It’s easy to look back over the past 18 months and see all of the ways COVID-19 has set us back: from shuttered businesses, to thousands of Vermonters losing their jobs, a disproportionate amount of whom were women who had to exit the workforce to care for their children.

As businesses and families struggled, government provided a safety net through Paycheck Protection Program loans, business grants, stimulus checks and extended unemployment benefits.

The intent of all those programs was to keep Vermont’s economy and families afloat and provide a lifeline and temporary financial relief. However, many used the supports offered as opportunities to retool themselves for a different and better future. Like the laid-off service workers who enrolled in low and no-cost skills trainings to prepare themselves for the career changes they’d always thought about. Or the business owners who decided to fully embrace remote work, finding efficiency and satisfaction in giving up their centralized office space and traditional 8-to-5 schedules.

Like those families and businesses, the state has a similar opportunity to retool and refocus our economic future. The federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) has essentially sent Vermont a $1 billion stimulus check the state can invest, as it sees fit, during the next four years.

Some might be tempted to put this stimulus toward the continuation of the status quo. Instead, we can use it as an opportunity to ask the tough question: Is “what we’ve always done” really working?

The evidence suggests it’s not.

Well before the pandemic, mid-career professionals and promising start-up businesses were leaving the state for better opportunities elsewhere. Long before COVID arrived, too many Vermonters were homeless, and young families looking to build equity beyond a rented apartment were unable to find a home in their modest price range. Years before stores posted mask policies in their front windows, vacant storefronts dotted the Main Streets in our communities.

And the reason these problems have persisted for so long is because we didn’t have the money to invest in the solutions to fix them.

Now, we do.

Gov. Phil Scott has proposed a plan to invest that stimulus check in ways that will pay dividends for generations to come. The governor’s economic development proposal will pour $90 million into capital improvement and infrastructure projects during the next 3 years. Our local partners have shown us shovel-ready plans to renovate and repurpose long-vacant downtown historic buildings and upfit outdated or vacant industrial parks.

And those investments don’t just have to be in brick and concrete. They could help bring state-of-the-art equipment to a manufacturing line to make a business more competitive. Or fund the conversion of an empty department store into a much-needed daycare, allowing more parents to go back to work.

The plan also calls for the scaling-up of transformational outdoor recreation destinations, a timely tourism investment when record numbers of Americans are getting outside. Much like the work of the Green Mountain Club in 1912 to build the Long Trail, this is a chance to build recreational destinations that will keep Vermont on the minds of active travelers for the next 100 years.

Housing is one of the largest categories in the plan, ranking just behind broadband, with just over $100 million in shelters and rapid housing for the homeless, all in the coming fiscal year. The remaining $149 million will be stood up during the next 3 years in the form of affordable and mixed-income housing developments, newly renovated apartments in formerly vacant rental properties, and new “missing middle” housing for moderate-income families.

Overall, this plan will bring 5,000 housing units to market by the end of 2024 — the greatest investment in housing in Vermont’s history.

Thanks to federal leadership, we now have significant stimulus funds ready to invest. It’s perhaps the most powerful and transformational opportunity Vermont has ever been offered. For decades, we’ve contemplated all the good we could do, if we only had the funds. Now that the funds are here, we can’t be afraid to capitalize on this moment.

As we emerge from the pandemic and reassess our world again, it’s important to remember the look, feel and success of our “new normal” depends entirely on the decisions we make right now. Let’s not squander the opportunity.

Lindsay Kurrle is Agency of Commerce and Community development secretary.

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