Matchmaking in Addison County

Jamie Stewart helps wed prospects to opportunity

by Bill Simmon

As executive director of the Addison County Economic Development Corp. in Middlebury, Jamie Stewart guides small-business owners to create jobs in one of Vermont's most agriculturally dependent regions.

The state of Vermont is all about small business. Using the federal interpretation of the term, all but about a dozen of Vermont's businesses can be so defined. Helping these enterprises flourish is the charge of Vermont's twelve regional development corporations. Together with other state and local agencies and organizations, they guide Vermont's small businesses through good times and bad a task that is particularly challenging in Addison County, one of the state's most rural and agriculturally dependent regions.

"If there is a business with a question," says James B. Stewart, executive director of the Addison County Economic Development Corp., "we are the resource to provide the answer." Stewart and his small staff run the Addison group from an office on U.S. 7, just south of Middlebury. From the office, they help Addison County businesspeople apply for grants and loans, review accounting procedures, analyze their numbers, provide workplace training and generally guide them in determining what sort of help they might need.

Like Vermont's other 11 development corporations, the Addison office is set up as a nonprofit corporation. The Development corporations are mandated by Vermont statute, and they receive funding from a block grant from the state. Most of the services provided by the Addison group are free or at a very low cost to the businesses that usethem.

When trying to define what the Addison group does, Stewart has to think to find the right words. "We're the marriage brokers," he says, "we're facilitators." Stewart says it's his job to know what opportunities, what options, what programs are available to assist businesses and then to make sure he can bring those resources to those businesses at the right time. It's a job that requires some creativity. "We have to be pretty entrepreneurial because we don't have a lot of funding and we have a lot we need to do," he says.

Stewart understands the needs of small businesses well he helped start a couple of them. After growing up in Maryland and going to college in Pennsylvania, Stewart and his wife, Bonnie, moved to Vermont in 1984 to start a retail ski and sporting goods business called Highland Ski and Sports in Mendon, just east of Rutland. He stayed with the business for six years until he decided he had to leave the retail ski trade to spend more time with his family. "God bless anybody who works in the ski industry or owns shops in the ski industry in this state," he says. "From about Columbus Day until Easter you have to be willing to commit seven days a week, from 7 in the morning until midnight a lot of times, and it doesn't really allow for much of a family life."

After a brief stint running a wholesale distribution company in the ski industry, Stewart landed a job with the Bennington-Rutland Opportunity Council, a community action agency serving Bennington and Rutland counties. He worked as an adviser for a micro-lending program for small businesses. "Partly because I'd had experience starting two small businesses in Vermont and just a general interest in that side of things," he says, "I took on that job and was there for about 15 months."

ACEDC's staff helps county business people apply for grants and loans, review accounting procedures, analyze their numbers and provide workplace training. Birgit Krumbiegel (left) is the office manager, and Margaret Camara is the bookkeeper.

In the fall of 1992, a job opened up with the Small Business Development Center. Stewart got the job just as a restructuring of the whole system was taking place, and he was one of the first four people hired for that program in the state. "It was a great time," he says, "because we were taking this program that had originally been housed at UVM and then had moved over to Vermont Technical College, and we were coming into this brand-new structure, which also meant that everything we were doing in the field and how we set that up was all new." Stewart's territory was Addison, Rutland and Bennington counties. Addison County Economic Development Corp.'s office was one of the sites Stewart used, and it was through that relationship that he got to know the corporation's former director, Bill Kenerson.

"Bill was also developing his own business in bow tie manufacturing," says Stewart. "After 31/2 years, he informed me that he was ready to make the move and he was going full-time into bow ties." Stewart applied for Kenerson's job and has been the corporation's executive for over seven years.

"I should note," he says, "that the bow tie manufacturing business (Beau Ties Ltd. of Vermont) is doing exceptionally well and is located in a manufacturing building in an industrial park here in Middlebury."

Running the ACEDC keeps Stewart busy. "A lot of what we do here is reactive," he says. "A company will contact us if they have a need. We then will try to address that need." Sometimes addressing a business's need means dealing with a crisis situation; sometimes it's a longer-term planning issue. A lot of Stewart's day-to-day work is spent at meetings staying in touch with the business community, networking, sitting down with business owners and talking about their issues. There is also a fair amount of deskwork. "Most of this morning I spent working on financial analyses for some revolving loan fund applications," he says. "Sometimes there's a lot of grant work, so when there's that kind of thing going on, then that becomes the focus." Generally Stewart is working on three or four projects simultaneously so the job does require an ability to multitask effectively. Stewart says that being a "type A personality" and somewhat hyperactive is a prerequisite for having his job.

For Stewart, it's all part of the fun. "I started two businesses because I like starting businesses," he says. "I get to kind of live vicariously through the clientele we serve here, so I get a lot of that same kind of rush from working with the businesses, helping them grow, helping them develop, while still getting home to dinner at a reasonable hour most nights."

Stewart's family and leisure time are important to him. Fortunately, even though his job requires a lot of energy, the hours are flexible enough to allow him to focus on other attachments.

"I love to ski," says Stewart, "that's a real passion." Skiing is part of why Stewart moved to Vermont, and, ironically, it wasn't until he got out of the ski industry that he was able to actually do some skiing. Stewart loves being on skis so much that for the last 12 years, he has volunteered with the Pico Peak ski patrol. "From the time the snow starts flying until early spring, that's the focus," he says.

When springtime comes, Stewart's extracurricular activity of choice is lacrosse. He has spent six years coaching high school lacrosse in Rutland and another two years coaching at Castleton State College. He enjoys playing the sport, too. Stewart played open division lacrosse until he turned 40 and then masters division for another five years. "This year I found out that the part of my life of being a player is gone due to knees that don't appreciate that anymore," he says. Now Stewart spends his lacrosse time officiating at the college level.

As lacrosse season ends, it's on to sailing. "I have a sailboat up in the Charlotte Sailing Center," says Stewart. "Any time possible, if I can be out on the boat, then that's where I want to be."

Apparently, skiing, lacrosse and sailing weren't quite enough for Stewart. He has a newer hobby as well. "When I turned 40, I told my wife I wanted to do one of two things," he says. "I wanted to learn how to fly or I wanted to learn how to play the guitar. For my birthday she bought me a very nice guitar."

For Stewart, his leisure time is very therapeutic. It's a time when all the other parts of his life don't have access to his brain. "You're dealing with what's right there in front of you," he says. "All the other peripheral stuff that follows you at the end of the workday can't go there. That's a sanctuary place."

Whatever Stewart is doing, it must be working. Ken Perine, president of the National Bank of Middlebury, has been very impressed by the job Stewart has done. "We feel very fortunate to have him at the helm," says Perine. He points to Stewart's recent work on the Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy, as being one of the best things the ACEDC has facilitated. "CEDS comes from a wide range of people," says Perine. "It has a broad impact, a broad voice."

ACEDC's offices are in the Addison Agricultural & Business Center, a building owned by Middlebury College and situated in the rolling countryside just south of Middlebury.

Perine believes the corporation plays an important role in Addison county. "We think it's very important for the manufacturing sector and the commercial sector in general to have a voice," he says, "and an organization that's concerned about commercial enterprise."

For all of Stewart's good work, it hasn't been easy. There are many difficult challenges facing the ACEDC, most of which are directly related to the geography of Addison county. According to Stewart, Addison is one of the most rural counties in the state. "We don't have a large employment base that's here as a result of being so rural," he says. "We really don't have the labor pool to support significant development of large business."

Along with a small labor pool, Stewart cites limited open real estate in the area as a challenge he faces. "If you come to me and say 'I have 30 employees, light manufacturing, what do you have for me to move into?' I may have one or two options in the entire county of available space for that business, and in some cases I have no options." Stewart sees this lack of space as a mixed blessing. On one hand, he says the reason there is so little space is because they have used the available space that they have very well. On the other hand, Stewart points out that, statistically, half of the businesses that are looking to make a move are looking to move into an existing building, "so effectively, half of the businesses out there who would potentially move to this region won't look at us because we don't have existing capacity for them," Stewart says.

Another challenge facing the area is infrastructure. No major highways pass through Addison county, and that can be a turn-off to manufacturing businesses considering a move to the area.

Stewart also points out that the downturn in the national economy over the last couple of years has been keenly felt in the small-business sector. "Much of what we're doing now is dealing with fallout from a weak economy," say Stewart. "Interest rates are down and that's great, but when you talk about the tax cuts that have happened at the federal level, they're really not being felt by the small businesses."

Still, there are some very good positives working in Stewart's favor. Vermont's quality of life is a tremendous selling point for the area, as is Vermont's work force. Stewart says many businesses that might be strategically better served in another area stay here because of the great productivity of Vermont's work force. "It's that Yankee work ethic," he says. "Well, these people have it."

Looking to the future, Stewart would like to see more telecommunications businesses move into the area. "Information technology industries don't require major infrastructure," he says. The infrastructure that they do require, state-of-the-art telecommunications systems, are either coming soon to Vermont or are already in place. "Addison County is in pretty good shape," says Stewart, "Waitsfield Telecom has done a significant job at upgrading the telecommunications systems in that portion of the state." Those systems include Lincoln, Bristol and Starksboro. "And then on the western side of the county we have Shoreham Telephone, another private operator who's made some significant upgrades," he says.

One thing seems certain. Whether it's telecommunications growth, attracting new businesses to Addison County or enhancing the business climate, Stewart appears to have what it takes to pave the roads for the prosperity of small business in the county.

Originally published in October 2003 Business People-Vermont