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Paul Costello, executive director of the Vermont Council on Rural Development, leads a meeting Aug. 29 in Vernon where federal, state and local officials discussed ideas for recovering from the closure of Vermont Yankee.

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Business incubator, fiber optics eyed for Vernon’s future

Officials meet with residents to explore projects that could ease pain of VY shutdown

VERNON—In a basement meeting room just a short walk from the front gate of Vermont Yankee, federal, state, regional and town officials spent the afternoon hours of Aug. 29 discussing ways Vernon might bounce back from the nuclear plant’s closure.

They focused on two ideas floated by Vernon residents — a business incubator and a high-speed fiber optic internet network.

The general conclusion is that neither of those ideas is ready for prime time, with experts saying Vernon needs to do a lot more research and seek potential partners. But there was no shortage of ideas for the town’s next steps.

“We’re all here as a team because we all care about the future of Vernon,” said Paul Costello, executive director of the Vermont Council on Rural Development.

For some town officials, the fact that the meeting happened was a positive sign.

“It’s focusing us — that’s what it’s doing,” said Vernon Planning Commission Chair Bob Spencer. “And it’s also connecting us with government agencies and grant sources that can help.”

Entergy stopped power production at Vermont Yankee in December 2014. Though plant administrators have struck a long-term tax stabilization agreement with the town, and the Vermont Yankee workforce is being reduced incrementally, the impact in Vernon and across the region has been significant.

One potential way to soften the blow is to attract a new electric-generating station to Vernon, and officials have been touting the availability of Vermont Yankee’s electric-transmission infrastructure. But a proposal to build a natural gas-fired power plant ended abruptly earlier this year when a pipeline project in northern Massachusetts was suspended.

As a follow-up effort to a recent, townwide goal-setting process organized by the Council on Rural Development, officials plan to discuss the possibility of other utility-scale energy projects at a Sept. 12 meeting in Vernon.

On Aug. 29, though, the discussion centered on two town-led initiatives.

“If we’re going to get up off the floor, we’ve going to have to do it ourselves,” said Vernon resident Munson Hicks, who leads a committee exploring the idea of bringing widespread fiber optic internet access to the town.

By allowing residential access to fiber optic speeds reaching 1 gigabit per second, Hicks believes “the sky’s the limit for businesses and for people who want to live here.” Vernon officials also have talked about the concept with their counterparts in neighboring Guilford.

There is precedent for municipally owned fiber optics, with Burlington being a prime example. But Vernon’s effort could carry a $2 million price tag, and there are questions about demand for significantly higher-speed service in the town.

Jim Porter, director of the state Public Service Department’s Telecommunications and Connectivity Division, distributed data at the Vernon meeting showing that 803 of the town’s 879 residential and business addresses have access to cable.

“You are, today, far better off than so many other towns,” Porter said, while acknowledging that fiber optics could allow Vernon to “keep ahead” of increasing data-access demand.

A big question is, how many of Vernon’s cable customers will pay a premium for higher-speed internet? Some say it might be a hard sell, and it’s also likely that existing cable providers would challenge any new provider.

“Comcast is a highly competitive company, and it’s hard to compete against them,” Porter said. “We’ve witnessed that in Burlington.”

Other questions raised at the Aug. 29 meeting included the long-term maintenance costs of a fiber optic network, as well as what impact a higher-speed network might actually have on economic development.

Hicks argued that, while there is widespread cable access in Vernon, that doesn’t mean the fiber idea shouldn’t be pursued. “The town is well-served by current standards,” he said. “By future standards, not at all.”

The conclusion was that Vernon needs to do more work to determine whether the fiber idea is worth pursuing.

The same is true for the concept of a Vernon-based business incubator. The town in 2014 unsuccessfully applied for state grant money — cash that came from a Vermont Yankee shutdown-settlement agreement — to create a place where fledgling businesses might grow and thrive.

The idea is that such a center might be located in a building no longer needed by Vermont Yankee, especially as administrators shrink the plant’s footprint in the coming years.

Officials attending the Aug. 29 meeting wondered whether Vernon might be better off seeking partners in the incubator project. There also was much discussion about the kind of businesses that might use the facility and who might bear the costs associated with it.

“Really, what you want to find is an anchor tenant,” said Joan Goldstein, commissioner of the Vermont Department of Economic Development.

If the town takes on too much of an incubator’s costs, Goldstein said, “it could be the gift that keeps on taking.”

There was general agreement that Vernon needs to get a better handle on available real estate, incubator demand and other questions. There may be a need for a feasibility study, some said.

Officials applauded Vernon officials for laying groundwork for both the fiber optic and incubator ideas. But as the meeting ended, it remained unclear whether the town will be able to move forward with either project.

“The hard thing is, we’ve got all these ideas,” Planning Commission member Patty O’Donnell said. “We don’t know how to take them to the next step.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #374 (Wednesday, September 14, 2016). This story appeared on page C1.

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