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Business leaders warn loss of VTC campus would undermine economy

  • Cars sounding their horns drive past the offices of the Vermont State Colleges as several hundred people in more than 100 cars participate in a honking protest parade in downtown Montpelier, Vt., on Monday, April 20, 2020. Demonstrators are opposed to a plan to close three VSC campuses in Johnson, Lyndon and Randolph. (VtDigger - Glenn Russell)

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 4/20/2020 8:45:20 PM
Modified: 4/21/2020 12:48:21 PM

RANDOLPH CENTER — Business leaders in the Upper Valley are decrying a proposal to close Vermont Technical College’s Randolph Center campus, with some saying the move would deprive them of a key source of skilled workers and could discourage them from investing in the state in the future.

“Without a reliable talent pool — that is in large part generated by Vermont Tech — we may be forced to consider other areas outside of Vermont in which to grow our business,” GW Plastics CEO Brenan Riehl, who was the commencement speaker at Vermont Tech’s graduation last year, said in an email on Monday.

Vermont State Colleges Chancellor Jeb Spaulding announced on Friday that he was asking the board of the state college system to close both campuses of Northern Vermont University in the Northeast Kingdom and Vermont Tech’s Randolph campus, consolidating Vermont Tech’s operations on its Williston campus. He said the changes were necessary to address a deficit of as much as $10 million this fiscal year and as much as $12 million next year.

But the plan, which was expected to result in layoffs of about 500 employees, was met with opposition from students, faculty and alumni, as well as members of the business community such as Riehl.

Bethel-based GW Plastics is one of the major manufacturing companies in the state, employing more than 400 people in the White River Valley communities of Bethel and Royalton.

The company, which was founded in Bethel in 1955, has developed tight bonds with Vermont Tech, Riehl said.

It co-funded the school’s engineering technology lab, a scholarship program and an advanced manufacturing technology leadership program, he said.

As a result of the relationship, GW now employs more than 25 Vermont Tech graduates.

Also “deeply disappointed” to hear the news of the possible closing was Brian Kippen, who was getting ready to begin recruiting for his new East Randolph satellite facility of his California-based company, KAD Models and Prototypes, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

“We will still be hiring as soon as we can get back out there,” Kippen, a 2001 graduate of what was then South Royalton High School, said in a Monday phone call from California. “We didn’t want to come to Vermont when it was shut down.”

In a Saturday email to Gov. Phil Scott and other government officials, Kippen said that the primary reason KAD Models chose to come to Randolph was its proximity to Vermont Tech’s advanced manufacturing program, which the company is “counting on for our future workforce as we continue to grow in the coming years.”

Bill McGrath, president and chief technical officer of the Randolph-based “digital illumination” company LEDdynamics, attended Vermont Tech, taught there, sat on its board in the late 1990s and relies on it to train his workers, he said.

Roughly one-third of the company’s 50 workers are Vermont Tech graduates, McGrath said. And the company plans to look to Vermont Tech as it doubles its workforce in the next five years.

He said he didn’t see how the state could close the campus when it seemed to be serving its purpose both for employers and for graduates.

“It was working really good,” McGrath said. “The only problem is they’re a little short on money.”

Some area business leaders suggested it would make more sense to consolidate Vermont Tech’s operations in Randolph and shutter the Williston campus.

“Randolph is the geographic center of the state of Vermont,” said Robert Haynes, Jr., executive director of the White River Junction-based Green Mountain Economic Development Corporation. “It’s easy to get to for an awful lot of people.”

He also noted that developers of a new Hampton Inn hotel, conference center and restaurant received an Act 250 permit last week to begin construction off Route 66 near the Exit 4 interchange along Interstate 89.

He said that businesses in town have been doing well.

“The major need pre-COVID has been where am I going to get my next capable employee?” he said.

Joshua Jerome, Randolph’s director of economic development, said that there would be ripple effects on the area’s economy if the Vermont Tech campus were to shutter.

Students, faculty and staff are members of their communities, pay taxes, eat at the area’s restaurants and sit on municipal boards.

“They’re a big part of the fabric of society in central Vermont,” said Jerome, who is a graduate of Lyndon State College, now part of Northern Vermont University.

Scott in a statement on Sunday said he opposed the chancellor’s plan to shutter the three campuses and asked the Legislature “to begin work immediately on a statewide plan to rethink, reform and strengthen the education system in ways that are fair and equitable to every student, every community and every taxpayer.”

After pushback from Scott and legislative leaders, the state colleges board delayed a vote it was initially slated to take on the chancellor’s plan on Monday.

What the alternate plan will look like is unclear, but some in the business community said they hoped that this could be an opportunity to change how higher education is delivered in a way that will match the business community’s needs.

Haynes drew a comparison to community concerns about what would happen to the town of Hanover when Mary Hitchcock Memorial Hospital moved to Lebanon in the 1990s.

“I’m an optimistic person in general,” Haynes said. “Each situation like this can be seen as terribly disruptive, (but it also can) lead to some good solutions.”

Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at ndoyleburr@vnews.com or 603-727-3213.

Correction

GW Plastics was founded in Bethel in 1955. An earlier v ersion of this story incorrectly described its history in Vermont.




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