TOWNSHEND—As storm clouds muted the sky above the Townshend Town Offices on June 3, the audience within crossed their fingers for sunnier days ahead.
There, the Vermont Agency of Commerce and Community Development (ACCD) outlined, for the second time, its draft process for distributing Vermont Yankee economic development funds.
The ACCD hosted the public meeting to take comment on its proposed Windham County Grant Program (WCGP) application process.
According to the ACCD’s timeline, applications open July 1, with applications due Aug. 1. Approved projects that retain or create jobs, assist those impacted by VY’s closure, and better Windham County economically will be announced in October.
The audience’s reaction to the ACCD’s program appeared to this observer as skeptical. Questions and comments floated on a current of mistrust: The program won’t work; the application review team might not distribute the funds fairly, inclusively, transparently, and intelligently.
Money for the WCGP loans and grants originates with an agreement that Entergy, the owner of Vermont Yankee nuclear reactor in Vernon, struck with the state last December.
Energy said it will close VY, one of the area’s largest and best paying employers, later this year, and has pledged $10 million over five years toward economic development projects in Windham County. The state has received Entergy’s first $2 million installment.
The June 3 meeting followed a “stakeholders” meeting in late May for the Windham County legislative delegation, economic development specialists, and regional planners.
According to Noelle MacKay, state commissioner of housing and community development, Entergy has few criteria for the money beyond the mandate of funding economic development in Windham County. Folding most of the $10 million into a loan program will extend the money past the initial five years of giving.
State Secretary of the Agency of Commerce and Community Development Lawrence Miller added that Vermont boasts few other funding resources for small businesses. The WCGP should help create a new source.
Windham County individuals, nonprofits, and municipalities can apply for the loan and grant program.
Qualifying small businesses will access the loans through the WCGP. Grants will fund municipal infrastructure investments such as water and sewer line extensions.
The ACCD staff hope that businesses, nonprofits, and municipalities will cooperate in developing projects that knit efforts and leverage the VY funds.
Staff within the ACCD and its sister agencies will review project applications, said MacKay, who added that the ACCD will partner with other organizations to manage the loans — and that the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund (VSJF) and the Vermont Economic Development Authority (VEDA) have the staff and knowledge to develop loan programs.
MacKay and Miller added that the programs will leverage low-interest loans and royalty financing to avoid strapping business with unnecessary debt and cash-flow issues. Interested businesses should contact VSJF or VEDA for more information and to submit an application once the application cycle opens.
The broad project priorities include promoting economic development in Windham County, making direct links to the Southeastern Vermont Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy (CEDS) that lead to job creation and retention, preventing the duplication of existing efforts, and leveraging existing funds.
Applications will receive a variety of scores, with job retention or creation receiving the most points. Points will also be given for meeting criteria such as providing jobs or assistance for those harmed by the closing of VY, long-term viability, and readiness to proceed.
Each year, about 10 percent of the funds, or $200,000, will be available for planning, feasibility studies, and marketing activities.
Audience responses and questions during the meeting highlighted that when it comes to economic development, the county — or at least this audience — lacked a unified vision.
Both Laura Sibilia, director of economic development for the Brattleboro Development Credit Corporation, and a contact for Southeastern Vermont Economic Development Strategies (SeVEDS), and Rockingham Economic Development Director Francis “Dutch” Walsh each read statements advocating for SeVEDS to have a role, and for more than an annual $200,000 going toward planning.
SeVEDS developed the county’s CEDS.
Walsh said he felt “confused” that SeVEDS was not playing a more prominent role in the ACCD program.
Sibilia added that the CEDS identified industry sectors such as healthcare, high-tech manufacturing, and green building materials and services, that would be likely to thrive in the county and provide fair wages. She said that these sectors needed seed money for research and development and the like.
Dora Bouboulis, former Brattleboro Selectboard member, and a SeVEDS critic, asked how the ACCD would ensure a fair and equitable process. Most of the economic development agencies in the county are “extremely traditional,” she said: How would ACCD ensure non-traditional projects also received money?
Brattleboro Selectboard Vice-chair Kate O’Connor expressed concern that the ACCD had not invited towns — meaning Brattleboro — to the table when the agency developed the VY grant program.
The regional approach is nice, she said, but towns have their own economic needs, and the closing of VY will impact some towns — meaning Brattleboro — more than others.
Vernon Selectboard Chair and former State. Rep. Patty O’Donnell echoed O’Connor’s concerns, saying her town has the most at stake with VY’s closure.
“It’s where the jobs need to be,” O’Donnell said, adding she was “shocked” that the ACCD had not reached out to the Vernon Selectboard, a remarkable oversight in that Brattleboro and Vernon are the hubs of this situation, she suggested.
Gretchen Havreluk, Wilmington Economic and Community Development consultant, said she empathized with Vernon and Brattleboro as they face these challenges.
That said, she respectfully disagreed: Many towns in Windham County will feel the pinch of VY’s closing, she said, and warned against narrowing the scope of the participation or applications to a few towns as something that risks narrowing the channel for good ideas.
“We need a lot of good ideas” to reverse the county’s economic challenges, said Havreluk.
Chris Campany, executive director of the Windham Regional Commission, reminded the audience that they had opportunities to have their comments heard. The CEDS document will soon undergo its annual update. The ACCD is still taking comment on the Windham County Grant Program.