The Shires of Vermont and its Revolutionary Rebirth

The Shires of Vermont
Written by Pauline Muller

Defined in the time of the American Revolution, with the notable Battle Of Bennington now commemorated with a state-wide holiday and a 300 foot monument, the Shires of Vermont region is about to experience another revolution – one that includes education, entrepreneurship, business, art and culture while still preserving the quality of life which has been celebrated in the region for 300 years…
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Set between the Green Mountains to the east and the Taconics to the west, this verdant valley turns into glowing ambers during fall. The Shires of Vermont is home to an eclectic community of about 38,000 inhabitants in a 650 square mile area, and is the perfect spot for new businesses and young families to settle. Here, it is all about making a good living while enjoying life.
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Around 300 winters ago in 1779, Vermont had only two counties, but as the seasons changed and years went by, it eventually became 14. The Shires of Vermont became known for its two county seats, or shire towns, namely the Southshire of Bennington in the south-west and the Northshire of Manchester. Collectively, the county goes by the two interchangeable names of The Shires of Vermont and Bennington County.

The two shire towns of Bennington and Manchester each have their own character. Generally, Bennington is known for its colleges and medical center and is also the structural support center for the county. Manchester is famous as a tourism destination with its many designer outlets and recreational activities like snow skiing, fly fishing and more. The town is also re-positioning itself as a destination for sports tourism and as a recreational retail hotspot.

I chatted with Matt Harrington, the Executive Director of the Regional Chamber of Commerce and Jonathan Cooper, the Community & Economic Development Specialist with the Bennington County Regional Commission. The pair feel strongly about welcoming young families to the area. “With people almost ‘fleeing’ the big cities because of the high cost of living, we’re in a situation much like what Vermont saw in the 1960s with the Back-to-the-land Movement,” says Harrington. “People are feeling drawn to healthier living. We’ve been doing organic way before it was cool,” he says with a generous smile.

The Shires of Vermont is right on the borders of New York and Massachusetts, and it’s popular with visitors in nearby New Jersey, Connecticut, and New Hampshire. With its wholesome lifestyle, it is a hidden marvel for city dwellers of all ages to ‘escape’ to.

The Bennington County Industrial Corporation, or BCIC, works in southwestern Vermont, encouraging exciting new economic development initiatives for the region. With its help, The Shires of Vermont has become a hub for new retail outfits. Another reason the place is so attractive commercially is the support lent by the Regional Chamber of Commerce, as it oversees a number of initiatives to develop and support local organizations. Existing businesses are incentivized to invest in employee training in the form of 50 percent government subsidies. This initiative has brought a $600,000 injection in state funding for a number of local keystone businesses. Entrepreneurial learning initiatives abound and the area welcomes innovative startups – from tech, to food processing, and everything in between.

Bennington’s star retail and real estate project is the $50,000,000 Putnam Block redevelopment, spurred by the locally-led Bennington Redevelopment Group. With a focus on healthy living, it combines classic New England architecture with modern amenities and basic services – all in a beautiful, walkable urban space. It aims to bring about a great sense of community and a very lively downtown. Commercial spaces are designed for merchandising, and large windows entice passersby. As well as daily local traffic, festivals and events promise to make the stores even more lucrative.

The four-acre project offers outdoor plazas, high speed internet, ample parking and healthy urban living as never seen before. Local investors set up a consortium to bring this revolutionary real estate development to life. This 21st century vision for Bennington and Southern Vermont will bring people together and more housing will allow more graduate students to remain in the area. It will be perfect for people starting up or slowing down and with the ample elderly care facilities in the area, the development really caters to everyone. Its timeline currently stretches over three years, and the beauty of the project is that The Bank of Bennington, Southwestern Vermont Health Center, Bennington College, Southern Vermont College, Global-Z International, local residents, and other civic-minded organizations have all invested in the project. There are also some innovative partners involved from further afield.

The excitement is palpable. Recently, the Town of Bennington and the Bennington Downtown Alliance all worked together to provide pop-up space to a co-op in the area. Its opening coincided with Small Business Saturday. It was a great success and it’s been a busy spot ever since. This is just one of the ways in which people are thinking creatively even while construction is still underway. The development promises to bring The Shires of Vermont up to speed with the latest and greatest in economic growth trends in a very community-centered way.

Another positive project is Healthy Homes for Bennington, a partnership between Southwestern Vermont Health Care, the Town of Bennington, the Bank of Bennington, and local general contractors that renovate distressed or vacant homes in town. These properties are made available for first-time home buyers employed at the local hospital, the area’s largest employer. It launched a little under a year ago, and has already seen great success.

Equally exciting is the Ice House Entrepreneurship Program. This is an intensive preparation course developed by the Kauffman Foundation focusing on people who run or are planning a small business. The program’s Steering Committee includes representatives of the Chamber, the Community College of Vermont, Southern Vermont College, the Bennington County Regional Commission, the Bennington County Industrial Corporation, Williams Financial, and the very hip and happening Lightning Jar co-working space. Twelve participants, representing a wide range of businesses, recently completed the first course. The program runs on a semester basis and is funded by the Vermont Community Foundation. Bennington looks forward to watching them stake their claim in the local economy.

Of course, another plus of operating in Bennington County is the accessible local government. One can accomplish so much more without the bureaucracy of bigger places, and less red tape allows for a much quicker turnaround time on initiatives and projects. Growing a creative economy is what it’s all about out here and local government is there to lend a hand in helping business owners and commercial visionaries succeed. In fact, you’re very likely to run into Governor Scott, who understands firsthand what it takes to make a good business work and can be seen throughout the year making stops in The Shires.

For those who want to set up a manufacturing outlet or store and be able to walk their kids to school, the Shires of Vermont is the place to be. Property prices are affordable and its workforce is able and strong. Workforce education takes top priority and BCIC’s Workforce and Education Committee develops and oversees programming and policy in support of this. April is packed with financial planning workshops, career exploration opportunities for students, and meet and greets with possible employers and advisors for students. Employers also write a column in the local paper on what they do and what they’re looking for; this has generated a lot of excitement and the state has recognized it as best practice. The State of Vermont has designated April as “Career Month” and these activities represent a best practice model for other communities to follow as a way to encourage future educational initiatives and the transformation of education as a whole. It has been recommended to be applied throughout the state, together with the Workforce Education Committee, which guides and shares available resources with students. It is an invaluable tool in preparing young adults for the wider world.

Apart from encouraging workforce development, the Chamber of Commerce creates a healthy ecosystem for businesses to thrive in, Harrington explains. It also offers support for local legacy businesses who need to learn how to compete on social media and take part in e-commerce. Its retrofit development tools are there to help all local businesses trade at their peak capacity.

Family is a big part of the area’s community spirit, and with young families comes the need for a strong school system. Vermont has no shortage of great schools, which pride themselves on small student-to-teacher ratios of about 10 to 1, ensuring that children get the attention and support they need. Currently, there is also a consolidation of high schools, middle schools and elementary schools underway. This will allow the county to improve its education system even further. Bennington is in fact famous for its old schoolhouses and has come full circle with families moving here specifically to give their children the school experience of days gone by combined with top-notch modern education.

The county is said to have the highest rate of investment in its public schools per student. Students at Mount Anthony Union High School in Bennington enjoy a range of courses of the same high quality that kids in the larger towns do. The north shire is served by the Burr and Burton Academy in Manchester, one of a handful of private schools around the state that also serve as public schools for surrounding towns. This means that people who live in the towns of Dorset or Sunderland, for example, get to send their kids to a 200-year-old private school. For a lot of families these options are a real draw, and many people relocate to the Shires of Vermont for exactly this reason.

Vermont has a strong revolutionary heritage which is now adapting to the modern world. Locals are genuine, hard-working and know what it means to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Their selflessness and grit is evident in their lack of need for accolades and individual praise. In fact, the county is famous for its collaboration across its super-region of New York and Massachusetts, Cooper explains. Everyone pulls together to ensure economic stability and development and work together to make life every bit as good as it should be.

“There aren’t many places in America where you can walk to work with your spouse or partner,” says Cooper, who feels very fortunate to live here. With its reasonable property prices, high standard of living and booming business sector, now is the perfect time to move out of the city. Come set up shop in the Shires of Vermont. Life here continues to be, in its own way, revolutionary.

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