A complex economy: Bellows Falls businesses see varied consequences

In an address to Congress on February 24, President Barack Obama stated, “You don’t need to hear another list of statistics to know our economy is in crisis, because you live it everyday. It’s the worry you wake up with, and the source of sleepless nights.”

Since September 14, 2008, the day that US investment banking giant Lehman Brothers declared bankruptcy and Merrill Lynch sold to Bank of America, causing fallout across worldwide financial markets, citizens have been bombarded with news of a recession harkening back to Black Monday of 1987 and Black Tuesday of 1929. Lehman Brothers’ bankruptcy was the largest in the history of the United States, and indeed, reports state that, in stock market statistics, the current recession is the worse the country has seen since the Great Depression.

Although market statistics are useful, tracking how a recession trickles down into the daily economic survival of individuals and businesses is often more elusive. In this sense, Obama’s largely rhetorical assertion is incorrect in that statistics elucidating the situation close to home could very well offer a clearer picture, rather than citizens responding to overarching media reports and assuming a blanket situation.

This is relevant for Vermont, a state historically known for poverty prior to 2008’s market crash. In a report from the Local Area Unemployment Statistics program, produced by the Vermont Department of Labor in cooperation with Economic and Labor Market Information and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, unemployment rates are indeed at a high, by county and state average. In 2009 the state average, thus far, is 7.7%, second only to the first year of the study—1976 at 8.5%. Although, Windham County is high in relative prosperity, owning the third lowest 2009 unemployment rate of Vermont’s 14 counties, at only 6.5%, where many northern counties such as Orleans, Grand Isle and Essex are suffering at ranges from 10.5-12.2%.

This casts a picture of variance, and in a round of interviews garnering surprising results, it appears that there is no across-the-board reality for those whom the recession would appear to hit hardest, while hardship is an already-intact reality for those whose situation the recession barely affected.

Shawna Inbar, 33, of Bellows Falls, moved to Vermont from New York City in 2007 to be with her family. The worker for disabled children and Dorchester, Mass. native had been in New York since age 17, having sought opportunity and heightened networking opportunities. She feels that as soon as she came to Vermont two years ago, hardship was evident in many places.

“Because I had an excellent résumé, a great work ethic and am a very on-the-go person, I thought I’d be employed fast,” said Inbar. I thought I’d make a lot of money and be happy and everything would be a piece of cake. But it was absolutely the opposite. It was horrifying. I went months without employment.”

“What I wanted to do here, I couldn’t do here,” Inbar continued. “Originally my brother and I were going to start Perry’s Property Maintenance. We couldn’t get any jobs. It became very difficult. People weren’t calling for work. That was the beginning for me. It was like, ‘Oh my God, what’s really going on?’”

That’s when she began paying attention to the wider economy in Vermont. She felt that opportunity in the state was scarce compared to other places she’d been, most obviously New York City. “You go from making a lot of money in New York, and living a life where you’re able to go out and have cocktails and network, to nothing. Into a town that manages its money off of a dam. That’s Bellows Falls’ source of income. And there are tourists here—they come and they go—but residents are closing down stores because they can’t afford to pay for them. And the welfare and unemployment…it’s outrageous. It’s completely outrageous.”

The fact that Vermont’s economy is primarily agriculture-based and comprised of small villages can prove difficult for newcomers and natives alike, and the current recession, as opposed to being a sudden hit of devastation, has often merely tightened pockets that already knew shallow depths.

Jared Johnson, 33, of Jamaica, was born and raised in Rutland. He is a full-time musician and is used to the ups and downs of unsteady work in a contained economic environment.

“(Due to the recession) I’ve seen that not as many people are going out spending their money and therefore the music venues suffer, and the price tag at the end of the day for musicians is going to be lower than in times past,” Johnson remarked. “But I’ve always been hustling. Just riding the wave—there are ups and downs and hopefully it can average out so you can maintain a comfortable living. I find it’s been that way for myself—a continuous wave you have to ride out if you’re going to try to live the life of an artist or musician or other similar lifestyle.”

Johnson contends that he’s been keeping tighter watch on his expenses since he noticed the country’s financial downturn. “I’ve been paying more attention to everything, looking for supplies for living at the best price available. I’m trying to be involved in any avenue that makes music happen—performing, producing, or being part of sound production--to make it all add up monetarily.

“But I think it actually might be more difficult mentally for someone who is a 9-to-5 type of person because they are more used to having regular, ensured income without thinking about it. They get up, go do their job and then go home, and at the end of the week they get their paycheck. Whereas an artist or musician is in a constant state of trying to find work, continuously, and fill his or her schedule as they roll through it. So I guess the artists or musicians might be more used to the fluctuations a recession brings.”

Whereas some residents see the recession as a minor exacerbation of an existing problem, some business owners report no drop in sales at all. Aristides Nogueron owns Coyote Moon, an imported handcrafts shop in downtown Bellows Falls. The shop boasts ornate Mexican tapestries, carved South American indigenous tableware, beaded purses and silver jewelry. It is the type of shop one would expect to suffer during a recession, as average consumers are less likely to spend on extraneous adornments than on necessities.

Yet Nogueron maintains that, “I have seen no difference. Sales are good. The economy is not bad. That is for the government and the newspapers to say to get everyone scared that the economy is bad. People are eating. They’re buying food and clothes. They go to the movies. They buy popcorn! The movie theater is full.”

The Bellows Falls movie theater is also only a four-dollar ticket.

Other businesses relate that the recession has hit them hard.

Jenny Felion co-owns D & R and Sons Auto Repair on Westminster Street in Bellows Falls with her husband Dale. “We have a gasoline station and a service station. You can tell (the economic climate) by the gas volume. People are making necessary trips; they’re not making the unnecessary trips. They’re filling up once a week, not filling two or three times.

“Also, at our retail store, people aren’t buying that extra soda or that extra pack of gum as much as they were. At our service station we noticed a decline in the mileage. People doing less oil changes, less basic maintenance. Yet we’re family-owned and -operated, so we’re pretty sure that we have enough of a client base to keep us afloat. We’re confident that with great customer service and a good, positive attitude we can keep floating.”

This sentiment that a local business known to its community will keep receipts high due to loyal customers seems to prevail.

Pat Fowler owns Village Square booksellers in downtown Bellows Falls. She feels that “(the recession) has not had a major impact on us—people are making a huge effort at buying local. They’re trying to help out because they that know we’re local folks and we work in the community and do good things in the community. They’re being very supportive.”

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Editor's notes:

This article originally appeared in The Commons www.commonsnews.org

Bellows Falls is in Windham county, Vermont, the same county as Brattleboro. It’s one stop north of Brattleboro on Amtrak.

Please visit www.workerscenter.org to learn about how ordinary Vermonters are fighting to create jobs and raise wages.

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