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Let the applications begin

Small business owners and a lot of nonprofits prepare to apply for VY money

TOWNSHEND—Economic specialists from the state and region greeted members of a quiet audience who climbed the curving staircase to the second floor of the Townshend Town Hall.

The audience came armed with pens and notepaper: the brave few ready to take on the application process for the Windham County Economic Development Program (WCEDP).

Attending the Aug. 19 meeting was the first requirement for applying to the county-specific economic development fund.

Applications for the first round of the new program are due by Sept. 23. A short month for a complicated and competitive process aimed at creating or retaining high-wage, full-time jobs with benefits in Windham County.

“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 Gov. Peter Shumlin about the WCEDP funding during an appearance in July in Brattleboro.

The main messages of the workshop were plan well, present a strong project, and start filling out an application now, not tomorrow.

While considered a coup for economic development in the county, the fund comes with a number of expectations in addition to job creation.

The Agency of Commerce and Community Development (ACCD) created the fund, derived from money from Entergy Corp., owner of the soon-to-close Vermont Yankee nuclear reactor in Vernon. Entergy will send money to the state in $2 million allotments over five years.

Entergy agreed to give the $10 million to support economic development activities in Windham County as part of a Memorandum of Understanding reached with the state last December.

Through multiple meetings and public comment, the ACCD developed a competitive application process that will give businesses and nonprofits access to a revolving loan fund, and nonprofits and municipalities access to grants. About $200,000 each year will be available for marketing, planning, and studies.

The ACCD also stressed at the Townshend workshop that applications should represent shovel-ready projects, have a strong business plan and realistic budget, have measurable goals, and leverage other funding sources.

Fred Kenney, executive director of the Vermont Economic Progress Council (VEPC), part of ACCD, explained the application process.

Kenney also highlighted the ACCD’s expectations for proposed projects, reminded potential applicants about the myriad additional information to send, and provided information on how the application form functioned on the ACCD’s website, accd.vermont.gov/business/WCGP.

“We’re looking for as many well-paying, full-time jobs with benefits as possible,” said Kenney.

While the ACCD didn’t tell people not to apply, Kenney did strike a very loud note of caution that the application process would be rigorous. Applicants needed to have strong projects.

He recommended that applicants ask themselves, “Is this the right round for me? Is my project ready for this funding and is this program the best one for me?”

“If you do decide to apply, you needed to start filling out the application yesterday,” said Kenney.

The focused tone of the workshop differed from the previous meetings held by the ACCD.

As the agency had developed the WCEDP, its earlier meetings centered around the sausage-making aspects of the fund. Agency representatives explained the program and asked for feedback. And they received feedback, not all of it enthusiastic.

At previous meetings, audience members had expressed concern that the program would not include economic strategies already operating in the county. Other audience members displayed a lack of confidence that the application review team would distribute the money fairly.

Many of the comments — positive and negative — mirrored the fears and concerns of other economic-themed discussions in the county. The loss of VY’s high-paying jobs is expected by many to add stress to a frazzled Windham County economy.

The audience at the Aug. 19 meeting, however, came with a different aim: to apply for, and hopefully win, some of the WCEDP money on the table.

Near the end of the meeting, the ACCD held question-and-answer sessions for businesses seeking loans and nonprofits or municipalities seeking grants.

Eight businesses moved to one side of the hall designated for the loan discussion.

Representatives of area nonprofits and municipalities filled the other half of the seating. Most of the nonprofits represented are headquarted in Brattleboro.

Applicants will need to obtain a letter of support from the town where their project will be based. Towns will not approve the projects. Rather, they will write that, yes the project is in line with goals in its town plan, or else no, it does not.

Getting the letter could prove a longer wait than the applicants might expect. Some towns might require that such a letter go through the Selectboard, which meets just once or twice a month depending on the town.

In other words, applicants must jump-start obtaining a letter of support now, not later.

Laura Sibilia, director of economic development and SeVEDS contact for the Brattleboro Development Credit Corp., reminded applicants of the importance of having a strong project and plan to accompany their application.

“It’s not the money that is the problem, it’s the plan,” said Sibilia about funding new projects.

She added that agencies, banks, and other funding entities will always exist to fund projects, but without a good plan, people won’t give money.

Applicants will have the opportunity to have a brief in-person meeting with representatives from VEPC or the Vermont Economic Development Authority on Oct. 23 to present their projects.

Application are due to the ACCD by Sept. 23 at 4:30 p.m. Reviewers will assess the applications starting Oct. 14. The VEPC board will prioritize projects and allot award amounts at the VEPC board meeting Nov. 13. Shumlin makes the final choice. He will announce the awards in late November or early December.

Kenney advised applicants to be patient with the new program. It will probably change.

As the WCEDP evolves, the ACCD will tweak the program, he said.

The ACCD anticipates holding two application rounds each fiscal year based on receiving the money from Entergy in $2 million increments. The second round, in spring 2015, will occur if funds remain from the fall 2014 round.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #269 (Wednesday, August 27, 2014). This story appeared on page A1.

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