President Suresh Garimella is a believer in academic institutions, especially land-grant universities, playing a leading role in local economic development. “Because Vermont, as much as any state in the nation, faces a series of daunting challenges—from population decline to stagnant economic growth—that a land-grant university like UVM is powerfully equipped to address,” he noted in a recent op-ed piece.

Vermont’s economy has long been characterized as a contest between those placing a premium on environmental protection, the foundation of the state’s recreation and tourism industries, and those who believe growth is hampered by an anti-industry sentiment, high taxes, and a brain drain that forces young workers to seek jobs and careers outside of the state.

Chris Koliba, professor in the Community Development and Applied Economics Department at UVM, and the first director of the new UVM Office of Engagement, is trying to change that dynamic. With the support of $2 million in funding from the Vermont Legislature, his office is taking on an ambitious new role directing UVM’s considerable expertise towards community economic development in the state.

“The challenge of building a resilient economy and resilient communities is especially salient now as we work our way through the COVID crisis,” Koliba notes. “What we need to do is figure out ways not to just bounce back, but to take advantage of new opportunities as a result of this disruption.”

Koliba has devoted his career to research in public administration; food, energy, water and transportation infrastructure; and complex adaptive systems. He sees several silver linings on the horizon, one being the changing nature of the workplace. 

“There’s a seismic shift towards the work-at-home model,” he said. “It doesn’t work in every industry, but Vermont’s reputation for strong education and an outstanding quality of life can be powerful magnets to attract skilled workers who are discovering they can work from almost anywhere. What better place than here?”

The Office of Engagement is fundamentally charged with responding to challenges laid out by Vermont Governor Phil Scott ’80 during his 2020 State of the State Address: an aging population; the need for additional skilled workers; and inadequate growth in the number of well-paying jobs.

Koliba will lead efforts to provide expertise in writing and submitting state and federal grant proposals, coordinating internships, attracting UVM alumni back to Vermont, workforce training, and positioning the university to collaborate with local enterprises to address economic development opportunities.

Koliba sees the office, located at 109 South Prospect Street next to Waterman, as the university’s “front door” for private, public, and non-profit entities and communities looking to access UVM’s many strengths and capabilities.

“I’m optimistic and excited about the connections and innovation this office will facilitate,” said President Garimella when the formation of the program was announced in the spring. “UVM is uniquely positioned to help Vermont communities and businesses evolve and capitalize on current resources in new ways.”



Kevin Coburn