by Nat Frothingham
Joseph (Joe) Choquette, who was elected Chairman of the Board of the Central Vermont Chamber of Commerce on January 17, has had a long association both with the Vermont Chamber of Commerce and more recently with the Central Vermont Chamber of Commerce (CVCC).
Choquette who is External Affairs Manager at the statewide law firm Downs Rachlin Martin said the firm has been a member of CVCC for 27 years. “I joined the firm in 1999,” he said, “And I’ve been on the board of CVCC for three years.
”When asked what CVC does, he replied, “Guide, inspire, and promote the best interests of the businesses and professionals in the Central Vermont region. As he described it, CVCC’s mission is “to enhance the economic, cultural, educational and recreational opportunities” for businesses, professionals—and for visitors—across Central Vermont.
”A few days after becoming CVCC Chair, Choquette took on a range of questions from The Bridge and fired back answers in his direct, no-nonsense style.
But before he confronted that range of questions, he took a moment to reflect on his years as board president of the Montpelier Chamber Orchestra. Because of his new CVCC responsibilities, Choquette is leaving the Chamber Orchestra board, but with fondness and pride for what the orchestra has achieved.
After acknowledging the Chamber Orchestra’s value to central Vermont, Choquette reflected on its more recent achievements. Discussing his years of board service, he said, “After several years as president, I’m leaving the board on a sound footing with a fabulous director–Anne Decker–and a strong board. We just had our most successful program ever with two standing-room-only performances of “Amahl and the Night Visitors” at City Hall Auditorium in Montpelier.
”Turning to Chamber of Commerce affairs and the nitty-gritty of today’s vexing business and political issues, Choquette quickly explained the chamber’s position on a number of critical municipal and legislative questions.
Regarding the minimum wage, he said, “The chamber has been lobbying against raising the minimum wage. Right now [Vermont’s] minimum wage is $10.50/hour and it rises with inflation.” Referring to proponents of a higher minimum wage, he said, “They want $15/hour in two to five years. Businesses will have to deal with increased costs.
”On the subject of a legislative proposal to mandate family leave, Choquette said. “We don’t think family leave should be mandated. We’re against the “mandate” part of it.
”Choquette also spoke at some length about Vermont’s workforce development problems.
Quite sensibly Choquette wants schools in Vermont to produce graduates who can fill existing jobs in Vermont’s economy. Find out which jobs are out there now and need filling, and try to determine which jobs are likely to be out there and need filling in the future, he says. Then train the students for jobs that exist and will exist going forward.
Choquette believes that training high school students for technical and vocational employment ought to be an educational priority. He can’t understand why high school technical and vocational training doesn’t start earlier. Clearly frustrated, he said, “It doesn’t start until11th grade. That’s clearly too late. By then, many young people have already chosen another path–or no path at all.” Choquette said that 3,000 students graduate from the state’s high school system, and in his words, “don’t go anywhere.
”Responding to the plight of many struggling downtown retailers, Choquette offered these recommendations: “Education, networking, and lobbying.” Speaking candidly, he said, “We know there are issues on Main Street,” such as the competition from big, online retailers. And the answer is not to surrender. Instead, he said, there’s a place for each of those mainline businesses in offering their[own] goods online.
”Continuing on the Main Street theme, he said, “I don’t have a magic bullet to fix Main Street. But he did note that the Vermont Legislature was finally getting Amazon to pay the state sales tax. He also reported progress on getting Amazon to pay sales tax both in Washington, D.C. and around the country. “That levels the playing field,” he observed.
Choquette refused to offer easy blandishments to Main Street storeowners and locally owned mom-and-pop businesses. “It’s a daily battle to do business,” he noted.
All of which took him right back to the need for advocacy organizations like the Central Vermont Chamber and traditional trade associations. Choquette mentioned the Vermont Ski Association as one trade organization that serves the ski industry. And he might have mentioned any number of other trade associations like the grocers’ association that helps out grocery stores or the independent booksellers’ association that helps out bookstores.
When asked the tricky question of whether or not Vermont is business friendly, he answered bluntly. “It’s what you make it. We live in a clean state with a great environment. And yes, it’s a hard place to do business. We have high taxes, high energy costs, high regulatory compliance costs. It makes it more challenging to do business here.
”Then he took the other side of the “business un-friendly” argument, saying, “That’s offset by advantages: the beauty, the recreational and cultural opportunities, and the quality of the workforce.
”Pretty quickly, Choquette was listing ways in which the Central Vermont Chamber was at work to help its members strengthen business and professional life in the region. Right now, for example, CVCC is offering a program on cyber security and another program to show members how they can use social media to promote their businesses.
Said Choquette, “We had a seminar on human resources [with a focus on] how you hire and keep good people.
”He also mentioned networking opportunities. “Once a month, we have a mixer.” And he reported as many as 50 to 75 people showing up for these mixers. “Out of that mixing comes commerce, we think,” Choquette remarked. For example, when a retail store owner meets a supplier, or when a paving contractor meets a developer, or when a banker or an advertising expert meets someone who’s starting up a new business.
The Central Vermont Chamber of Commerce must be doing something right. According to
Choquette, at the Chamber’s January 17 annual meeting with a keynote speech from Richard
Schneider, President of Norwich University, as Choquette remarked, “We had 130 people turn out for that”