators have some tough issues to look at. From the perspective of everybody, we can make these things more bipartisan, and we'll be better off. I know that historically, the legislators five or 10 years ago might have looked at the chamber as 'The Business People,' but the chamber has 2,600 members, and they are members of the community, not just running businesses. They're the fabric, contributing to nonprofits, serving on boards, so the whole idea is to make the decision-making process, whether at the government or business level, be collaborative."

In the end, says Carpenter, "it's all about continuing economic development, making sure that when people come here, we've got appropriate housing for them, allowing a business to make a predictable investment in expanding at the same time recruiting to our strength the quality of life we have here. It's not a cheap place to live, there are not a lot of tax credits being thrown around. If we keep saying the economy is not easy to live with, then people won't want to come here."Carpenter echoes the other presidents when he says, "It's not going to be changed overnight, but we need to be able to be at the table to address them."

Originally published in January 2004 Business People-Vermont