Diversified agriculture is a key to Franklin County’s economic strength
by Heleigh Bostwick
St. Albans native Tim Smith, the executive director of the Franklin County Industrial Development Corp., is a no-nonsense guy who knows how Franklin County works ... and makes sure it does.
“Forty years ago the unemployment rate in Franklin County was in double digits, averaging somewhere around 12 to 15 percent,” says Tim Smith, executive director of the Franklin County Industrial Development Corp. (FCIDC) in downtown St. Albans.
The demise of the railroad, increased automation on dairy farms, and a reduction in value-added wood products such as furniture making, combined with a limited manufacturing base, contributed to the high unemployment rate at that time. “But today,” he adds proudly, “thanks to the efforts of FCIDC and its partners, that unemployment rate is only 4.9 percent.”
FCIDC is one of 12 regional development corporations throughout the state. Its mission is to create an environment that attracts and retains jobs and capital investment in Franklin County.
“Our primary focus is on the manufacturing and technology sectors, rather than retail because these jobs pay better, are more stable, and provide better benefits,” says Smith. He mentions value-added products such as the ice cream factory for Ben & Jerry’s Homemade, Green Mountain Blue Cheese (Boucher Family Farm), Franklin Foods cream cheese, Swann Valley Cheese of Vermont, Rosie’s Beef Jerky, and Barry Callebaut chocolate, all of which have been particularly successful in Franklin County.
A new sector coming online is diversified agriculture.
“Diversified agriculture is critically important because it not only employs a number of people, but it’s important to know where our food comes from,” says board member Kathy Lavoie, who works for the Franklin Grand Isle Workforce Investment Board in St. Albans. “Tim knows how Franklin County works. He’s very supportive of the workforce, and his ability to go beyond the industrial box makes him successful at what he does.”
Smith’s efforts are appreciated. Franklin County’s regional organizations have a reputation throughout the state for collaboration and innovation often leading to success stories such as the county’s low unemployment rate relative to the state and the country. Many people attribute this directly to Smith and his work at FCIDC.
“Tim and I work very closely on a number of projects,” says Catherine Dimitruk, executive director of the Northwest Regional Planning Commission in St. Albans. “When he started at FCIDC in 2001, he instituted monthly breakfast meetings for the regional partner organizations. We get together on a regular basis and discuss what we are working on from transit to housing to economic development to the workforce. I think it’s why we are so successful here in Franklin County.”
Those collaborative efforts have paid off, but, Smith says, there’s one area that remains a significant challenge in terms of future growth at FCIDC. “We’ve undertaken the initiative to attract Canadian businesses, but we have no vacancies and very limited space in our existing properties.” He explains that typically when a company expresses interest, it usually leads to an immediate need for space, and he ends up sending that business to Chittenden County.
“There is land in industrial parks in Enosburg, Swanton, St. Albans town, Richford, and Georgia that’s already permitted under ACT 250 and most of the infrastructure including storm water is in place,” Smith says. “All we need are developers to partner with because we don’t have the money to build.”
FCIDC celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2011. It was originally set up to administer a $1 million grant that was given to the city of St. Albans to promote it as a growth center, and was called the Target Area Action Program. When funding dried up in 1976, a new organization, the Target Area Development Corporation, was formed to oversee the county’s economic development. In 1984, the name was changed to FCIDC.
Funding for the organization comes from a “hodgepodge” of sources, says Smith, but it’s always been an organization with a full-time executive director and a small staff. Gail Albertelli is the administrative assistant and Marilyn Laidman is the office assistant. Connie Burns works part-time in community and business outreach and grant administration. “We also have 18 board members, many of them business owners who have been active with the organization for a number of years,” says Smith. “Bill Cioffi, a former St. Albans city manager, is the chairperson.”
The state of Vermont contributes about 40 percent of the total budget of $215,000, and the surrounding towns contribute a set amount on a per capita basis. It’s a figure that Smith says hasn’t changed in 20 years. Administrative fees for operating real estate, a revolving loan fund, rental income, grants, and donations solicited from businesses that they interact with on a regular basis, make up the rest.
On a typical day, Smith arrives at the office between 8 and 8:30 accompanied by Onyx, his beloved German shepherd and husky mix, who, at the age of 13, is now blind and deaf and spends the day snoozing at Smith’s feet.
After dealing with the usual emails and phone calls, Smith starts in on the day-to-day business of running FCIDC, which he says is anything but routine.
“One of the things I love about the job is that it changes every day,” he says. “Much of what we do is field calls during the week relative to permitting issues, expansion issues, recruitment, and organizing workshops or forums.”
Evening and breakfast meetings with FCIDC partners are a regular part of the job and his hours can be somewhat irregular. “I’m lucky that my board gives me the flexibility to come and go and that they are comfortable knowing that I will do what’s necessary to get the job done,” he says.
Smith grew up in St. Albans, but after graduating from Bellows Free Academy, he left Vermont to attend several colleges, including the University of San Diego and Hofstra University where he eventually obtained his bachelor of arts in business administration. “I picked out colleges by location,” he says with a chuckle. “I wanted to go to California and then wanted to experience New York City.”
After earning his degree, he returned to St. Albans and found a job as the director of parks and recreation, a position he held for nine years before experiencing what he calls an “early mid-life crisis.” Tired of winter and ready for a change, he says, “I packed up and moved to Arizona in 1993. I stayed there a couple of years and managed convenience stores.”
Once again he returned to Vermont. He and his brother Mike bought an office supply store in Newport, but competition from the Internet and chain stores such as Staples and OfficeMax made it tough to run a successful business there. When Smith heard about the position as executive director at FCIDC, he jumped on it, and the brothers sold the store a year later.
Not long after he began working at FCIDC, Smith met Denise Beliveau. “She was the director of the International Trade Office in Montpelier,” he recalls. “Right after I started here, she and one of her colleagues came to educate me about what that organization does and how it could be a resource for FCIDC.” They started dating and were married four years later. The Smiths and their three children, Mackenzie, 5; Duffy, 4; and Nellie, 2, live on the same street where Smith grew up.
He laughs and says with three young children he doesn’t have much free time anymore, but manages to play hockey one night a week. “I used to coach sports when I was at parks and recreation, so I’m sure that, as the kids start participating in sports, there will be opportunities to do that again, too,” he says. He and Mike own a camp on Lake Champlain, and Denise enjoys camping, he says, so they are doing more of that lately.
In the meantime, Smith has a few more ideas in mind for FCIDC. “Our focus has always been on Quebec. That’s where our success has been. We want to tap into the tourism side of things and connect with the wine and cheese routes in Quebec and Vermont. At the same time we’ll be connecting with the industrial sector in Canada and let them know how we can help them access the U.S. market.
“The other piece of this that’s big is bike touring,” he says. “All of these tourism activities have an impact for both sides of the border. We don’t even have to market the idea. All that’s needed is a simple exchange of information about what’s there on each side of the border.”
Smith has already shared this most recent initiative with other regional development corporations in Grand Isle and Lamoille counties and the Northeast Kingdom, and with Megan Smith, the commissioner of tourism and marketing for the state of Vermont.
Dimitruk of the Northeast Regional Planning Commission has no doubt Smith’s latest collaboration efforts will pay off. “He’s just a great guy to work with and a pleasure to have as a colleague.” •