After Vermont Yankee: A Poor Area Will Become Poorer

by Meredith Angwin

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.

Meredith Angwin is a former Project Manager in the Nuclear Group at the Electric Power Research Institute, and currently Director of the Energy Education Project of the Ethan Allen Institute.  The article first appeared on her Blog: “Yes Vermont Yankee.”