BRATTLEBORO—Gov. Peter Shumlin worked the packed American Legion banquet room on Linden Street July 9, shaking hands with a few of the more than 200 people gathered there for lunch.
The group of businesspeople, lawmakers, planners, and media-types awaited news on the latest application process for the $10 million in economic development funds from Entergy for Windham County.
The scene, replete with twinkling disco ball overhead, prompted one observer to remark, “Welcome to Studio 10 million.”
The Agency of Commerce and Community Development (ACCD) spent months devising a program to distribute the funds, which will arrive in five annual $2 million allotments.
Through multiple meetings and public comment, the ACCD developed a competitive application process that will give businesses access to a developing revolving loan fund, and nonprofits and municipalities access to grants.
About $200,000 each year will be available for marketing, planning, and studies.
“My strong bias is, let’s make sure we use this in a way to jump-start folks who are bringing new jobs and existing jobs,” said Shumlin of the Windham County Economic Development Program (WCEDP) funding.
“Let’s not blow it,” he said, and urged that as little as possible of the fund be spent on local administration.
Shumlin, who was joined by Agency of Commerce and Community Development Secretary Pat Moulton, intended his luncheon remarks to get people on the same page over WCEDP funding before the state releases application materials, which it is gearing up to do within weeks.
Public debate was strong as WCEDP took shape. Many believe the anticipated loss of Entergy’s Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant at the end of the year will further stress a frazzled Windham County economy.
The town of Vernon and the county have hosted Entergy’s Vermont Yankee nuclear plant for more than 40 years. The plant employs more than 600 skilled workers from Vermont, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts, and offers above-average wages for the region.
Entergy agreed to give the $10 million to support economic development in Windham County as part of a December memorandum of understanding with the state.
After waving down a standing ovation, Shumlin told his Brattleboro Area Chamber of Commerce luncheon audience that he reached out to Entergy when the company announced it would close VY.
He said that despite Entergy’s “checkered history” with Vermont — he alluded to the sometimes acrimonious relationship that led to a dustup in federal court over the state’s attempt to regulate VY — both parties agreed that they need to help VY’s employees and the region as the plant closes, and beyond.
According to Shumlin, Entergy wants to partner with the state to develop a good decommissioning process, take care of its employees, and leave Windham County with a vibrant economy.
Shumlin said the WCEDP will help grow jobs that may not have taken root without an influx of funding. He said the county needs to grow: its jobs, its population, and its opportunities. The money shouldn’t fund the status quo, he said, but rather prime the pump of opportunities.
Shumlin emphasized that his vision is for the funding to help create good jobs — those that pay above average. (According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the annual median annual income in Vermont is $44,060.)
Shumlin also spoke of maximizing the WCEDP funding so the county might transform VY’s closure into a “quality of life opportunity for all.”
He noted that the WCEDP funds give Windham County a new advantage: The county lacks desirable infrastructure that exists elsewhere in the state, such as Burlington with its international airport and University of Vermont.
Windham County now has access to capital not available elsewhere in the state, he said.
Shumlin admitted that he did not like the idea of businesses receiving grants, saying that if a grant means the difference between a business succeeding or going under, then that business lacks sustainability.
Vernon Selectboard chair and former state Rep. Patty O’Donnell pressed Shumlin on why Vernon and its residents did not receive a funding earmark.
“Vermont Yankee people should get priority because that’s what this money is all about,” she said.
Shumlin said he’d take her comments under advisement.
Rep. Tristan Toleno, D-Brattleboro, whose catering business provided the food for the luncheon, said that he felt disappointed the program didn’t include seed funding for businesses. He pointed out that entrepreneurs and research-and-development projects often benefit from an influx of funding to get them off the ground.
Shumlin also acknowledged that people may feel like “the heavy hand of Montpelier” was controlling the WCEDP fund, and said the WCEDP program combines the best of local community involvement and Montpelier’s administrative abilities.
“Let’s do it right. We have a huge opportunity and we should see it as that,” he said.
The luncheon was sponsored by the Brattleboro Area Chamber of Commerce, the Vermont State Employees Credit Union, and WKVT radio.