Podcast

Vermont Dept. of Tourism and Marketing

Bruce Seifer: Creating A Durable Local Economy

Lessons from the Burlington, VT model
Sunday, April 20, 2014, 7:35 PM

In a recent podcast with Michael Shuman discussing local economies, Shuman praised the progress made in Burlington, Vermont over the past 25 years -- largely led by a local activist named Bruce Seifer who co-authored the book Sustainable Communities: Creating a Durable Local Economy. This caught the attention of a number of PeakProsperity.com readers and, at their request, we invited Bruce to speak specifically about the urban revitalization he has helped bring about in Burlington, and what other communities can learn from that model.

In a nutshell, Burlington's success is due to:

  • beginning with a data-driven understanding of what local needs are most important to meet
  • creating a clear, long-term vision of the developments efforts that will be required to meet these needs
  • electing leaders who can inform and inspire the populace
  • empowering and encouraging local citizens and businesses to participate in reaching the goals
  • making smart trade-offs (e.g. investing in efficiency before and/or instead of new infrastructure)
  • maintaining clear transparent 2-way (top-down & bottom-up)  communication throughout

I recently looked at the Bureau of Labor Statistics unemployment rate, something I used to track when I worked for the city for 28 years. They have 372 municipal regions where they track the unemployment rate, which is one factor of many that you look at when you're looking at an economy. And, Burlington has the fourth lowest unemployment rate in the United States currently, out of 372 municipal regions. We were usually in the top two percentiles of the unemployment rates for many years, but it’s gotten even better.

Another piece of information that we tracked during the Great Recession that we as a nation felt, and we had the lowest foreclosure rate of any city in the United States, which mean that people’s net worth didn't shrink like many cities around the United States where people lost their house value. So, those are two pieces of information.

The other one we look at is our vacancy rates for commercial buildings in town and whether or not there are vacant buildings. Basically, there are virtually no vacant commercial buildings, so the vacancy rate is extremely low. Companies now want to be in Burlington and want to grow in Burlington, But that wasn’t always the case...

Some of the lessons learned is that vision is important, but you have to create the capacity to implement the vision. And, we felt that development created with the principles, with a priority for sustainable development was important. One of the things that we learned, that was one of the big lessons we learned in about 1993 was to serve the people in your community first by building facilities for yourselves and then other people will come.

The other thing that we did, which is not rocket science but it’s pretty much behind everything that we did, is pretty simple. We asked people in need what they needed and then we tried to figure out how to meet their needs. We were more like a gardener for small businesses. We’d focus on small businesses and try to find ways to help them grow to become major employers and economic players. So, we did things…you know if they needed financing we ended up starting a small business loan fund. If they needed training around understanding finance, we set up training programs for them. Sometimes they said they’d like to work with other like type of businesses and learn from each other. So we would set up trade associations working in concert with them. You know, we would tend to them over the years. We provided ongoing technical business advice to those business people so if they had an issue on getting a permit or they had problem with sewer overflow or whatever it may be, we were always there trying to solve their problems. As a result of all of that, we ended up helping a lot of small companies become bigger companies.

Part of what you're talking about is also, we had political leaders that were able to articulate the shared values of people. And by doing that, people felt empowered to make things happen and become…they become unstoppable. So, there was a whole range of things that we were doing, but it was really listening to the public and responding to their needs. And also, identifying weaknesses within our community, and we did that through a long-term economic development plan 

Click the play button below to listen to Chris' interview with Bruce Seifer (48m:20s):

Transcript: 

Chris Martenson: Welcome to this Peak Prosperity podcast. I am your host Chris Martenson, and today we’re going to continue our dialogue on how to take your money away from Wall Street and put it to work on Main Street. It is our mission to surface and promote the sorts of investments that make our world a better place. And, fortunately, there are more and more examples to choose from thanks to dedicated and hardworking people everywhere.

I was really intrigued by something by something that came up in a recent interview with Michael Shuman on local investment opportunities when he said this:

What I attribute Burlington’s success to is that for the last twenty-five years, their economic development team, led in part by a fellow named Bruce Seifer, focused not on the attraction of global companies but focused instead on the nurturing of local business and local entrepreneurship. And they did it in a hundred different ways. They have done it through very careful downtown development of Burlington, they have done it through entrepreneurship programs and lending programs targeted to women, immigrants, minority groups. They have done it through interesting types of smart growth. They have done it through helping to organize small local business alliances as something different from the typical Chamber of Commerce, which usually gives bigger companies a louder voice. And I just feel like, you know, that is a testament—that is a design of economic development that more and more communities should be paying attention to.

Now, that’s worth following up on. So today, we are talking with Bruce Seifer to find out more about exactly how Burlington went about creating a vibrant and attractive local economy by systematically diversifying its businesses and thinking about where they wanted to go and how they were going to get there. Bruce Seifer is a consultant with extensive experience in economic development. Under former Mayors Bernie Sanders and Peter Clavelle, he led Burlington, Vermont’s community and economic development efforts for 28 years by developing a nationally recognized model for locally focused and community oriented urban revitalization. He’s also co-author of the book, Sustainable Communities Creating a Durable Local Economy.

Welcome Bruce. Thank you so much for joining us today.

Bruce Seifer: Thank you Chris. It’s a pleasure to be here.

Chris Martenson: Well, I want to begin by jumping straight to the end of the story. How is Burlington doing today?

Bruce Seifer: I recently looked at the Bureau of Labor Statistics unemployment rate, which is something I used to track when I worked for the city for 28 years, and they have 372 municipal regions where they track their unemployment rate, which is one factor of many that you look at when you're looking at an economy. And, Burlington has the fourth lowest unemployment rate in the United States currently, out of 372 municipal regions. We actually were usually in the top two percentile of the unemployment rates for many years but it’s gotten better.

Another piece of information that we tracked during the height of the great recession that we as a nation felt, and we had the lowest foreclosure rate of any city in the United States, which mean that people’s net worth didn't shrink like many cities around the United States where people lost their house value. So, those are two pieces of information. The other one we look at is our vacancy rates for commercial buildings in town and whether or not there are vacant buildings. Basically, there are virtually no vacant commercial buildings and the vacancy rate is extremely low. So, you know, companies want to be in Burlington and want to grow in Burlington, but that wasn’t always the case. When I started 30 years ago there was a much different picture.

Chris Martenson: Well, let’s talk about that picture. I mean by numbers we've got very low unemployment, obviously a much more resilient response to the overall housing crisis that happened with the lowest mortgage failure rates, and obviously your buildings are full. And so, that wasn’t always the case I guess. So, let’s rewind to the beginning. Many towns and cities I know of, roughly the size of Burlington, have not really fared all that well in recent decades. So, 30 years ago when you started, what sort of shape was Burlington in?

Bruce Seifer: When I started working for the City of Burlington under the administration of former Mayor Bernie Sanders and then Mayor Peter Clavelle, my focus during those years was to assist the newly created Community and Economic Development office in its efforts to recharge the economy and improve the lives of working people. Burlington, Vermont was saddled with, at that time, 16 vacant store fronts, and more than a dozen businesses had moved out of Burlington in the midst a national economy that we had high unemployment rate. And, kind of on top of all that, Bernie Sanders was mayor, and the "Sanderisas" that we were called at the time were labeled as anti-business, and due to the socialist label that Bernie wore proudly as a voice for the elderly and poor and working people of the city. So, we worked very hard to turn things around and to try to make things a little bit better day-by-day.

One of the things that we did was to develop a long-term economic development plan that we followed for 30 years with some updates. That was something that we were able to build building blocks over time of our economy and found out what we needed, what we were missing, and then kind of helped to try to build that over time. We did a whole suite of programs that were identified in our plan. And, over time, the economy gradually got better and the drumbeat of opposition slowly subsided.

Chris Martenson: Well now, it’s interesting to me how these things turn out differently, like The Tale or Two Cities, right? Locally, we have a tale of two cities here. We’ve got one small village—town or whatever you want to call it—Shelburne Falls, which is vibrant and really hopping. It’s got this critical mass of greatness going on there. It’s got artists. It’s got businesses. It’s got that vibe. Another town, even closer to me, called Turners Falls, has all the bones that it needs. It’s got these beautiful wide, old mill town streets and wonderful lamp poles and good buildings. But, it’s very much at the opposite end of this story. I’m interested in how one area can thrive and another area with seemingly the same opportunities cannot. What were some of those pieces that you found were essential?

Bruce Seifer: Well, I guess some of the lessons learned that we had is that vision is important, but you have to create the capacity to implement the vision. And, we felt that development created with the principles, with a priority for sustainable development, was important. One of the things that we learned, that was one of the big lessons we learned in about 1993 was to serve the people in your community first by building facilities for yourselves and then other people will come.

The other thing that we did, which is not rocket science but it’s pretty much behind everything that we did, is pretty simple. We asked people in need what they needed and then we tried to figure out how to meet their needs. We were more like a gardener for small businesses. We’d focus on small businesses and try to find ways to help them grow to become major employers and economic players. So, we did things…you know if they needed financing we ended up starting a small business loan fund. If they needed training around understanding finance, we set up training programs for them. Sometimes they said they’d like to work with other like type of businesses and learn from each other. So we would set up trade associations working in concert with them. You know, we would tend to them over the years. We provided ongoing technical business advice to those business people so if they had an issue on getting a permit or they had problems with sewer overflow or whatever it may be, we were always there trying to solve their problems. As a result of all of that, we ended up helping a lot of small companies become bigger companies.

Part of what you're talking about is also, we had political leaders that were able to articulate the shared values of people. And by doing that, people felt empowered to make things happen and become…they became unstoppable. So, there was a whole range of things that we were doing, but it was really listening to the public and responding to their needs. And also, identifying weaknesses within our community, and we did that through a long-term economic development plan that I mentioned before.

I’ll give you one example. We had an industrial area that was bombed out with lots of vacant buildings. Companies had moved out. It was kind of the de-industrialization, and going through a lot of dis-investment—people were no longer investing in those buildings. So, our strategy was, again, not rocket science. We looked for the most ugly, vacant building that people saw on the most traveled street and we worked with the developer to fix that up into an incubator space. Part of our plan was to develop small companies. They needed space for those businesses to start or expand. So, we worked with the developer and got a federal grant, which we lent to the developer, and fixed it up and they became…you know, people started believing that the economy is turning around. So, then we went after the next building that was ugly and vacant, and the next, the next, and the next.

Luckily we had…the political folks who wanted to get into office, ran a full page ad blaming Bernie Sanders—the mayor—for all these vacant buildings, even though he had recently just been elected. So, we used that full page ad as a place to go after all these buildings. I mean you know, by the time years went by we had fixed them all up. We didn't do it ourselves. We worked with the developers or property owners or businesses to fix it up and identify resources. Where resources didn't exist, we worked with our government partners to create new funding mechanisms.

We made sure that we understood what we were doing. It was complex financial transactions. We learned how to do financial analysis. We took a lot of workshops and seminars. Before that, we hired experts to help us figure that stuff out. But, it’s complicated. So, for a community that has a lot of buildings, it’s a matter of talking to those people in the community to say, "how can we help you to fix it up?" And creating a plan and helping people actually plan and get motivated.

Chris Martenson: How can we help you? If that’s socialism, sign me up because I got to tell you, my experience in my state doing business, often times I feel like the people on the other end of the phone ought to answer it by saying, "Department of business prevention, how may I stop you?" It’s not often that I’ve run into people who are on the, what I’ll call, the regulatory town side who are there saying, "how can we help? We’re in this together. Let’s figure this out." It feels adversarial. You're describing something that doesn't sound very adversarial to me.

Bruce Seifer: No. It wasn’t. Our office was created during the height of—in 1983. It was created—there was a city council, passed a resolution trying to figure out what do we do in order to recharge our economy. So, the head of the industrial development group, a republican, co-chaired by Mayor Sanders’ treasurer, and the two of them came up with a strategy. The strategy was: We have a planning and development office and we want to bifurcate that office and create two departments—the Planning, whose job it is to kind of do what you just talked about, put your foot on the breaks, go through the regulations, and make sure everything is built according to plan; then we want to have a Development office, whose job it was to put their foot on the gas to strengthen the economy. So, that happened and the mayor hired the director.

One of the first things we did was we worked with the University of Vermont and did a statistically significant survey to figure out what people in the community wanted—again, getting back to what you want. And, we had a series of questions, but the one important question was: "Do you want the city to develop projects? Do you want the city to encourage development? Do you want the city to have their hands off?" Over 70% of the people said we want the city to guide development. So, we asked people, and we got a statistically significant study to say guide and support development. That helped us identify kind of what we should be doing.

Then, we brought in a group called the Industrial Cooperative Association out of Somerville, Massachusetts and they helped us develop our strategic economic plan in 1983-1984, which we then followed for 30 years. The plan, at that time, was we wanted to promote and support local ownership of businesses—small businesses—and work on things like seal the leaky bucket. You know, look at your economy and where the money is leaving your economy and find and develop strategies to figure out how to spend less money on energy that’s going to be exported and use your own local energy and food systems, how do we grow our own food and create kind of a food system that would keep our capital local and create jobs. You know, we had a goal of 100 jobs in the food sector and attempt to grow 10% of our local flood.

We had a strategy, the overarching strategy was called the Burlington Local Ownership Development Program. It was to promote locally owned businesses with a whole suite of programs. Our goal was to promote employee owned companies. We felt employee ownership in the early 80’s was something that people saw as—they didn't understand it. So, we decided to promote local ownership with the preference of employee ownership. That was our goal. Part onto those, there was a set of strategies to provide a series of programs and funding mechanisms and approaches. We built off of that. I think that in the long run we were ahead of our time in employee ownership. It was probably another ten years before the Vermont Employee Ownership Center got developed. They’ve subsequently helped 14 companies to transition from traditional ownership to employee ownership, securing our employees in our community instead of maybe having those companies sell out and move them out of town. But we also helped small, little companies become much bigger companies and, again, provide them a whole range of services.

The whole localism movement is very big in the last three or four years. But, that’s something we worked on for 25-30 years. It seemed to work, based on the data that I mentioned at the beginning of the interview. Over time, the anti-business fervor that was fostered through the political conversation, people realized that the proof is in the pudding. Our main street, which is called Church Street, is thriving. People fixed up every building and companies chose to locate here. They like the quality of life. It wasn’t just about business. We looked at finding ways to help make it so the cultural economy was successful in our community. The mayor started an Arts Council, which has subsequently helped create over 200 events every year, which adds to the quality of life. It was kind of an approach that looked at a half a dozen aspects of our economy. Our book, Sustainable Communities Creating a Durable Local Economy, basically describes the framework of what we did and more importantly, how we did it.

Chris Martenson: So let me ask the obvious question here: Where is Burlington on the subject of the big box stores?

Bruce Seifer: Sprawl [Laughs].That’s a good question. The City of Burlington had a very viable downtown, but there was a company called Pyramid Mall that is out of Syracuse. It wanted to develop a big mall in our neighboring town, which is seven miles away. The city decided that…they looked at the government laws, which in Vermont is called Act 250, which is a region wide planning law. We didn't believe that it was consistent with the plan that was duly adopted by the region and also with regards to the state statutes. So, we went to court to stop their project—17 years we were in court fighting the development of the big boxes and sprawl.

We ended up doing a lot of research. One of the research…we worked with Senator Leahy to look at predatory practices of companies to see how they had unfair competition. We looked at that as one source. We looked at how we invested in our public infrastructure as a community with public dollars. We noticed that we spent $100 million on existing infrastructure and if the sprawl would go on, the communities would have to pay for that and there would be no money for that. We did research on that. We looked at wages that were paid and how much in public subsidies would have to go towards subsidizing some of these firms because they didn't pay well enough and a lot of those people are getting transfer payments. We looked at the whole infrastructure for the roads and how much would be needed in order to support it and identified that it was going to cost a lot of money and there was no money for it.

So, we did a lot of research on that and we felt that we needed to go to court and fight for what the law said. Eventually, the mall that got developed looked more like a town center and they agreed that they wouldn’t build anything more than 50,000 square feet. And, we took away our lawsuit with that agreement. So, that gave us time to invest in our downtown and invest millions of dollars to get a department store in our downtown, which at the time was Eileen’s. We did a lot more work and made sure we had our…we did an offensive approach, which is: build our downtown. And the defense was: go to court.

I think that a lot of communities across the country contacted us. This fellow named Al Norman contacted us about fighting sprawl and how do you do it. So, we worked with other communities to look at what the best practices were and we shared what we learned. In the book, Sustainable Communities Creating a Durable Local Economy, we talk about all this—about some of the studies. We did some seminal research that looked at some of the true impacts, which has been used by other communities.

Chris Martenson: Now, I want to talk more about this leaky bucket. Big box stores come up as an obvious source of a hole in your bucket, at least for people who are against the concept. People who are for the big boxes just say, "I'm already poor. I want best prices." You can see there’s a lot of territory between those views. But, you mentioned energy. That’s the most obvious big hole and one that’s growing bigger as oil becomes more expensive. How do you go about plugging that one?

Bruce Seifer: Well, we were lucky in one sense in that the city owned our electric utility. So, the way that the city government is structured is that the mayor and the city council, with some agencies, appoint a commission that oversees the department. In this case, that department is the city council that appoints people that oversee the public policy at the electric department.

When Bernie Sanders was mayor, he looked at the grade structure and realized that corporations were playing less than their fair share and homeowners/residents were paying more. So he worked to restructure the pricing. That was one thing that was done early on. And when he became mayor we had a vote and we looked at developing our own power supply. So, we created at that time a 50 megawatt woodchip power plant, which at the time was the largest woodchip electric power plant in the world. We participated in a dam in a neighboring river that bordered Burlington. The citizens voted to support that. We also voted to support a trash to energy plant, which we trashed once an analysis was done by the city’s treasurer and realized that was a bad investment.

Then, to fast-forward to 1993 or so, 1992, the city’s electric department was considering buying electric power from a dam by Hydro-Quebec. A resident called me up and said we should fight that; the Cree and Inuit are going to be flooded out. And we learned all about what the impacts where. We studied what those impacts where. We talked with Mayor Clavelle at the time, and we just figured out before we buy Hydro-Quebec, we should get a second opinion about what our policy should be on power demand. I created what I called a shadow commission. It was the commission to oversee the electric department. But, I got a group of citizens who knew energy policy as well as regular citizens. And, we got the City Council’s Community Development Committee to pull up some money for a second opinion on our power demand, because part of the electric department’s requirements are to do power planning. They had brought a group in from Wharton, through Pennsylvania, that said power demand grows 2% a year. I was in charge of economic development. I went to a public hearing that nobody was at and I raised my had at the proper time, and I said, "how do you know it’s going to grow 2% a year?" They said "that’s standard metrics in the electric world. That’s how it grows." That conversation still goes on 25 years later to today. I said, "Well, no one talked to me. I’m in charge of economic development and we don’t have that kind of growth."

So, at that point, I realized they were not looking at us as a community but us as an ecosystem compared to other ecosystems. The study that we did looked at what else we could do besides buy power. The study said if we invested $25 million in efficiency work it would be cheaper than buying Hydro-Quebec and we wouldn’t need the power. So we, as a community, decided to bring a bond vote to the community for $11.2 million and the city residents raised their hand and said we want a bond for that kind of money. The electric department was then tasked to invest in conservation and efficiency in businesses. That was over 20 years ago.

Now, the City of Burlington is using less electricity than we were back then, even with all the huge amount of growth that we’ve had because we invested in conservation and efficiency. It turns out that now it’s half as expensive to invest in efficiency and conservation than it is to buy new power. The other expense that you don’t need, which is a huge expense, is transmission lines. So, if you don’t have more power demand you don’t have to build these transmission lines, which are, you know, multi-hundred million dollar transmission systems. So, we didn't need that. We’ve put local contractors to work and everybody’s bills were lower as a result of that. Our rates may have gone up but the bills were lower. And, it turns out—fast-forward 20 years ago to today—is that the homeowners and the businesses are paying $10 million a year less than if we wouldn’t have invested in conservation and efficiency. So, we sealed that bucket. Not only did we seal the bucket, but we sealed the leaks in people’s homes and businesses. So, their bills are lower on average than other businesses and homeowners in Vermont and throughout the Northeast.

That’s an energy story that can be replicated around the country, if not the world—have bonding to the community and that money goes into efficiency programs and also, providing technical advice to businesses on how to do things efficiently. It’s almost counter intuitive, where the electric utility is saying we want you to use less electricity. If you look at the pricing of electric power, they look at the peak power demand during the hottest day. With global warming and the climate change, more of those extreme weather patterns are happening. So, if you can shave off and develop programs to shave off the peak power demand, the pricing that’s associated with that causes power costs to be really astronomical. So, there’s another incentive to invest in efficiency and other measures in order to reduce the demand during peak power. Our peak power demand in Vermont, where it’s been very cold all winter here, is in the summer—air conditioning. With climate change, you know it’s getting hotter and hotter. You're going to have more air conditioning.

So, it’s actually more cost effective to invest in efficiency. It actually saves people money and it puts people to work—the engineers, the contractors, people who supply the engineers and contractors' materials. I, myself, weatherized my house over 20 years ago and 20 years later I did it again. My bills are so much less and I’m so much more comfortable. You don’t have to wear a sweater in the middle of winter. You know, it’s like your house isn’t drafty. It’s actually…there’s health benefits that go with that. People have dry skin. People have other issues with regards to drafts and stuff—you're elderly. You're not comfortable. So, there’s other reasons and other ways to seal the leaky bucket.

The other very important issue in Burlington is when we did the initial study to determine: do we want to buy Hydro-Quebec, or what kind of power did we want to buy—do we want to buy nuclear power? Do we want to buy coal? Do we want to buy wind? Do we want to do solar? And, we came up with a system to determine what the externality costs were for each of the other electric generating systems and we used that to factor in what the cost of power is going to be. So, you know nuclear waste, what do you do with that? There’s a cost that goes with nuclear waste. Now and into the future, you need to factor all those things in. So, we factored in all those externality costs while determining what the true cost over the lifecycle of the power generation system you're going to get into. With that, we determined what we want to invest in, with the true cost.

We looked at all that and determined we wanted to have more renewable power, back over 20 years ago, and less reliant on nuclear power and coal—because coal was causing acid rain, which is killing the lakes, which is raining down on our community. Now, Burlington on town meeting day in March of this year, voted to buy some additional dams than we had voted on 30 years ago. We just are buying that dam and with that we are now going to be 100% renewable electric energy for the City of Burlington.

Chris Martenson: Wow! I love this story. I love this story. You know, you mentioned the two magic words in all this—where people regularly are very concerned about climate change, oftentimes the conversation ends with that angst. And what do you do about it? Well what you do about it is what Burlington has done, which is—if we can put money into efficiency and we have—let me tally this up: A higher quality of life, maybe there’s some health benefits, we’ve put local people to work in contracting and putting those efficiency measures in place, we’ve saved money, and we are putting less carbon into the atmosphere. Bruce, why aren’t more communities doing this?

Bruce Seifer: Well you need political leadership and political will to get behind some of these initiatives. You need an engaged citizenry with a way for them to participate in the process. Somebody has to make a decision that they’re going to invest money in a certain kind of way. It usually comes down to politics and political will. I think that is really important. In our book, Sustainable Communities Creating a Durable Local Economy, that’s something I learned on the job—on the job training—was the role that politics plays in developing a sane, sound economic development strategy. People need to run for office. People need to support people who are running for office. People need to be involved with the developing the policy for people who are running for office. People need to be willing to serve and work on the inside to carry out the policy, which I burrowed in as a former person who used to go to demonstrations against different things. I decided to put my time where my belief system was. You need people to volunteer to do that kind of work. And, some of these things are a political decision down the road. Do we do this or we do that?

You need the right people in office that have a belief system that they’re going to actually then carry out what they’re going to say. We luckily had leaders in our community at different levels, starting with Mayor Bernie Sanders, who is now the senator for Vermont. And, we had other people like Peter Clavelle who became mayor after Bernie, and he turned out to be the longest serving mayor for 15 years. He understood that through a long-term planning process that we developed that we set up a set of principles that we followed. So, when you're elected in office, if the principles are derived from the community, then it’s easier to govern. When the principles come from the community, they then fall back on these principles.

So, in Burlington for example, one of the principles was to equalize the benefits and burdens of growth. The other one, based on our conversation currently, is: protect and preserve the environment. The other one is: ensure full participation of everyone in the community, especially and importantly populations normally excluded from the political and economic mainstream. And then of course, if you want to do a lot of things, is: to leverage and recycle scarce resources. Then, of course, for us we thought it was important to nurture a robust nonprofit, and now our fourth sector which is working in concert with local government to deliver the essential goods and services. Importantly, but not last or least, is to encourage economic self-sufficiency through local ownership and the maximum use of local resources to get back to sealing the leaky bucket.

In order to do these things, it requires the political will, political courage, the political support, and sometimes…it’s hard with being a politician, which I'm not, to do things and say things if you don’t have people supporting you. So, one of the things that we did was create…I helped create an organization called Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility. Two different groups of business people came to me and said, "we want to set up a business group." One of them was…they called themselves Socialists for Capitalism. That was people like Ben Cohen and Terry Erik and _____ [00:35:35] and Harry Atkinson, who was a local energy person, and Todd Lockwood. There was another group of business people who had a social conscience. We got them together and we worked with them to create a trade association. My role was to say…not only help them create the organization, but they had a New England group called New England Businesses for Social Responsibly, who we were working with, and they wanted them to work on sharing information and educating each other. I said you need politics, political will. You need to work on political influence.

We created Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility. One of the three things they did was advocacy in the political world. They worked on many different projects over time in Vermont—raised the minimum wage, family leave before there was national family leave, creating something called the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund which was skunkworks statewide fund funded by the state to support innovative economic development which could be replicated in other states across the country. The state has been contributing over $200,000 a year for that fund. That will, political will, by bringing business people together to learn about politics…some of those people ran for office. It turns out the public policy person who worked for them ran for governor. Some of these people got very involved. It’s not a fly-by-night organization. Now it’s one of the biggest business organizations in Vermont with well over 1200 members, which is big in Vermont standings. They advocate for that and they work on actually national policy, which is something new, through a national business organization.

So, it’s important for communities to understand the role of politics. It’s not a dirty thing. It’s important to help forge policies and programs. It could be as simple as, in local communities, as what’s the zoning? How do you change zoning to meet the needs of the local community? Something as simple as creating a streamlined permit process that is predictable and creating systems in place for the government to function effectively, so you take care of streets and sidewalks and you look at alternatives to the property tax to fund government. You think about all those things. In order to do that, those are political decisions that somebody has to work on. That is something in Burlington we were lucky that a lot of people were energized by people like Bernie Sanders and they got involved with local elected politics and statewide politics.

When decisions are being made—X or Y—they then look back to what the community said what are our principles, and they have to stick by those things. Those hopefully eclipse election cycles. When you have principles and plans and policies and programs and strategies that have been developed from the bottom up based on those principles, that hopefully helps deal with the election cycles. People then run for office because they know what the community wants and they want to continue to follow through on some of the policies and strategies that have been identified and supported by those principles.

Chris Martenson: Well, let’s say you move to a community different from Burlington where you assess that, you know, you wanted the same outcomes as were achieved in Burlington, but maybe the political system wasn’t oriented that way at this point in time. How would you—this is a question really for somebody who is listening going "yeah, I want that in my town but how do I get that?" Where would you start?

Bruce Seifer: I think it’s good for people to go to city council meetings. Or, we have cable access and you can watch them in the comfort of your home. I would go to hearings of the planning commission or the development review commission. I would go to those offices and get to meet people—meet with them, set up an appointment. I would actually read the underlying government documents that—statutes, and become familiar with those. Becoming active in a neighborhood association—if there isn’t a neighborhood association, create a neighborhood association and invite the politicians to a neighborhood meeting. Have coffees at your house and invite the local elected officials to your house and talk about things that are near and dear to your heart. Then, get involved and find people that think like you and start helping them. Write a letter of support in your local paper. Call up the radio station or the internet station that’s following them and ask about certain things. Go to the hearings and express your opinion like I went to the electric department public hearing on energy demand and follow through. Maybe create a group that’s going to follow a certain issue. And, stick with it. Look for advisors that might be able to help you in the community. Talk to the local newspaper. Meet with reporters and talk about your issues of the day that you think are important and get newspaper coverage.

I found one of the best things to do is get news coverage about issues that you think are important. If your road is potholed, talk with the guy who is in charge of public works. Talk to your city council. Talk to the mayor. If that doesn't work, talk to the newspapers. Invite the TV cameras to go down there and find somebody in a wheelchair who is trying to get through there and film them. You know, sometimes you need to embarrass people if they're not going to do anything. But preferably, the best thing is to talk with people face-to-face and become educated about what the rules and regulations are and bring people together to talk about those issues.

We have something called the Front Porch Forum in Vermont, which started in my neighborhood. In fact, there was a fellow who wanted to start it. He came to me for business advice. I helped him with it. And now, he’s involved with 200 some odd towns in Vermont. That is an electronic bulletin board, basically, where people talk about issues important to them. So, a lot of stuff gets posted on there. Do we want this? We don’t want that. What’s the problems with this? All the elected officials see all that stuff. When I worked in government for all those years, people would race to try to solve those problems because you might not just know.

So, the best thing was to create forums and opportunities for people to have a dialogue. Usually people in government generally want to do the right thing. They generally have pride in their community and they care about their community. They might have different ways to go about doing it, but make yourself be heard. I think that to me is what you do—make yourself heard.

Chris Martenson: Well fantastic. Bruce, I really want to thank you for your time today. We’ve been talking with Bruce Seifer, co-author of Sustainable Communities Creating a Durable Local Economy. I note here that you're actually…you have three events that you're doing in Massachusetts, my home state, in April. So, it turns out people could invite you to their community as well. Is that true?

Bruce Seifer: Yes. Actually I just talked to the National Community Development Association. I had a New England meeting two days ago in Western Mass. All the people in charge of community development for all the towns on the northeast and then the Jamaica Plains, which is outside of Boston, they’re going to have a forum I’m going to speak at, and at Harvard I’m organizing and moderating and speaking at a forum where I’m bringing people from around the country to Harvard, called the Sustainable Communities Forum, to talk about the lessons. It’s kind of putting our book to life. It’s bringing the actors in the book and basically having them explain their story. We’re going to have a professor from Harvard. One of the students at Harvard was actually one of my interns for three years. So, we’re having that forum. I’m speaking at Green Mountain College in Poultney, the National Organization in June. I’m leading a public policy discussion, two discussions in June. So, I’ve been lecturing on a regular basis.

I think the last thing I’d like to say, if I might, is that success builds on action—both successful and failures. St. Francis de Assisi said that first do what’s necessary. Then do what’s possible. And before you know it, you're doing the impossible.

Chris Martenson: Success builds on action. I love that. Not all successes come from successful actions—lots of failures in there. Of course in the world I see coming, we’re going to have to try lots of brand new things. I love hearing how you've navigated the space so far and that it’s possible to make our world a better place and to come up with more durable, resilient communities. That’s really what’s on the top of the minds of most people listening to this right now. So, Bruce, thank you so much for your time and thank you for the work you've done and for sharing it with everyone.

Bruce Seifer: I’m happy to share this with other communities. That’s why I worked with two other folks to write a book on how we went about doing this. There’s a lot of lessons learned. Building an inner city supermarket doesn't need to take 17 years. There’s a case study in there to do it quick, in two or three years. If you want your own food system, you know, what is the way to do it? We spent many, 20+ years, and there’s a case study on that. If you want to work with refugees and immigrants to start businesses there’s a good case study on how to do that successfully. The book, Sustainable Communities is designed to help communities learn from what we did but do it in a much quicker way than we did.

Chris Martenson: Excellent. We’ll have a link straight to that book appearing right under this pod cast. So, we’ll provide a link there. How else can people follow your work?

Bruce Seifer: We have a website called Durable Communities. So, people can keep track of where we’re speaking and some tips that…we’re going to have a blog that we’re going to activate shortly that will have tips on how to build a durable economy. I think that’s probably the best way. My email address is on there. I think that’s probably the best approach.

Then, the other way actually is to go to some of these events that I’m organizing. I’m happy to speak at other communities on how to build a durable, sensible economy. It’s not…a lot of this stuff is not rocket science. It really is fairly simple to speak of. I’m happy to help other communities think that through.

Chris Martenson: The chief message I get from that, as a closing thought, is: somebody once told me that putting your money to work on Wall Street is lazy money. And, putting your money to work and actually building real value in your community is hard work. That’s hard money, but the rewards are entirely different. With that, yeah, people are hungry to take their lazy money and go put it to good work. That takes effort. It’s not just about the money. It’s about the intention and the time you bring to that as well.

So, Bruce, thank you so much for your time and best of luck.

Bruce Seifer: Thank you very much Chris. Have a nice day. Bye.

Chris Martenson: Thank you. Bye.

About the guest

Bruce Seifer

Bruce Seifer is a consultant with deep experience in economic development. He led the City of Burlington Vermont's Economic Development efforts for three decades, providing technical assistance to 4,000 businesses and numerous non-profits. Bruce frequently speaks at national forums on policy and strategy, city revitalization, and program design and evaluation.

Bruce is also a co-author of Sustainable Communities: Creating a Durable Local Economy (Earthscan Tools for Community Planning).

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14 Comments

Oliveoilguy's picture
Oliveoilguy
Status: Gold Member (Offline)
Joined: Jun 29 2012
Posts: 400
Fantastic Interview

Great success story. A must listen for everyone who lives in a local community. (Isn't that all of us?) 

Closing thought by Bruce.  "St. Francis de Assisi said that first do what’s necessary. Then do what’s possible. And before you know it, you're doing the impossible."

Also loved the group name  "Socialists for Capitalism".   Fantastic!

SPAM_ferralhen's picture
SPAM_ferralhen
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Posts: 151
finding out what people want

finding out what people want and working together. two of the many take aways for me.

cmartenson's picture
cmartenson
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Posts: 3501
What I loved about this interview is...

What I loved about this interview is that it clearly demonstrated what local investing is all about; hard work.

Where sending your money to Wall Street is 'lazy money' finding and developing local opportunities just takes time.  And effort.

The story in there about Burlington's approach to electricity is a perfect example.  Faced with needing to spend tens of millions to get more electricity to their growing city, they instead 'ran the numbers' and determined they could get more return for that same money by investing in conservation efforts.

Bringing a tear to my eye, they even went further and added up all the externality costs of various fuel types and added those to the ultimate cost of provided electricity even though their community might not be the one bearing those costs.

Nuclear is cheap energy until you are the one who has to pay for the eventual decommissioning costs and near permanent storage of the resulting waste.  Most communities would only consider the cost of provided nuclear electricity assuming, perhaps rightly, that their community would not have to shoulder the eventual costs as those would be shared by everyone in the country eventually.

That was the very best example of mature, prudent and conscious decision making I've encountered so far.  Really, if we humans are to have any sort of a chance at all, that level of maturity is what we're going to have to emulate on a grand scale.

kaimu's picture
kaimu
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Posts: 40
INFRASTRUCTURE CORRUPTION

Aloha! I appreciate the "local" initiative here towards durable community and to me that means higher efficiency in capital expenditure, capex. I would like to hear more on the "governmental interface" in terms of State and Federal funds for infrastructure.

I spent some 20 years as a contractor within the public works sector in various California communities and found it to be one of the most corrupt and inefficient systems to either build new infrastructure or renew existing infrastructure. From day one preparing a bid for a new school or prison or park you were faced with institutional corruption. As anyone knows when you build anything one of the most costly inputs is labor. Every project we bid that had State or Federal funding was subject to Davis Bacon Act, known as prevailing wage to us commoners. This is where the Federal government allows unions to have a virtual monopoly on the cost of labor and the union trades like IBEW police this like the Mafia. You first see them at job walks, whereby prospective contractors show up to walk the job(project) with the architect and engineers in order to see the site to prepare a competitive bid. You are warned by the union enforcers to abide by Davis Bacon. What is Davis Bacon? Well, it started in the 1930s in the FDR days and has morphed since then into a politicized wage control. In layman's terms it means as a contractor I must pay a ditch digger in Honolulu, Hawaiii $91,000 a year to hold a shovel. There is further corruption in terms of the "material" side of public works that I will not get into now. You can see with just the labor side of a public works bid the huge cost to not only the communities, but the Nation over the 80 or so years that the Davis Bacon Act has been in existence. More so in the past four decades as money buys less and less in terms of goods and services. The bridge that cost $100 million to build in the 1980s now is $1 billion. The labor costs with Davis Bacon have a built in increase while those in the private sector stagnate or decline over the long term. I cannot but wonder how communities can get around such institutional corruption whenever and wherever State or Federal funding is involved. 

As we watch Detroit go down and next Chicago and the other major US cities like Los Angeles it seems the cost for funding will rise in a sort of domino effect. Its all about the cost of debt ...

Socialists for Capitalism ... I never understood the hate of Capitalism since really all it is based on is the accumulation of capital. We all do that every day when we wake up to go to work. We're all Capitalists, even Environmentalists and Socialists and Progressives, it's just some of us do it better than others and some of us do it in a more legitimate way. Even a devout communist must "accumulate capital" to live. Its just the average communist operating in an impure communist system must struggle more to succeed or be related to Putin. The rule of thumb seems to be the more government intercedes in your daily life the harder it is to accumulate the capital needed to provide for your family.

The Wall Street way like the Union way has always been about manipulating the political system to their advantage. There is nothing fair or ethical about that and it damn sure isn't efficient capex! With some $17.5TRIL in US Debt and counting just imagine the savings to all US communities without politicized monopolistic labor and material costs. Not exactly a level playing field and it surely has nothing to do with ethics and free markets.

For that view you can label me the "Radical Center"!

gillbilly's picture
gillbilly
Status: Gold Member (Offline)
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Posts: 382
Love it!

We lived just outside of Burlington for three years. We just love that city. A great interview and so many great examples for towns and cities to follow!

Thank You!

RNcarl's picture
RNcarl
Status: Gold Member (Offline)
Joined: May 13 2008
Posts: 356
Footprint for success

cmartenson wrote:

What I loved about this interview is that it clearly demonstrated what local investing is all about; hard work.

Where sending your money to Wall Street is 'lazy money' finding and developing local opportunities just takes time.  And effort.

The story in there about Burlington's approach to electricity is a perfect example.  Faced with needing to spend tens of millions to get more electricity to their growing city, they instead 'ran the numbers' and determined they could get more return for that same money by investing in conservation efforts.

Bringing a tear to my eye, they even went further and added up all the externality costs of various fuel types and added those to the ultimate cost of provided electricity even though their community might not be the one bearing those costs.

Nuclear is cheap energy until you are the one who has to pay for the eventual decommissioning costs and near permanent storage of the resulting waste.  Most communities would only consider the cost of provided nuclear electricity assuming, perhaps rightly, that their community would not have to shoulder the eventual costs as those would be shared by everyone in the country eventually.

That was the very best example of mature, prudent and conscious decision making I've encountered so far.  Really, if we humans are to have any sort of a chance at all, that level of maturity is what we're going to have to emulate on a grand scale.

As most here know, I moved south to escape the harsh winters of New England. I moved to a small town (they call it a city) in coastal North Carolina. I chose NC because of all of the good work coming out of the likes of NC State University, UNC at Chapel Hill, yes and even Duke University. What I didn't realize was that once one got outside the circle of influence those Universities had on their local communities, everything went back to pushing the "status quo."

My little town here "runs" it's own electric department like Burlington. However, several years ago, they got bamboozled into joining a power co-op to support a nuclear power plant by being lulled into the, "nuclear power is cheaper" mantra. What has resulted over the last several years, has been much higher electric rates because of, at first, the plant's cost over runs during construction, and now the non-sustainable crush of debt surrounding the bonds issued at the time to pay for the plant. Since I am in the city limits, I pay a much higher electric rate than my neighbors just one block over who are outside of the city limits. Both neighborhoods are supplied by the same transmission lines, same sub-stations and local lines. The only difference is being in the city limits. Had the city taken the approach that Burlington did years ago, we would be enjoying the fruits of conservation.

Now, most folks want to sell the service to Duke Energy, (yup the same one that has been in the news over coal ash pollution.)

I want to take Burlington's blueprint to the city and see what happens.

C.

Wendy S. Delmater's picture
Wendy S. Delmater
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Posts: 1579
half as expensive

It turns out that now it’s half as expensive to invest in efficiency and conservation than it is to buy new power.

I have been saying that for YEARS. Nice to have a study to back it up.

One of the advantages of my being a science fiction and fantasy editor is that I get to have very conservative and very liberal authors "friend" me on places like Facebook where they share their interests, views, and lives. I cannot emphasize this enough: both sides of the political spectrum have good ideas and pretty much want the same outcomes. I am privileged--both here at Peak Prosperity and there--to hear people of good will propose solutions. But to see them work together! And get results! (My day job is engineering; I am all about the outcomes). So I loved hearing this:

Our office was created during the height of—in 1983. It was created—there was a city council, passed a resolution trying to figure out what do we do in order to recharge our economy. So, the head of the industrial development group, a republican, co-chaired by Mayor (Bernie) Sanders’ treasurer (a democrat), and the two of them came up with a strategy.

Also, Chris, the description, "Department of business prevention, how may I stop you?" LOL

PS - Bruce? I was personally disappointed that the Todd Lockwood associated with "Socialists for Capitalism" was (probably) not the one I know of. Just think of the art at your downtown Burlington Festivals!

jcat3022's picture
jcat3022
Status: Bronze Member (Offline)
Joined: May 9 2012
Posts: 78
Your response was a good synopsis

Like most here, I'm all for shopping locally and make an extra effort at keeping our capital within the community.  I can't remember the last time I was in a big box store? My family buys from farmers markets, eats at privately owned local restaurants, buys from clothing exchanges, even the gas for my diesel Volkswagen I try and get from the local privately owned service station.  If we're spending our money, it is almost exclusively with local business.

That said, those are our choices.  I'm always hesitant when govt people are getting involved & taking taxpayer money to make decisions for an entire community.  After living in Baltimore for some time, I saw firsthand at how awful they are at managing money.  Residents are totally clueless as to the amount the city has borrowed.  They've gotten away with it (for now) because their credit rating is good.  But like Detroit, Stockton, etc. the day of reckoning is coming for Charm City.  People will lose out and suffer because inept, clueless bureaucrats have made terrible decisions with their money.  Not to mention the city is dilapidated & infrastructure in ruins. 

Mr. Seifer seems like an intelligent man and when you have a small community like Burlington with almost all like minded people in it, the plan will have some success.  The other end of the spectrum is a place like Baltimore, where they're trying the same thing with what will be catastrophic results.  

Oliveoilguy's picture
Oliveoilguy
Status: Gold Member (Offline)
Joined: Jun 29 2012
Posts: 400
Mini-Splits for Energy Efficiency

Bruce said "It turns out that now it’s half as expensive to invest in efficiency and conservation than it is to buy new power."  I'll accept that, but would like to know where he drew the data from.

Anyway...Our personal energy epiphany was to install a high SEER mini-split in our bedroom. (We live in Texas where 100 degree days are common and most homes have central AC). We bought a small, cool only unit, and at night during the summer we shut down the Whole House Central unit and only the cool the space we are in. Mini-splits have up to 23 SEER (efficiency) whereas central units top out at 17 or 18. They are relatively inexpensive. My 12,000 btu unit was about $1,025.00 installed.

I was worried about condensation at first cause there is a 15-20 degree temperature differential at our bedroom door, but that has not been a problem. We are entering our 3rd summer and the system is still working fine. And by the way, they are quiet. The compressor is outside like a central unit and the inside unit that mounts up high on a wall only has a fan in it. They have no ducts, so a 2 inch hole in the wall is all that you need to connect the line sets from the outside compressor to the inside unit. They also come with heat and cool options.   

LesPhelps's picture
LesPhelps
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Posts: 274
Ok, I am gealous

I live in the beautiful small town of Verona, WI "Hometown USA," an edge suburb of the Madison, WI metropolitan area.  

Verona, Madison and Wisconsin are liberal and environmentally conscious.  Yet, Verona is still attempting to grow their job opportunities by converting surrounding farmland to empty industrial parks.

In a recent city council meeting the topic of "backyard chickens" was raised by local enthusiasts.  To paraphrase the response, basically the city council felt that all of their time was already taken up by their current initiatives, such as developing empty industrial parks, and that they couldn't be bothered to add such a frivolous idea to their current thinking.

I can't imagine a council that won't even vote on simple initiatives, spending the time that Burlington spent getting to where they are. 

Doug's picture
Doug
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Posts: 2763
pushing the status quo

Quote:
What I didn't realize was that once one got outside the circle of influence those Universities had on their local communities, everything went back to pushing the "status quo."

Sound observation.  At this point the whole localization movement is dependent on relatively wealthy towns, many of them college towns, like Chapel Hill, NC; Burlington, VT; Ithaca, NY; Madison, WI; Bozeman, MT; Austin, TX; and regions like Silicon Valley, Seattle, much of New England.and other places within the orbit of the megalopolises on the coasts.

For instance, we have CSAs locally, but if you want to subscribe, you need to travel to farmers' markets at least a half hour away in a small college town or an hour away in the wealthier parts of a nearby city and suburbs.  You can't go to the farms to pick up your food because the farmers are busy at the farmers' markets.  And, of course, you have to pay a lot higher prices than locals are prepared to pay.  Which brings up the whole question of whether "organic" is worth the premium you pay for it.  Plus, many have noticed that the farmers' markets carry products that are most decidedly not in season locally.  One would guess they are transported in the same fossil fuel intensive way non-organic food from the central valley in CA. is.

My conclusion is if you want to eat healthy on a budget, grow your own or share with other home gardeners.  If you want to participate in the other features of localization, live in areas that have been "enlightened" by centers of education and/or wealth.

Doug

redinr08's picture
redinr08
Status: Member (Offline)
Joined: Mar 21 2008
Posts: 14
chicken code

My small town in MN had the zoning administrator write a "chicken code" for the keeping of chickens in the town.  It took nine months from the initial mention at the planning commission to the unanimous approval by the city council.  The code is only one page!  Up to four hens, but no roosters, are allowed on a less-than-two-acre lot. Good luck with Verona!

gillbilly's picture
gillbilly
Status: Gold Member (Offline)
Joined: Oct 22 2012
Posts: 382
Turners Falls/Shelburne Falls

Chris, you mention the difference between Turners and Shelburne Falls. There's a lot of complex history around the prosperity of these two towns. One big difference was Turners Falls striking agreements, back in either the 70's or 80's, with the state to allocate a portion of their housing to low-income in exchange for state aid. Turners Falls became Boston's solution to some of its homeless and addiction problems during that time, and I can remember frequent police raids downtown in the early 90's. It's been difficult for the town to recover. Shelburne Falls, to my knowledge never entered into any such agreements. 

Turners has made substantial progress in comparison to where it was in the early 90's, but it still has a ways to go. Both towns do have their charm.

cmartenson's picture
cmartenson
Status: Diamond Member (Online)
Joined: Jun 7 2007
Posts: 3501
The importance of community resilience

gillbilly wrote:

Chris, you mention the difference between Turners and Shelburne Falls. There's a lot of complex history around the prosperity of these two towns. One big difference was Turners Falls striking agreements, back in either the 70's or 80's, with the state to allocate a portion of their housing to low-income in exchange for state aid. Turners Falls became Boston's solution to some of its homeless and addiction problems during that time, and I can remember frequent police raids downtown in the early 90's. It's been difficult for the town to recover. Shelburne Falls, to my knowledge never entered into any such agreements. 

Turners has made substantial progress in comparison to where it was in the early 90's, but it still has a ways to go. Both towns do have their charm.

Gillbilly, I'm glad, and not surprised, to hear that history.  There's something that happens when a certain critical mass is achieved, both on the positive and negative sides of the ledger.

Some negative insults indeed take a very long time to recover from.  All one has to do is drive around the east coast to see examples of this where the main productive asset of a town or city gave out.  It could be a coal mine that shut down,  or a steel mill or woolen mill.

In many cases that asset dried up many decades if not over a hundred years ago and somehow the bitterness and loss of hope remains lodged in that community.

It's like some winnowing process took place that saw all the people with vision and gumption pack up and head out for better climes, while those without those forms of resilience stayed behind and wallowed in various forms of despair.

Ultimately it's a reflection of our cultural resilience.  A recent set of examples on both sides of the ledger involve community responses to devastating hurricanes, one being New Orleans after Katrina and the other being Kauai after Iniki.

New Orleans saw a critical mass of people lost, unable to cope, waiting for rescue.  Kauai (which was hit far harder) dug itself out, took care of its own, and is still being studied by FEMA to better understand how the community self-organized so effectively.

One could imagine a similar self-contained rebuilding process running after a community loses its main productive asset, whatever that is.  Instead of wallowing in the shame and loss, the people could come together, discuss their options, and identify how best to use what assets they have.  

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