by Nat Frothingham
When Joe Evans came aboard on April 3 as executive director of the Montpelier Development Corporation he became the city’s first-ever economic development chief.
But let this be noted — Joe Evans is not a City of Montpelier employee. Instead he’s the lead — and at the moment the only employee — of the newly formed Montpelier Development Corporation — which itself is a non-profit 501(c)3 tax-exempt organization.
The recent hiring of Joe Evans has this added significance. It is just the latest in a series of solid steps the Montpelier City Council and city administration have been taking in recent years to foster business and economic development.
As early as February 2014 (as reported in The Bridge) then Montpelier city councilor Thierry Guerlain was pushing the City Council to create a free-standing “local development corporation” to support economic development. Guerlain felt that a local development corporation that was quite separate from city government and the state’s open meeting requirements could create “a more appealing and efficient liaison between the city and private sector developers” such as business people, property owners, bankers, architects and the like.
That was three years ago. But increasingly, since then, city officials, the city’s business community and Montpelier’s voting public and taxpayers have become more deeply aware of the hot — some would say “very hot” regional competition for business development.
Today, there’s a growing understanding that it’s no longer good enough for any city or town that’s seeking economic development just to “talk the talk.” Increasingly, it’s imperative to “walk the walk” by actively retaining existing business activity and by seizing business opportunities by creating the conditions for economic development to take place.
In September 2015, the City of Montpelier hired Fairweather Consulting from New Paltz, New York to work with the Montpelier community, conduct research, and submit an economic development plan.
That plan with the title “The Innovative Capital: An Economic Development Strategic Plan for the City of Montpelier” was submitted in June 2016 and was both detailed and hard-hitting.
Here’s one of the more hard-hitting statements from the plan: “But the real issue for Montpelier is seen in the trend with regard to private sector jobs.” According to Fairweather, from 2009 to 2014, “While Barre added 394 private-sector jobs and Waterbury gained 294 private-sector jobs, Montpelier saw its private-sector jobs increase by a mere 10 jobs.”
Fairweather then concluded. “Clearly the City has not been as effective as Barre and Waterbury in participating in the modest economic growth taking place in Central Vermont.”
Among other action steps, the Fairweather “Strategic Plan” recommended the following.
The establishment of a city-supported, free-standing, public benefit Montpelier Development Corporation with its own State of Vermont incorporation, bylaws and board of directors.
An annual City of Montpelier financial outlay of $100,000 per year over the first five years of the new development corporation’s life — with these hoped for returns during that period: $5.6 million in new economic activity, $550,000 in new City of Montpelier taxes, 57 new jobs, $1.9 million in wages (based on average wage of over $30,000/year) with a total, overall economic development impact of $6.5 million.
Finally, to ignite these efforts, the hiring of an executive director — a very recent process that involved 30 or more candidates and three interviews.
Drum roll and flourish please. Enter Joe Evans.
Meeting Joe Evans
Joe Evans, who talked to The Bridge, first in person then by phone, came across as someone who is thoughtful, committed, intelligent, analytical — with an unusual range of work experiences.
“I view my job as a consultant,” he said at one point. “I’m not a consultant, but I’m in a consultant-type role. I have to behave like a consultant — looking at all sides.”
He also said, “A lot of listening. A lot of listening followed up by well-directed action.”
“Are we lagging?” he asked, about the current economic development situation in Montpelier.
The he answered his own question. “We have lost some ground to our neighboring cities and towns,” he conceded. “And I think that’s attributable to lack of proactivity. We’ve not thought about the need to bring those businesses in. We’ve allowed businesses to leave — there’s a million different factors.”
Still thinking about his answer to the question, he added, “There’s a history here. Things that may have happened — could be competition, could be taxes, could be bottom line.”
In talking about his quite unusual work history, Evans, who is from Texas and who was majoring in marketing at Texas Tech got a job during his freshman year working for a cotton brokerage firm called Texas Cotton Marketing.
What Texas Cotton Marketing wanted to avoid was “yarn breaks” as cotton was being spun into cloth. In Evans, who was “tech savvy” they found the man who could help them deal with yarn breaks. He looked carefully at the fiber quality of the cotton, how the cotton behaved in humidity. He examined its strength.
“I did a multiple regression analysis on the fiber quality,” he said. The result of this analysis was a measurement called Count Strength Product and he created a software program that enabled Texas Cotton Marketing to achieve cotton production runs “for high efficiency by reducing or eliminating yarn breaks altogether.”
“It worked. It was a pretty simple solution,” Evans said. But that pretty simple solution sounded pretty impressive when Evan said that Levi Strauss — the company that makes denim for blue jeans — bought the software. “A UK company bought it as well,” he said.
After taking his Master’s in Business Administration Evans moved to Dallas and worked with MCI Communications in the long-distance communications business. At MCI his task was to make the billing system work.
Describing the size of that task, Evans said, “The calls had to be routed the right way. It was complex. They had different switches and routing systems. I took that problem and just worked with them. I had seven development groups working with me.”
His next work assignment was working in the criminal justice field to develop an electronic case filing system. This system made it possible to integrate the criminal justice case files of 43 police agencies into the district attorney’s office in Fort Worth, Texas. Later on, that system as further developed under a “TechShare program” integrated the criminal and then juvenile justice files of the 37 largest counties in Texas including cities like Dallas, Houston, Austin and the like.
“I’ve been a ‘connect-the-dots’ sort of guy,” Evans said. “I’m not intimidated by obstacles. I don’t see obstacles as constraints. They have to be worked around. I always identify a business outcome I want to achieve and then I go for that outcome.”
Evans has quite specific ambitions for the very new Montpelier Development Corporation.
“I’d like to have high speed internet and fiber would be my choice,” he said.
“Right now, we’re not buying property. We’re not spending thousands of dollars to bring in a company. We want to get to the point where we have a revolving loan fund. Or take a distressed property and make it a viable part of our town.
Evans alluded to high taxes and restrictive zoning. “I’d like to solve those problems.” But some of the problems will only be solved incrementally and over time. “We’re not going to make the world change overnight,” he said.
In the meantime, he also said, “Opportunities abound. We have land. The city apparatus has a ‘can-do’ attitude. Clearly, they want economic development to occur.”
Then talking about himself, he said, “I feel privileged to be the guy coming in at this juncture to make the city everything that it can be.”
In recent days, the City of Montpelier along with some last-minute help from the Montpelier Development Corporation has supported the proposed expansion of Caledonia Spirits in Montpelier.
On May 24, the City Council unanimously approved spending $466,700 for several infrastructure improvements to a proposed riverfront building site directly off Barre Street directly across from Sabin’s Pasture.
Caledonia Spirits President Ryan Christiansen acknowledged the City of Montpelier’s support for the expansion project, saying,
“Our search for expansion space has us in contact with many towns, but Montpelier proved to be the greatest opportunity for our business. Improvement includes a railroad crossing, relocation of a city water line, sewer connection and pretreatment and the building of a public access road.” Christiansen added, “The distillery is one of many developments for Barre Street including a city bike path that will pass directly in front of the distillery. Construction of the 30,000-square-foot distillery is scheduled to begin in the fall of 2017.”
Speaking about the modest — but still important — contribution that the Montpelier Development Corporation made to the Caledonia Spirits project, Joe Evans said,
“My involvement in the Caledonia Spirits project came at the end of the process. The City Manager and his team, along with the Mayor, invested many months of work in getting this deal to come to fruition. Together we worked on the Development Agreement and got that approved by the city council unanimously. I’m currently still campaigning for passing the amendment to our tax stabilization law in order to completely finalize the outcome of Caledonia Spirits moving to Montpelier. We are 99 percent there!”