BRATTLEBORO—Speaking in downtown Brattleboro on a sunny Monday afternoon, U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy recalled a much more grim visit four years ago in the wake of Tropical Storm Irene.
Leahy talked with a man shoveling muck from a store – not because he owned the place, and not because he was a Brattleboro resident, but because “I wasn’t hurt. If I was, I’d hope somebody would help me.”
After recalling that encounter, Leahy offered assurances that “we know how to work together.”
On Monday, he brought further evidence of that mantra in the form of $265,000 in federal funding to support cooperative efforts to recover from another disaster – this one economic, in the form of Vermont Yankee’s closure and the loss of hundreds of high-paying jobs.
The cash will help launch an “accelerator” designed to assist entrepreneurs; a study to boost the region’s “green building” industry; and a regional planning effort linking officials in Windham County with their neighbors in Massachusetts and New Hampshire.
“These are the kinds of grants that help make great things happen in this region,” said Pat Moulton, secretary of the Vermont Agency of Commerce and Community Development.
Moulton added, “the work you’re doing here is another part of the recovery in southeastern Vermont.”
Vermont Yankee is the focus of the moment, and its impact can’t be underestimated. A study last year by the University of Massachusetts’ Donahue Institute said the average annual wage at the Vernon nuclear plant was $105,000, and Entergy reduced the workforce from approximately 550 to around 300 in January after the facility ceased producing power.
More reductions will follow, with another big cutback expected in spring 2016.
No one is promising “replacement” of all of those jobs. But local economic development officials say they’ve been working to create jobs and soften the blow; in fact, they say they were doing so long before Entergy announced, in August 2013, its intention to shutter the plant.
Monday’s grant announcement was hailed as a breakthrough in those economic efforts. The funding from the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration is “the final piece” needed for a multi-pronged project led by Brattleboro Development Credit Corp.
In a ceremony held at the Brooks House in Brattleboro, and in interviews afterward, officials outlined three elements of that work.
The first is development of a “green building cluster study.”
Officials have been touting Windham County’s potential as a center for environmentally-friendly building practices, and one of the movement’s champions and experts – Alex Wilson, founder of Brattleboro’s BuildingGreen Inc. – spoke at Monday’s event.
Wilson recalled years of discussion about creating a “center for excellence” in green building.
“I’m confident that the wait will be worth it,” Wilson said. “There’s a tremendous opportunity in front of us.”
The green-building study will determine “what are the assets, what are the opportunities, where are the gaps,” said Laura Sibilia, economic development and workforce director at BDCC.
At the end of it, she said, officials will have eight to 12 “unique niche business opportunities in the green-building services sector.”
Those could go beyond construction and extend into ancillary fields such as financing, insurance and even appraisal, she added.
Leahy gave a shout-out to the importance of energy efficiency and resiliency during his remarks in Brattleboro.
“Solar, wind and hydro are becoming a larger part of our energy mix. But one major part of our energy mix is energy consumption,” the senator said.
When it comes to green building and renovation, “we have to do it for the future,” Leahy said. “Not just for us, but for our children and our grandchildren .... We have to be more energy efficient, not just in Vermont but throughout the country.”
While the green-building initiative will examine assets the region already has, the second part of the BDCC project is focused on developing new businesses. The Southern Vermont Business Innovation Accelerator is envisioned as a one-stop shop for entrepreneurs, and those pitching business ideas deemed worthy of investment could receive help with finances, mentoring, coaching, workspace and research.
“This is about concentrated support for entrepreneurial startups,” Sibilia said.
Moulton sees it as an attempt to create and enhance the area’s “entrepreneurial ecosystem.” The accelerator will start with a six-month study, “then we hire somebody and start executing,” Sibilia said.
The third part of Monday’s announcement stretches beyond Vermont’s borders to the tri-state region. BDCC wants to unite Windham County planners with regional planning commissions in Franklin County, Massachusetts, and Cheshire County, New Hampshire for a “strategic planning collaboration.”
Given that Vermont Yankee’s closure also impacts those counties – last year’s University of Massachusetts study showed that 481 of the then-550 people working at Vermont Yankee lived in the tri-county area – Sibilia and others see a need for the area to work together and plan for the post-VY future.
“We think this is an opportunity for collaboration,” Sibilia said.
The projects are based on the region’s long-term “comprehensive economic development strategy,” known as the CEDS, via the work of Southeastern Vermont Economic Development Strategies, known as SeVEDS. Officials acknowledge that it’s easy to get lost in the acronyms and the talk of more studies, but they argue that such planning is important.
“You’ve got to have a map, and that’s what the CEDS is for this region,” Moulton said.
“We’re moving forward to grow Windham County,” she added. “It’s not easy or fast work, but we’re on the right track.”
Adam Grinold, BDCC’s executive director, sounded a similar note as attendees filed out of Monday’s event. Even in private business, “you come to decisions after thought and input,” he said.
When deciding how to best invest in economic development, Grinold said, “the planning is critical, and it can be a long lift.”
All told, the projects represent a $530,000 investment.
Previously, Brattleboro Development Credit Corp. received $99,000 for the green-building study and $77,000 for the business accelerator via the Windham County Economic Development Program – an initiative funded by Entergy through its shutdown agreement with the state.
BDCC also is sinking $89,000 of its own money into the programs.