Rutland Herald Commentary

Vermont’s economy with or without OMYA

May 22, 2002

In a recent editorial, David Moats opined about the “troubling impasse that appears to pit economic development against environmental protection.” His account of the “troubling” decisions made by district environmental commissions and the state Environmental Board was made of stuff that the Rutland County business community has been talking about for decades.

A productive economy, regionally and statewide, lies at the very heart of “quality of life.” It is worth noting that unemployment is on the rise, high-paying manufacturing jobs are on the decline, and some families spend more time working than time together. In fact, it takes a high standard of living and good job opportunities before any country or region can improve the quality of life of its citizens and afford the environmental and aesthetic enhancements we are blessed with today.

If you doubt this, visit any Third World country where the creation of jobs and the provision of food and shelter are far higher priorities than environmental protection. Although quality of life is in the eyes of the beholder, it and economic growth are not mutually exclusive. As Mr. Moats so clearly stated it, “Unless we give ourselves good choices, we will be left with the bad ones.”

Indeed, there are ways to balance economic prosperity, environmental preservation, and social concerns. It begins with civil discourse and choices. Today, OMYA employs more than 300 people who depend on the growth and development of the company. Beyond the walls of the Florence facility and Proctor headquarters, there are 177 Vermont businesses who rely on OMYA to grow and prosper. In 1999, there were 250 Vermont businesses from whom OMYA purchased goods and services. Why the decrease in vendors? The decision to limit truck trips on a U.S. highway hindered our ability to grow. Our stagnation has directly impacted 73 Vermont businesses and their employees. Why? Because we were left with the bad choices.

Bill Hahn recently wrote an article for the Rutland Herald discussing the “multiplier effect,” using OMYA as an example. The multiplier effect results from spending by OMYA employees and the employees of its 177 vendors on groceries, gas, mortgages, car payments, clothing, entertainment, and Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. That money continues to circulate over and over. If we were to use Mr. Hahn’s formula, this is what the picture looks like.

In 1999, OMYA spent roughly $85 million in the state, including payroll, goods, services, and taxes. By 2001, that number decreased to $66 million, a difference of $19 million. If we apply the multiplier of five, as Mr. Hahn suggests, the loss of revenue to the state and the region equals $95 million from OMYA’s reduced activities alone. Can Vermont afford such a loss?

The Environmental Board capped the number of round trips from our Middlebury quarry to 115 per day based on the aesthetic impacts of trucking through the town of Brandon. OMYA trucks made up approximately 3 percent of the total traffic flowing through Brandon on any given weekday at the time the permit was issued, but that percent is declining every year as other traffic, which is not limited, continues to grow.

Sure, traffic causes noise, vibration, and exhaust, but to lay blame on OMYA’s trucks alone is just silly. At least the men and women hauling marble ore live here, pay taxes here, and purchase goods here. That’s a whole lot more than the majority of through trucks using Route 7 do, yet through trucks have no restrictions on when or how often they can drive through Brandon or any other Vermont community.

Good choice? You decide. As Mr. Moats noted in his editorial, the “choice” of traveling through Brandon was made because of the failure of the state to invest in adequate infrastructure that would have enabled all trucks, not just OMYA’s to bypass Brandon. Because of past inaction, OMYA, and local economic activity is limited, but through trucks — and their impact on Brandon — continue unabated

OMYA uses rail to ship its finished product out of state to be value-added by other manufacturers and returned as consumer products. Almost four years ago, OMYA entered into a memorandum of understanding with the Conservation Law Foundation, the Vermont Agency of Transportation, the Agency of Commerce and Community Development, the Agency of Natural Resources, and Vermont Railway Inc. The memorandum encourages a public and private partnership to study, and hopefully implement, an alternative to trucking ore from Middlebury. (OMYA itself began to investigate the use of rail for that purpose over 17 years ago.) The partners are committed to finding solutions that are good choices for the state, local communities, OMYA, and other private businesses as well.

Isn’t it obvious? This conversation isn’t about some global giant raping and pillaging the land; it is about the people who live and (hopefully) work here, people who attend church on Sunday, people who see you in the shops and stores or at the counter in Seward’s restaurant, people who read this newspaper, people who have cats, dogs, kids, and gardens. Without the growth and development of businesses in the region (yes, including OMYA), people are affected. The 300 people working at OMYA in Vermont rely on the company to grow and prosper. Hundreds more people employed by other Vermont businesses rely on OMYA to grow and prosper. Multiply those people by the thousands of others who work for or with other businesses, and you begin to see just how important economic development truly is to the people of this state. Their very quality of life depends on it.

As Mr. Moats’ editorial pointed out, “The impasses that occur ought to signal to us that we have failed to look ahead, and those failures ought to wake us to the need to create better choices for ourselves as a way to avoid the troubling conflict between the economy and the environment.” Balancing environmental concerns, growth, and quality of life certainly is possible. Let’s continue to find and implement the good choices, so we are not left with the bad ones.

Jim Reddy is president of OMYA Industries Inc.