Castleton University’s footprint in Rutland has been growing in recent years, with multiple art galleries and a downtown Rutland campus that houses entrepreneurial programs and a polling center.
Now the university is expanding into economic development. It means Lyle Jepson wears two hats. He’s dean of entrepreneurial programs at Castleton University and he’s the new executive director of REDC, the Rutland Economic Development Corporation.
“REDC is alive and well,” says Jepson. “It has its own separate board and bylaws and committee structure. It has not been consumed by Castleton University. REDC has hired Castleton to produce a product and provide a service.”
Rutland’s Economic Development Corporation was founded nearly 80 years ago to attract and support businesses and manufacturers with loans, expertise and other services. Jepson says that won’t change, but considering the area’s aging work force and declining population, he says the organization needed a fresh approach.
“The face of economic development is changing in Vermont,” says Jepson. “It’s going from what some call the buffalo hunt, where you go after those big companies. We’re now looking at how do we cultivate our young entrepreneurs and how do start the one and two people businesses that will grow in the future.”
Moving REDC into Castleton’s downtown Rutland office was step one.
Other organizations like the Small Business Development Center, the state’s local procurement counselor and the Rutland Young Professionals are located in the same building. Jepson says that provides business owners and entrepreneurs with one-stop shopping.
“We want somebody to answer the phone and access all the resources that are available,” says Jepson. “People will be coming in at different levels of need and we want to put them at the right level and have all the resources in the same place including the revolving loan fund from REDC.”
REDC is funded with a state grant, rental income and membership dues. Jepson says sharing office space with Castleton’s downtown Rutland office cut overhead and allowed REDC to hire two new assistant directors, Sara Gilbert and Tyler Richardson, both of whom are under 40.
Their input, says Jepson, plus closer ties to area colleges and technical centers will better connect REDC to the next generation of workers and entrepreneurs.
“We’re actively, even more than before, connecting students with businesses and industry because one of the things that we hear is companies could grow or do better than they are now if they had the talent that they are looking for.”
Ben Clark, CEO of Ann Clark Limited, a Rutland company with 25 employees that manufactures cookie cutters, likes REDC’s new approach and its ties to Castleton University.
But Mark Youngstrom, of Otter Creek Engineering, a civil engineering firm with 16 employees, is more skeptical. He says he was surprised by REDC’s shake up and will take a wait and see approach to Jepson’s leadership.
But he agrees that strong ties to higher education are important and he hopes REDC will reach out beyond Rutland County to schools like UVM, Norwich and Dartmouth.
“When we go to hire people it’s hard. We’re even having a hard time with technicians, people with two-year degrees, drafts people, that type of thing.”
Tom Donahue, CEO of the Rutland Region Chamber of Commerce, says employers are increasingly complaining about the shortage of skilled workers in the area. But he thinks REDC’s new approach will help address that.
“As we work to bring in more business and develop more job opportunities we’re going to need to continue to have this line of young students available, at the same time I think they’ll stay here if they have an opportunity,” says Donahue. “Before, part of the reason for folks leaving was because the opportunity wasn’t here. Now I feel the opportunity is presenting itself and now we can make that match.”
Besides helping local businesses, Lyle Jepson says being able to link students to better internships and higher paying jobs will make local colleges and technical centers more attractive. He says currently only about 35 percent of Rutland County residents have a college degree - a number he’d like to increase.