BRATTLEBORO—There aren’t many economic development meetings that include talk of trapeze artists.
But the New England Center for Circus Arts’ high-flying expansion plan was a big part of the buzz here Monday morning as officials announced 14 high-priority economic projects for Windham County.
The “vital projects” announcement comes with no funding attached; rather, it’s part of an update of the region’s federally approved Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy.
Nevertheless, officials placed a lot of emphasis on this year’s list, in part because it shows the variety of projects—from green building to health care to wastewater systems—happening in a county that is losing one of its biggest employers.
The circus center’s expansion into a new, centralized headquarters is just one example of that growth, and administrators brought good news: A ground-breaking for the $2.5 million project could happen this spring.
“We are creating something that is going to be unique in the United States, and we hope to be the national center for circus arts.” said Elsie Smith, NECCA’s artistic director and co-founder.
The area’s Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy, also known as the CEDS, is a project of Southeastern Vermont Economic Development Strategies, also known as SeVEDS. While it’s easy to get lost in the acronyms, officials say the CEDS bestows eligibility for some federal-funding programs.
It also serves as a road map for the future, and that map has become even more important since the December 2014 shutdown of the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in Vernon.
“I think it’s really important for our region to have a sense of what folks are working on, what’s important, what are you struggling with, what are your challenges (and) what are your really exciting opportunities,” said Laura Sibilia, economic development director for Brattleboro Development Credit Corporation (BDCC).
To that end, officials update the CEDS every year, looking for information about ongoing projects as well as new projects that fit the study’s goals. Those goals include reversing the region’s population decline; boosting wages and household income; and improving the size and quality of the workforce.
The 14 vital projects announced Monday (available at http://brattleborodevelopment.com/_files/docs/full2015cedsprojectslist.pdf) were given that label by a five-member committee that ranked all submitted projects according to criteria including regional and long-term impact as well as jobs created or retained.
The five-member committee that ranked the vital projects was independent of BDCC and SeVEDS. The committee consisted of representatives from Brattleboro Savings & Loan; Southern Vermont Deerfield Valley Chamber of Commerce; Five Maples (a Putney business); the Institute for Nuclear Host Communities; and the Resilient Design Institute.
There are several SeVEDS/BDCC projects on the list including analysis of a Windham County green building cluster; creation of a Southern Vermont Sustainable Recruitment Project; expansion of broadband; and extension of water and sewer service to new industrial sites near Interstate 91 Exit 1 in Brattleboro.
Other vital projects include revitalization of the Retreat Farm in Brattleboro; creating a Brattleboro prototyping facility for the prominent green-building consortium of Ironwood Brand/PreCraft/STIX; and developing a healthcare workforce training project that includes area colleges and hospitals.
The New England Center for Circus Arts project was ranked No. 5 on the list.
For the uninitiated, the link between economic development and a circus-training center might seem tenuous. But New England Center for Circus Arts has deep roots in the local development community.
Smith and her identical twin, Serenity Smith Forchion, started their production company as Nimble Arts in 2002. The organization became New England Center for Circus Arts in 2007, and the new nonprofit landed $20,000 in startup funding through BDCC’s first business-plan competition.
Four years prior to that, the circus center had moved into the Cotton Mill, a massive former industrial building maintained as an industrial park by BDCC.
“We have since proceeded to slowly take over the building,” Smith joked.
While that’s an exaggeration, it’s clear that the circus-arts center has been growing rapidly. Smith noted that, just a week ago, the center expanded into the Cotton Mill studio space that hosted Monday’s economic-development gathering. All told, the organization occupies eight spaces scattered around Brattleboro.
Administrators searched for years for a larger, centralized space. But it’s not easy to find a home for a school that needs a flying trapeze: After looking at more than 40 buildings in the area, the center’s leaders “could not find anything that we could reuse,” Smith said.
They settled in 2014 on a vacant, 3-acre plot off Town Crier Drive in Brattleboro. The plan is to create a high-ceilinged building big enough for aerial instruction and performances, and Smith expects that the design also will include safety considerations “such as taking a trampoline and putting it below ground—therefore, you can’t fall off the trampoline.”
The Center for Circus Arts also needs more classroom, office, meeting, and restroom space.
All of this comes at a fairly steep price: The center’s fund-raising goal is $2.5 million. But Smith on Monday said $1 million already has been raised, with another $500,000 expected over the next several months and a ground-breaking anticipated in late spring.
She believes the project will allow NECCA to further expand its reach, both in the Windham region and far beyond.
The center’s alumni and teachers work with prestigious outfits such as Cirque du Soleil and Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, and former students also can be found at European cabarets, on cruise ships, and on celebrity tours.
The center also is active in the local community, staging performances and operating the Circus in the Neighborhood and Circus for Survivors programs.
“We have been slowly building and growing,” Smith said. “We have over 5,000 students in the entire world. We work all over the world. We have students move here from Costa Rica, from Guam, from Brazil, from Australia—all sorts of people who come to Brattleboro.”
The new vital project list doesn’t lack for variety. Just below the circus-arts center were ranked two Windham Regional Commission initiatives—a real estate market analysis and an assessment of water and wastewater needs in the region’s villages.
Windham Regional Commission Executive Director Chris Campany sees the latter as an important issue for future development. He believes a lack of adequate water and wastewater infrastructure is inhibiting residential and commercial development in population centers—the places where development is supposed to be concentrated in order to discourage sprawl.
Campany said he hopes the issue’s inclusion in the CEDS will open the door for a study of those villages. “We need to translate the anecdotal evidence ... (and) really get into, what are the issues, how are they really affecting businesses and homes and homeowners, and what does it mean?” Campany said.