Moving Forward, Looking Back

Time flies when you have 240 issues to recap

by Jack Tenney, Publisher Business People-Vermont

This magazine, originally titled Business Digest of Greater Burlington, began publishing profiles of local business people and press releases regarding the changes in the local business community. That formula hasn't changed.

From time to time, overviews, retrospectives and analyses have been used to pull together a timeline to reflect the environment in which we business people operate. This article will attempt to review 20 years of local economic evolution using this monthly magazine as its sole source.

In 1994, halfway between where we were and are, we noted the technology sea change. In 1984, virtually no one was online, had a facsimile machine or used voice or e-mail to take care of business. In 2004, virtually everyone does business that way. Ten years ago, then, seems a good place to get a handle on what's happened during the 20 years this magazine has been published.

We published a 14-column piece on the "Information Highway" in June 1994. We touted VALS (Vermont Automated Library System); a place where "for the cost of a call to Montpelier you can hop on the Internet and be in Helsinki or Minnesota in a flash." NYNEX you remember NYNEX was firing up a VermontNET that was "probably most useful as an inexpensive communications method for organizations with several locations around the state." TogetherNet, a one-year-old ISP (Internet service provider) in 1994, offered e-mail accounts and Internet access for a $15 software fee and $10 a month. Vermont ETV had "been chosen as a beta test site for PBS On-Line, a national system that is scheduled to be available in 1995."

With some prescience, we concluded the article with a question: "Will the rapid growth of the Information Surperhighway be good news or bad news for greater Burlington?" We concluded:

"Greater Burlington's advantages as a node are largely the same it enjoys in all other economic considerations:

A. It's the economic and financial center of the state.

B. It has good transportation infrastructure in place: air, rail and interstate.

C. It has the University of Vermont and several other colleges.

D. It has one of IBM's most important research and manufacturing facilities."

In that same 10th-anniversary issue, in a piece titled "Things Change" we asked, "The year 2004: Will it really be that different from today or for that matter from 10 years ago? We talked with some 1984 graduates of local colleges who were members of the greater Burlington business community Tim Williams, Karen Marshall, Karen Behney, Doug Nedde, Bob Crews, Dena LeTourneau, Jim and Liz Robinson to name a few. "No one remembers hearing the term 'downsizing' as an undergraduate, but no one said, 'What's downsizing?'"

We picked off some interesting stats in that article:

IBMers employed at the Essex Junction facility:

1984........8,500 1994........6,000

Average home prices in greater Burlington went from $69,000 in 1984 to $125,000 in 1994 and were forecast to be $160,000 in 2004.

The snow ski season had lengthened due to improved and increased snowmaking in the 10 years from 1984. "Ten years ago, ski areas were lucky to be open by Thanksgving. Now it's accepted as the norm," said Tom Myers, director of marketing at the Vermont Ski Areas Association. Myers said future competitivness for areas "can't rely just on skiing; they have to be full-service destination resorts."

A gallon of heating oil cost $1.05 in 1984 and $0.87 in 1994, although there had been spikes as high as $1.47 in December 1989.

We observed the rising popularity of eating fish from 1984 to 1994. The increase in farm-raised fish was cited as a price stabilizer. Now, of course, every fish species has low-carb tattooed to its dorsal fins.

Carolyn Swiatek of the Beverage Warehouse gave us a handle on the increasing popularity of wine at that time. In the last 10 years, hearty reds got a boost as a heart-healthy tonic.

Here's one 1994 prognostication that didn't quite come true. In 1994, "according to Fred Reidy at NYNEX, a local pay phone call cost 10 cents in 1984, 10 cents in 1994, and will cost 10 cents in 2004." The proliferation of cell phones has cut pay phone usage far more than the increase in pay phone rates that has occurred. In 1984, cell phones were few and far between and quite kludgey, to boot. Now, of course, cell phones are more plentiful than pagers (which were all the rage for a few short years in the '90s).

The recent gasoline price explosion wasn't anticipated last year, let alone 10 or 20 years ago. In 1984, John Dubrul of The Automaster observed, "All the pressure and innovation that brought dramatic improvements in gas mileage were in place by 1984. Since then, manufacturers have made minor adjustments, concentrating instead on improving performance while maintaining good mileage numbers."

The stock market as measured by the Dow Jones Industrial average has done reasonably well, although single stocks like World Com and Enron helped crater a few portfolios since 2000. On May 15, 1984, the Dow Industrials closed at 1,187.39. Ten years later it was 3,659.68. Today, it's at 10,000, plus or minus 100 points, depending on whether the Red Sox win and other factors.

The most visible changes in the last 20 years have occurred in real estate development. The continuing housing boom, particularly in South Burlington and Williston, has been dramatic. The steady development and redevelopment along the lake augur well for the future as recreational access; commercial and residential uses have also been successful.

In 1984, there was what was perceived to be a glut of office space. Yet project after project was completed in downtown Burlington: Financial Plaza, Corporate Plaza, Maltex Building, Richardson Place, One and Two Church Street, and Court House Plaza, to name a few, all in the space of a few short years in the late '80s.

Increased retail space in the last 20 years is measured in millions of square feet. The big box stores in Williston and the build-out of Maple Tree Place seemed to be a long time coming but now thrive, while University Mall, Essex Outlet Fair and Burlington Square Mall now the Burlington Town Center have stretched, expanded and repositioned themselves.

The expansion of the South Burlington IDX facilities and the repositioning of the former Digital Equipment plant are stars of bricks and mortar surrounding new jobs, jobs, jobs.

Upgrades and new construction at UVM, Champlain, Middlebury and St. Michael's College far overshadow the loss of Trinity as testimony to the viability of higher education in the area. The newly announced plans for further expansions of the UVM campus and mission are welcomed as a sign of even better things to come for this area, which depends as much on a diverse and active student population as it does on tourism and agriculture.

The activities at the hospital represent a huge bet on the future of this area. Pursuing world-class health care, medical research and teaching goals is even more important as the area loses banking headquarters that were necessary to being a true financial center in this part of the world. The Chittenden Bank's acquisition of Vermont National, and BankNorth's boardroom move to Portland, Maine, has significantly reduced the number of local business people sitting on the boards of commercial banks. The Merchants Bank is now one of only two that were here in 1984 when the move of the Franklin Lamoille Bank to Burlington made the city headquarters to seven local banks.

In 1984, the two largest infrastructure projects hanging fire were the southern connector and the circumferential highway. They were still hanging in 1994, and, well, here it is 2004, and the circ is heading back to the drawing boards while the other just might have progressed far enough for some of the dots to get connected.

If progress of the area were to be measured by golf holes added, the region is certainly up to par. With new courses in Essex, South Burlington, Williston, Hinesburg and Waterbury, we've become a regular Myrtle Beach North. If business people only played in charity golf tournaments, they'd have to get their ball retrievers regripped twice a year. Golf courses have become one more place where people with cell phones shouldn't use them, but do.

There you have it: a 20-year snapshot of the local business community as seen from its own monthly business magazine, Business People–Vermont. Next report due June 2014.

Originally published in June 2004 Business People-Vermont