BURLINGTON — The former mayor of Pittsburgh told attendees of a business summit last week that Burlington has many of the building blocks in place to pursue economic development. Importantly, said Tom Murphy, “You have what every city wants: a really strong sense of place.”
The Burlington Business Association held its 2017 summit on Jan. 26 at the Hilton Burlington. About 110 members of the Greater Burlington business community participated in the event, which featured national and local presenters.
Murphy, a former three-term mayor of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, now with the Urban Land Institute, cited the city’s location on Lake Champlain, great architecture and history, and the presence of a university and medical center.
“In some ways, all of that has lulled you into a comfort zone, and a bit of complacency,” Murphy said. “You have the raw materials, but haven’t yet put it all together in a forward-thinking way.”
Businesses are choosing to locate in places where people want to live, Murphy said, cautioning that Burlington’s “minuses” include an aging population, a tight and expensive housing market, and lack of employment diversity. “You have a lot of what they want, but people want choices about where to work, or ability to start businesses. Build on what’s in place, identify what’s missing, and move forward in ways that make the city more sustainable.”
Identifying core values and protecting them are a key to any such process, Murphy said. Recalling his experiences in Pittsburgh, he recommended forging partnerships — as opposed to adversarial relationships — with developers.
“Developers can take capital anywhere,” Murphy said. “You guys know what your core values are. Don’t give them away, but be clear about them and figure out how to create strategic partnerships that work. That’s the challenge for Burlington, and for every city.”
Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger cited improvements and initiatives the city has been working on.
“I also want to thank Tom Murphy for his admonishment to be bold,” Weinberger said, “and we do have a number of projects moving forward with increasing momentum.”
He emphasized the Burlington Town Center Redevelopment initiative and investment in public infrastructure.
“For too long three critical blocks of our downtown — an area that should be doing so much more for Burlington — have been dominated by a suburban style mall in decline,” Weinberger said.
Infrastructure improvements Weinberger noted, included a newly built section of the waterfront bike path, and planned redesigns for City Hall Park and a large portion of Main Street. Concept plans for Main Street include transformation of the city’s widest right-of-way that include enhancements to sidewalks and dedicated bike lanes, as well as construction of tree belts and green infrastructure that will dramatically reduce stormwater runoff.
This year the city will launch an initiative to make Burlington a “net zero” city, producing as much renewable energy as it uses, within 10-15 years.
Fresh from a ground-breaking for a project that will bring 314 new beds online for Champlain College students within the next 18 months, Weinberger addressed efforts to reduce the city’s housing shortage.
“Having 3,400 students living off-campus in our community has put pressure on a limited supply of housing and led to complaints about quality of life,” Weinberger said. Noting another 300 new student beds are in the pipeline at the University of Vermont, he said the city is well on its way to its goal of 1,700 new student beds.
Taken together, Weinberger said, new investment in downtown and public infrastructure help Burlington reverse the loss of young professionals, meet equity goals by remaining a city were people of all backgrounds can continue to live, and meet environmental goals of cleaning up Lake Champlain and reducing the carbon footprint.
Jeffrey Lewis, of the Vermont Futures Project, said his organization’s goal is to help inform the conversation about Vermont’s economic future by building a constituency of people who understand and are concerned about the economy. He presented growth targets in six interconnected elements of the economy: economic activity, innovation and entrepreneurs, demographics, workforce and talent, quality of place, and infrastructure and investment.
“So how’s Vermont doing?” Lewis asked. The data, he said, show Vermont has strengths in government, education, tourism and health care, but lacked a diversity of industries and showed comparatively poor productivity. He also cited low capital investment, low wages and low household incomes.
“We need more value-added industries,” Lewis said. He also emphasized a critical workforce supply gap. To correct it in the face of Vermont’s aging population, he said, “We’d need nearly 11,000 new workers per year for the next 15 years. We need more people.”
The organization offers research and education, and its website (www.vtfuturesproject.org) provides data that reflect Vermont’s standing in several key areas.
Kelly Devine, the Burlington Business Association’s executive director, said they represent more than 260 businesses and advocate on their behalf with the mission of promoting and enhancing Burlington’s economic vitality.
“We bring people together to discuss and learn about timely topics and issues focused on our mission,” she said. “We try to offer a combination of national and local presenters, because we want to bring in other perspective but also keep it relevant to what’s happening in Vermont.”
Facilitator Fran Stoddard, a communications consultant, spoke about the Burlington Town Center Redevelopment project and the importance of communication in the face of anger that development often promotes. She said individuals and the media too often promote a need to jump to a quick answer. “I think what people forget is that just listening and asking questions is so much more powerful,” she said “People have the sense that they need the answer, when what they need is to continue to ask questions, of themselves, their neighbors, and community. Have conversations and listen to each other because we’ll go that much further.”
More information on the Burlington Business Association is available at www.bbavt.org.