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Vermont’s $10,000 Gamble

Can the Green Mountain State pay new residents to settle there?

The small state of Vermont usually makes the national news for producing progressive politicians like Sen. Bernie Sanders and legalizing same-sex marriage.

But recently Vermont made the news for a different reason. Republican Governor Phil Scott (yes there are still Republicans in New England) signed a bill into law that will grant remote workers up to $10,000 to move to the state. According to the New York Times, the program will run for three years, with allocations of $125,000 for 2019 and 2021, and $250,000 in 2020.

Vermont is a very rural state and outside of the Interstate 89 corridor between Burlington and the capital, Montpelier, even what isn’t rural is still post-industrial. Towns like Springfield, Newport, and Rutland aren’t strictly mill towns or gateway cities like the kind found in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, but there are similarities. Like other rural and post-industrial areas, young people are leaving, and while there are some people moving in, they are frequently middle-aged or retired.

And even where there are signs of life, there aren’t exactly many jobs available. Making artisanal cheese or opening a nanobrewery don’t require a large labor force.

By offering to compensate people for their moving expenses, the state hopes to attract people who are already employed and enjoy the Green Mountain landscape. They hope that the beauty and outdoor lifestyle will beckon the create class, so they won’t have to go through the expense and hassle of trying to lure a factory or some other industry.

The beauty of Vermont has certainly been attractive in the past. The influence of the Rockefeller and Billings families, for example, helped preserve Woodstock as a quintessential New England village, allowing them a brisk tourist trade, even if locals can no longer afford to live in town. The “sweeping mountain vistas reminiscent of their beloved Austria” brought the Von Trapp family to Stowe. Local legend has it that Thomas Watson, Jr. of IBM liked the skiing so much he had a facility located in Essex Junction, near Burlington, so as to shoehorn in some skiing around actual work.

Unfortunately, Vermont is not alone in offering deals for warm bodies. Buffalo, N.Y. will sell people houses for $1 if they agree to stay for at least five years. Numerous small towns throughout Italy, many of them just as picturesque as Vermont, if not more so, offer free homes and even castelli or other deals in order to get them occupied, maintained, and economically vibrant again.

Even if Vermont’s relocation program can outcompete the others and attract remote workers, the state’s leaders will still have to come up with ways to be more attractive for its own high school and college graduates.

If the state is willing to spend $500,000 over three years as part of a reimbursement program, perhaps they could offer a similar amount to promote entrepreneurship, reimbursing young people up to $10,000 to start a business.

One important thing the state could do is overhaul its approach to transportation. Currently, public transit is an afterthought because in the conventional thinking the state is too sparsely populated to make it work.

As a result, Vermont must balance the construction of ugly roads and parking lots against the preservation of the natural beauty that attracts the tourists. It would do no good to pave paradise to put up a parking lot.

Transportation in Vermont consists of two Amtrak services, the Ethan Allen Express and the Vermonter trains, and an intercity bus service known as Vermont Translines. Extending the New York City-based Ethan Allen Express from Rutland up to Burlington would not only make Burlington and the college town of Middlebury accessible by rail, it would likely make the service that much more financially viable. Further improvements would come from rerouting it so it could stop at Bennington and Manchester.

Another improvement Vermont could make is getting some kind of rail connection to Boston. This could be best be done with a route paralleling Vermont’s State Route 103 to Rutland and then sharing the track with the Ethan Allen Express to Burlington. This would bring tourists to Ludlow and Killington, connect entrepreneurs in Burlington and Boston, and make it much easier for me to visit my family in Rutland.

While plans have been floated for building a commuter rail network using diesel multiple units, the state could also get more bang for the bucks it spends on bus service. The bus network has three routes in the southwest of the state, and is expensive, slow, and only runs once a day. Considering the way younger people drive less and are buying fewer cars, making it easier to live in the state without a car would help attract them.

There are many steps Vermont can and should take to ensure that its $10,000 gamble doesn’t turn out to be a gimmick.

Matthew M. Robare is a freelance journalist based in Boston.