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Windham Regional Commission Executive Director Chris Campany speaks May 19 at a meeting of planners and development officials from Vermont, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts.

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Economic leaders look toward future

Vermont Yankee’s closure has spurred tri-state meetings, but planners and development officials might be shifting their focus to issues such as an aging population and a lack of housing

BRATTLEBORO—In a crowded conference room here on May 19, officials from neighboring counties in Vermont, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts were asked to rank the biggest threats to the regional economy.

The closure of Vermont Yankee finished dead last — far behind problems like an aging population and a need for improved infrastructure.

It was a somewhat surprising outcome, given that the Vernon nuclear plant’s shutdown was the original motivation for scheduling the meeting of leaders from Windham County, Franklin County in Massachusetts, and Cheshire County in New Hampshire.

But some say it’s evidence that officials are looking ahead to a post-VY world, and they’re reaching across state lines to try to find new partners and new answers.

“Vermont Yankee has been a catalyst for bringing these areas together,” said Jessica Atwood of the Greenfield, Mass.–based Franklin Regional Council of Governments’ planning department.

“But these are issues we’ve been looking at for a long time,” said Atwood, the regional service organization’s economic development program manager.

Response to loss of VY jobs

Though Vermont Yankee stopped producing power in December 2014, the impact of its closure continues to reverberate in the tri-state area. The plant at one point employed more than 600; the latest round of cuts on May 5 reduced the workforce to 136.

Of the 93 Vermont Yankee employees who departed this month, 33 live in Vermont, while 36 reside in New Hampshire, and 24 hail from Massachusetts.

“We’re looking to replace and deal with the impacts of the loss of jobs at VY,” said Laura Sibilia, director of economic and workforce development at Brattleboro Development Credit Corp. “Those job losses were shared in Franklin County, Cheshire County, and Windham County.”

BDCC last year landed $265,000 in federal funding to assist in Vermont Yankee recovery efforts. Some of that is going toward a “strategic planning collaboration” with Windham County’s neighbors to the south and east.

As that partnership has come together, “one of the things that struck me is, why didn’t we do this 20 years ago?” Chris Campany, Windham Regional Commission executive director, said at the May 19 meeting held at Brattleboro’s School for International Training.

Regional officials have worked together on issues such as transportation and water quality, “but we really hadn’t had this conversation about economic development,” Campany said.

That conversation has led officials in the three counties to find that they have much in common — both in good ways and bad.

Strengths and weaknesses

A long list of shared strengths presented at the three-county meeting included a solid manufacturing base and health-care industry, outdoor recreational and art/cultural opportunities, rail and highway infrastructure, and numerous colleges and universities.

There are 16 higher-education institutions in the area. And, “within the tri-state region, over 35 percent of the population 25 years and older have a bachelor’s degree or higher — far more than the United States as a whole,” said Raul Gonzalez, a planner with the Keene, N.H.–based Southwest Region Planning Commission.

The counties also share weaknesses, including limited development opportunities, high utility costs, and lack of access to capital.

Workforce issues also abound: Gonzalez said the region is struggling with low wages and a high cost of living, limited job opportunities and job creation, and workers whose skills don’t match employers’ needs.

Officials also discussed “perceived threats” to the economy, along with opportunities for improvement. For each category, meeting participants placed multicolored stickers on oversized, wall-mounted charts to indicate which issues they thought were most important.

In the “threats” category, the need for infrastructure improvement and redevelopment was the top vote-getter, followed closely by an aging, decreasing population. Other areas of concern were a lack of sufficient housing and a loss of local business control.

Bringing up the rear, by a wide margin, was Vermont Yankee’s closure.

“I think, if this was three years ago, that [ranking] would be different,” said Sibilia, who also is a state representative serving on the House Commerce and Economic Development Committee.

Though Vermont Yankee’s staff reductions are still happening, Sibilia believes the region’s economic emphasis is shifting. That change, she said, is necessary.

“I think folks understand that they just need to keep moving and deal with what we’ve got,” Sibilia said. “I think we’re looking ahead. You can’t look behind.”

Opportunities for growth

The ranking of shared opportunities showed the directions in which regional officials are looking. Topping the list was small business growth/resiliency and renewable energy sources/green economy growth.

Brattleboro Development Credit Corp. is doing work in both of those areas. Last summer’s announcement of federal funding included money for a green-building study, which officials see as an attempt to link and nurture businesses and experts in the growing field of environmentally friendly construction.

“We’re continuing to develop this shared pool of assets [and] knowledge. In November, we’ll complete that preliminary work,” Sibilia said. “We’ll end up with nine to 12 cases for business opportunity.”

“Based on what I’m seeing [...] it’s pretty phenomenal,” she said.

The Brattleboro agency also is working on development of an “accelerator” to provide assistance to those with ideas for new businesses. “We know that we have this need for supporting startups and entrepreneurial activity,” Sibilia said.

Broadband expansion was chosen as another high-ranked regional opportunity, as were youth employment, internships, and apprenticeships.

Between ‘tiny house’ and ‘too damn big house’ movement

One of the region’s economic threats — a lack of housing — generated much discussion at the May 19 session. Officials say the green building movement could help lead the region to new ways of thinking about residential development.

“What folks are looking for now is something between the tiny house movement and the ‘too damn big’ house movement,” Campany said.

“If you actually design more neighborhood spaces with shared community green space [...] I think that would appeal to not only what millennials are looking for, but also baby boomers as they’re looking to retire and downsize,” he added.

Campany said he’s concerned that inertia — aggravated by a bit of “New England insularity” — might be stalling progress on housing and other key issues. Some say regional, wide-ranging discussions like the tri-state post-VY talks might begin to change that.

“What’s helpful is to have people in a room having similar experiences in their towns, whether it’s in western Massachusetts or whether it’s in New Hampshire or Vermont,” said state Sen. Becca Balint, D-Windham.

“We have to try something different,” Balint said.

The challenge, she said, “is to figure out, how do you talk about it to try to diffuse the fear? And I welcome all suggestions in that regard.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #358 (Wednesday, May 25, 2016). This story appeared on page A1.

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