There was a beautiful simplicity to the “Economic Pitch” event with Lt. Gov. Phil Scott that I attended this evening at the Bliss Auditorium in Saint Albans. After the mercifully brief references to his Airborne Speedway days of glory, the bulk of the two-hour event was given over to local people pitching their ideas about how to make the economy of our state better. If you’re Phil Scott, and you want people to think of you as a good listener, then giving the floor over to your constituents and saying very little is a pretty good way to do it.
The GOP talking points were sprinkled lightly throughout the evening’s speeches- much lighter than I had feared. The Lt. Gov. reminded us that he had heard a “common theme about affordability” in the last election. That there were “1221 bills introduced last session and only 20 or so would have helped the economy.” In spite of the gloom he said, “We have a lot to look forward to.”
Book-ending the event in the Vermont GOP tradition of bashing our state’s business environment, the owner of Saint Albans Superior Technical Ceramics closed the night by saying “The Vermont Brand is not competitive.” Then he went on to pitch the idea of Research and Development tax credits as a way to make Vermont “The Innovation State”. This isn’t the worst idea, and he did talk about how great the quality of life is here. Still, we can’t miss a chance to advertise how bad it is to do business in Vermont in front of business people. Face palm.
In between the politics were some really great pitches, a few clunkers and one rant that I won’t even call a pitch (see the next paragraph). Superintendent Winton Goodrich talked about administering Pre-K, Special Education, staff healthcare and some other services for education at the state or regional level. Two speakers, including Saint Albans entrepreneur Tim Camisa of Vermont Organics Reclamation (son of Rep. Kathie Keenan) pitched ideas about turning our phosphorous problem into an economic benefit for farmers by processing manure into other products. Kristen Hughes and Jonathan Billings pitched the need for funding local food initiatives like the Healthy Roots Collaborative, emphatically declaring that “now is not the time to cut funding”. Franklin County Industrial Development Corporation’s Tim Smith wants the state to spend $500k more each year on SBDC staff to help guide small businesses in their planning, and is probably right that the increased economic activity will more than pay for the investment. Smith also would love for legislators to convince the feds to improve the Highgate border crossing, which he admitted was a naïve goal. Amen, brother.
The most political of the non-pitches came from engineer Sam Ruggiano via written statement that was read by Franklin Chamber Executive Director Dave Southwick. Ruggiano’s “rantings and suggestions” started out with a regret that the Lt. Gov hadn’t run for Governor in the last election. “He would have won.” According to Ruggiano, “Budget increases have to stop or legislators are going to bankrupt the state.” The legislature should also repeal Act 250 9(l), get the wetlands folks from ANR to stop holding up development in Saint Albans Town, force the City of Saint Albans to give water and sewer services to the Town so they can develop in said wetlands, and make sure they don’t pass any Paid Sick Leave bills while they’re at it.
No one clapped after the statement was read. Southwick said “I’ll let Sam know no one clapped.” Then there was some tepid applause. Awkward.
That was kind of the beauty of the event. It wasn’t about Phil Scott or any one person’s political agenda. Big rhetoric was frowned upon in the mixed crowd of business leaders, municipal officials, Democrats and Republicans. It’s refreshing to hear your neighbors share their ideas and their priorities for a few minutes.
I walked in to the Economy Pitch thinking that it was going to be a big commercial for Phil Scott- the kind of misreading of the room and pompous victory lap I had seen him take at the Vermont Rail Association dinner a week after election night in the same room. It felt more like one of Bernie Sanders‘ town hall style meetings, which I have also attended in that room. If Phil Scott can continue to tap into the earnest desire that many of my neighbors have to make their state a better place, he will be a formidable candidate for governor in 2016. In the meantime I hope he and the Franklin County legislators who were all in attendance will turn some of their ideas into laws.