Me and the Media

It is always weird seeing yourself quoted in the media. It’s like hearing your voice on a tape recording – nothing like you thought it would be.

The Boston Globe quoted me recently in a story about a wealthy inventor/futurist named David Hall and his plans to build a series of 20,000-person cities throughout Vermont. I worked for Hall on his project for a few months, helping him introduce the idea to the community. Hall is targeting small towns in Orange County in Vermont, where I spent a good portion of my adult life – coaching high school basketball and raising a family.

Hall’s proposal is VERY controversial. Lots of former neighbors who once thought well of me now think very badly of me because of my consulting for Hall. I often side with local people opposing major developments. But on this one, I found things a bit more nuanced.

Here is the story.

And here is the quote.

Kevin Ellis, a public relations executive who once advised Hall, said the proposal has “brought out the worst in Vermonters.” He dismissed the idea that Hall is delusional.

“If Hall is ‘crazy,’ so is [billionaire investor] Elon Musk. So was Einstein and so was Edison,” Ellis said. “If the opponents would get out of their polluting cars and actually sit down and have a conversation on the merits, they might understand that there is a major opportunity staring them in the face.”

First the weird part — The quote is accurate. I actually wrote it all down in an email to the reporter. What’s weird is the paraphrase of my thinking – the part where I say Hall’s proposal has “brought out the worst in Vermonters.’’

It is accurate, but misses a bit of the point I was trying to make. It is not the reporter’s fault. It is just the way it works when someone is trying to capture nuanced feelings.

To clarify —

I think Hall’s proposal is outlandish and not viable TODAY. He agrees. Vermont’s legendary land use law – known as Act 250 – would never permit such a project. Nor would the people.

The project is also VERY un-PC. Vermont environmentalists and politicians say they hate it. But there is something deeper at work here.

Vermont is now run in large part by a generation of people who came from other places in the U.S. – places they saw ruined by strip development, bad planning and the dark side of capitalism. They came to Vermont because it is small, unspoiled and community-based. You can know your neighbors and you can have a political voice. I am one of those people, having left New Jersey and Washington DC to raise a family and build a cleaner, better life in VT.

But there is a downside to the Vermont ideal – a resistance to change that can hamper the kind of innovation and growth that rural communities need in the modern age. There is also parochialism, small thinking, intolerance and bigotry. I have seen it up close. Hall is a Mormon. So there is plenty of religious intolerance to go with this story.

Hall is buying land – lots of it. More than 1,500 acres. Some of it old farms from Vermont’s dairy heyday. Opponents say the purchases skew the real estate market and raise prices for working people.

But what is not emphasized is that Hall is giving old dairy farmers and their kids a route to retirement after a life of milking cows. The kids want no part of the farm life. Hall’s millions give the farmer money in their pocket and well-deserved retirement in some cases. Hall fixes up the farms, renovates the farmhouses and rents the places back to local people, some of them students from Vermont’s law school nearby. What’s wrong with that?

He proposed a self-sufficient community of clustered living and sustainable practices, leaving the farmland to wilderness. Sounds like the Nature Conservancy’s business plan for a world afflicted with climate change when Boston is under water.

Also – Hall admits that a finished project could take generations – perhaps 100 years. He has no plans to submit ANY application for a permit of any kind.

At the moment, Vermont is a rural state of 650,000 people that is aging and losing population. It has too many schools, not enough kids and a population that is increasingly on Medicaid and Medicare and not enough highly-trained kids to fill available jobs.

Hall’s comment in the Globe story that Vermont is “dying’’ is an overstatement. But it cuts close to the bone. The governor has not met with Hall. But he should – because they are talking about the same threat to Vermont. The governor worries about empty schools, shrinking population and opiate addicted citizens. If nothing is done to rectify these trends, Vermont will become a wasteland where working people serve the desires of wealthy tourists from the very communities we left for Vermont.

So — Vermont has a really really rich guy in their midst, willing to spend dollars in the community. It has a struggling rural landscape in which institutions like Vermont Law School struggle to survive. And by the way, his proposal is far from a string of Wal-Mart’s or Dollar General stores. He proposes to build self-sustaining communities that use solar energy and sunlight to grow food in ways that leave the land as wilderness. But the politics don’t work.

This came clear to me when I got a call from the director of the local child-care center, asking for Hall’s number. She wanted to ask him for $20,000 to close her budget deficit. I gave her the number and then asked myself why other people were not following the same strategy. Vermont could do worse than sit down with Hall and work out a way for him to play a major role in funding community health, education and other initiatives in exchange for a willingness to consider his proposals.

I don’t work for Hall anymore. But I think Vermont should be open to the kind of thinking he brings to the table.

And here is a radical proposal – said to me on the street by a high-level Vermont politician. It seemed crazy at the time. But makes real sense if you are willing to think seriously about Vermont’s future.

Hall should buy Vermont Law School and use it’s campus as an engineering hub in a deal brokered by the governor. The law school could then move to Burlington, giving the University of Vermont its own law school and making Burlington an even greater magnet for the kinds of smart young people Vermont so desperately needs.