Tuesday, September 24, 2013

After Vermont Yankee: A Poor Area Will Become Poorer

Last week, The Commons newspaper held a forum on the future of the area around Vermont Yankee.  The forum was titled: Toward a Post-Nuclear Economy.  Life after Vermont Yankee: What is Next? My previous blog post on this subject is Yankee Rowe and the Soul of a Nuclear Worker. 

A friend of mine attended the panel, and told me that the panelists were divided between two sets of people:
  • Opponents of Vermont Yankee wanted to talk about how to force Entergy to do prompt decommissioning, how to force Entergy to greenfield the plant site. Their main topic was: “Let’s get Entergy!”
  • Local people and groups know that Entergy is a major employer, tax-payer, and source of funds and volunteers for local not-for-profits. This employer is about to leave. For local groups, the main topic was: "How will this area cope with VY's departure?"
How can the area move forward?  How can it even begin to replace Vermont Yankee? That is the big question for most people in Vermont.

Economics 101: We Are All Part of A Community

When the community becomes poorer, most of the people in the community become poorer in one way or another.   “Too bad about the plant workers but I’ll be okay” isn't really going to work for the neighboring area.  Other communities have faced these types of problems when a major employer leaves the area:
  • Hospitals, doctors and nurses are affected by the sudden local loss of hundreds of people with high-paying private health insurance. 
  • Schools will see tax revenues decline: they may drop some of their sports teams, some teachers may be laid off, others may teach bigger classes. 
  • Restaurants may keep shorter hours and some may fold.  
  • Auto dealerships may sell fewer cars.  
The local community will become poorer.

And Southern Vermont is not that rich right now.  The median annual income for workers in Brattleboro is around $41,000 while the state-wide median is $53,000.  (From the recent Olga Peters article in The Commons.)  According to the United Way report (page 21) between 22% and 60% of Windham County children get free or reduced-price lunches.  The reduced-price-lunch percentage can be considered a proxy for estimating child poverty.

Windham county is not rich now, and it is about to get poorer.  How could the county turn this around?

Economics 102: Creating Prosperity

A community becomes prosperous by making a product or providing a service that other people will spend money to buy.  No community can stand on its own, importing nothing.  Every community has to “export” something, at least to neighboring areas, to get money to buy what it needs.  What can the Brattleboro area export?

I thought of two ways that the Brattleboro area can attempt to revitalize itself after the plant leaves.  Unfortunately, I don’t think either of these two ways will work.

The Tourist Magnet

Brattleboro can attempt to become a tourist magnet. This would not be strictly export, but it is a way of attracting money from outside the area.

While all of Vermont is a tourist magnet of some type, Brattleboro will have a hard time moving up the ladder of “destinations.” Brattleboro is trying to revitalize its downtown, and is very aware of where its downtown visitors come from. (Commons article: Brattleboro's Potential for Greatness)

In my opinion, though, Brattleboro is going to be a hard sell as a tourist destination.  The area is pretty, but doesn't have the high local income and interesting history (Privateers! Clipper ships!) that helped a place like Newburyport re-invent itself.   Brattleboro can’t start a music festival--it’s only twenty miles from the famous Marlboro Music Festival, and could hardly compete.  The area could try to be a theater or film mecca, but that would be a slow build-up.  The places that succeed at that sort of thing (Ashland Oregon for example) generally have multiple stages and have been growing their influence for many years.  The successful arts center of Santa Fe New Mexico has been an artistic center for over a century, and was near the home of the very famous artist Georgia O’Keefe.

“We don’t need Vermont Yankee, we will be an arts center” doesn’t seem to me to be a winning solution.

The Industrial Hub

The Brattleboro area can attempt to get another manufacturing facility into the town, either at the Vermont Yankee site or elsewhere.

Frankly, I think they have shot themselves in the foot about this one.  Given the “protesting” spirit of Brattleboro, most manufacturers would be hesitant to locate there.  Every factory has raw materials: many raw materials are poisonous if spilled.  If I were a manufacturer, I wouldn’t locate in a place where people are likely to begin tying themselves to the gate of  my plant if they heard I had a spill of toxic paints within the plant premises.

The people of Brattleboro might think....oh no, we ONLY protest nuclear plants! We'd love other types of factories!  However,  most manufacturers will NOT want to locate in an area where protesting so-called "environmental issues" at factory gates is a way of life.

In short, I think Brattleboro has messed itself up big-time by its attitude to Vermont Yankee.  In this WPTZ video, you can see Arnie Gundersen suggesting that a new power plant be built on the Vermont Yankee site. He doesn’t say what kind of plant, however!  Can you imagine the local protests if they attempted to run a gas pipeline to the site, build a coal plant, or build a biomass plant? Heavens!

Not an easy future

I wish the Southern Vermont area the very best, if only because many Vermont Yankee workers would like to stay in the area. However,  I don't think it is going to be a very upbeat future around there.  At least, not for many years.

I include a video from WCAX on the future of the area.

 WCAX.COM Local Vermont News, Weather and Sports-


Howard Shaffer said...

A member of the Brattleboro Chamber of Commerce, who is old enough to have been around when Vermont Yankee was proposed, told me that one of the reasons it is in Vermont, is for jobs it would create in Windham county.

From an engineering point of view, it could just as well have been on the New Hampshire side of the river.

jimwg said...

Very sobering introspective I'm afraid is all too true. When fear wins all lose. Amazes me how anyone but the insane can cluck and party over this situation. One factor that seems overlooked is the scenic and historical natural heritage of the state as windmills crop up on formerly pristine hills once roamed by the Green Mountain Boys destined to be razed and despoiled by monstrous whirligigs that will seem "natural" as pie to a younger generation who won't know what they are missing. I hope VT schools delete their climate change curricula since they just showed it isn't happening.

James Greenidge
Queens NY

Anonymous said...

It's hard for me to imagine how an occasional music concert or arts fair could possibly make up for the loss of high-paying, steady, high-tech jobs. There is a reason after all why they are called "starving artists". You simply can't make ends meet with work like that (maybe a Rembrandt or Mozart could, but those are few and far between). The truth is that trashing a nuclear plant is a devastating blow to families and communities. Lives are disrupted, children are uprooted from familiar surroundings and forced to go on the road as their parent(s) look for work, local leaders in the community move away, local businesses are left with a far less wealthy clientele to do business with. That your Governor advocated such a calamity for his own citizens should be a reasonn for shame at beast, impeachment at worst. But he won't be. He will probably be applauded like some kind of hero, instead of the jerk he is. It is truly a world gone mad.

Meredith Angwin said...

Thank you for your comments!

There's a lot of talk about the lively arts scene at Brattleboro and how that can be enhanced when VY closes. It's the sort of feature article that keeps appearing. I felt I needed to say something about the "arts scene"--it's not so easy to make it as an artist, either for an artist, or for a town.

The best thing would be another manufacturing facility, but that will not happen in lower Vermont, for the reasons I stated.

Also, I wanted to say something about hospitals and doctors and so forth. There's an idea that retirees won't be affected by the plant closing. Well, Medicare doesn't pay very well to hospitals. Without the private insurance, the quality of medical care in the region will go downhill. In other words, retirees will be affected.

In my opinion, plant opponents talk a lot about "community" but never truly acknowledge effects of VY's closing on the whole Southern Vermont community. "Community" is not just "those people I see at the potluck after the protest march."

Anonymous said...

There's an old saying: good art isn't cheap and cheap art isn't good. Unless they want to go down the road of selling bric-a-brac and touristy trinkets, high quality art costs a lot. That means you have to have a consumer base with a reasonable amount of disposable income that can be spent on discretionary items. Ironically, if they kept the nuclear plant, they might have that. Without it, they probably won't.

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, in my experience, there seems to be too many guitars in this world and too much bad art. As a higher income person living way out in the hills around Brattleboro, I seldom ever drop my money in the bars, restaurants, tourists stores, and yes, I include Sams in that. If I can order shoes from Beans and return them, then why can't I return shoes to Sams . I am a mega shopper now. I can go on line, find the best price and have it shipped right to my door. Except for USPS which arrives two miles down the hill at the mailbox. I have bought chairs, rugs, boats, lots of high ticket items this way. No more driving around, wasting gas, paying for over priced meals which I can always make healthier and better at home. However, I continue to spend thousands locally...my service people primarily....thousands for wood, plowing, maple syrup, lawn care, car repair and just recently after a mega on line search, found a vehicle to purchase on Putney Road....local. .....without leaving my home and driving around wasting gas and putting pollution into the air. Downtown Bratt is overpriced and overrated. It tells the tale of a town trying to 'make a scene' happen....but it doesn't. Movie ticket prices ? I can wait six months or less and see it on Netflix. Concerts....$28 dollars per ticket??? No thanks. The problem Bratt faces is that so much more can be found at our fingertips on line that trying to make a scene. And yes, if it is cheaper at Walmart I will buy it there. And have it delivered to my doorstep. A friend recently told me of his attempts to shop 'local. The item he wanted was available at Sprawlfart and Sams. So he went and personally spoke with Sams and told them he would rather purchase it from them and could they at least reduce the price a hundred dollars (which was still way above the Sprawlfart price. The answer was no. So he went to Browns and attempted the same negotiation. They said no. Seems ridiculous that this person was willing to pay a premium for the item to shop local, but in the end the difference was almost $300 . This person was willing to pay $150 of the difference but got a No. It's a new game plan and Brattleboro will never be able to compete for my money for items I can get at a better price. And as for being the 'best little art town'' , I have seen enough bad art around town to put me off for years to come. By the way, who are all these people buying this stuff?

Anonymous said...

Well, your last sentence sums up the conundrum quite nicely. If you are going to build an economy on offering high-end goods, you need a consumer base that can afford to purchase those things. That's how economies work. A consumer base with significant disposable income for discretionary purposes is typically composed of workers in high-end jobs, usually skilled professionals or workers in industries that earned sufficient profits so they could employ people at relatively high wages, things like high-tech manufacturing. A service-based economy isn't going to do it. You don't have many McDonald's employees or farmers going out and buying high-end art. Neither do you have artists paying big bucks to buy artwork from other artists. It is somewhat delicious (in a diabolical sense) irony that Vermont is getting rid of an industry that could very well support an arts-based economy. they seem to think they can have one without the other. But they will find out the hard way that such is not the case.